Couples Who Reinvent

Would you—could you—work 24/7 with your husband? These women all launched companies with their mates and, incidentally, enriched their marriages

by Jennifer Margulis
couples who start a business
“You need to have an indestructible relationship,” says Jane Hendler, who cofounded Ajne with her husband, Rex Rombach.
Photograph: Micheal Todd

The Scents of Success In the Carmel, California, showroom of Ajne perfumery, the ambience manages to be both opulently baroque and coolly high tech, with filigreed flacons and gilt-edged antiques surrounding a computer that helps visitors choose the right fragrance for their personality and body chemistry. But downstairs in the lab, the atmosphere turns clinical. Here, co-owner Jane Hendler blends essential oils into what she calls liquid art. This morning she lines up 48 different oils—vials of lavender, sandalwood, pink grapefruit, agarwood (about $1,800 an ounce wholesale, more costly than gold)—and, working quietly with pipettes and beakers, produces a new batch of the signature fragrance she developed exclusively for Rob Lowe.

For Jane and her husband and co-owner, Rex Rombach, this 21st-century perfumery, with its clientele of celebrities, hotels and spas, is the culmination of a dream they had one evening nine years ago on California’s Mount Shasta. As the couple sat by the fireplace in a rustic cabin, they talked long into the night about wanting to find a deeper level of meaning in their work. Jane, a marketing executive for a jewelry-design company, shared childhood memories of breathing in the heady scents of roses, lilacs and magnolias growing near her grandmother’s house. Then she said aloud something she’d been mulling for a while: “I want to be a perfumer.”

Rex, the owner of a hair-products distribution firm, confessed a dream of his own: He longed to grow things and work with his hands. The couple started fantasizing about making perfume from the oils of organic plants they would cultivate on a three-acre property they owned near Carmel. Eight months later, Jane quit her job and enrolled in the Santa Cruz, California, College of Botanical Healing Arts to become a master essential-oil therapist. Rex sold his company, and they turned their land into an organic farm planted with lavender, bergamot and yuzu. In 2005, with a $750,000 initial investment, they launched their company, Ajne (ajne.com), from a 300-square-foot store in Carmel. Rex took charge of the accounts and designed the recyclable packaging. Jane hired her best friend, Kathy Pape, as the public relations director. Pape reached out to her Hollywood and media connections, and Ajne took off. “The first year was idyllic,” Jane says.

Hoping to boost sales, they relocated to Carmel’s swankiest street, Ocean Avenue; that set them back more than $96,000 in annual rent. But the move did not produce the anticipated revenue, and the pair fought constantly about how to expand the business. On one occasion, Rex grew so frantic about the company’s finances, he wrote Jane a lengthy resignation letter (though he never actually gave it to her). “There were plenty of times one of us slept in the guest cottage,” Jane says. Finally, just as each was almost ready to quit, they agreed to a radical scale-back.

Today their showroom is in a different Carmel location: on Mission Street, where the rent is more reasonable. Their accounts look a lot healthier—$800,000 in gross revenues for 2010 and a 5,000 percent increase in Internet sales. And both say their personal relationship has deepened. “There’s comfort, excitement and joy in creating together,” says Jane.

“I love spending time with Jane and taking on challenges together,” says Rex. “She grabs on to the joy of life.”

At the end of her morning blending session, Jane leaves her lab and bounds up the stairs to Rex’s office. “Try this,” she says, dabbing scent on his wrists. They both sniff, and Jane nods approval: Rob Lowe will be so pleased.

 The Cupcake Couple

One night in April 2008, Pam Turkin returned to Detroit from a business trip in New York carrying a box of cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery. “There are people waiting in line there and spending $3 for one!” she told her husband, Todd. An avid baker (“It’s an art form for me,” says Pam), she had been observing the country’s cupcake craze during her travels and had noted that no one was selling the treats in Michigan. So, she thought, Why not the Turkins? That night she told Todd, “We’ve got to do this!”

“Cupcakes are girly,” he said. He loved them, but did other men? Could Detroit’s shattered economy support a high-end cupcake business? Todd, formerly the COO of a shirt--manufacturing company but at that time unemployed, was dubious, so Pam shelved the idea. Then the marketing company she worked for asked her to relocate to Florida. To stave off the anxiety she felt about moving, she started baking cupcakes. Every tray she set out for her family disappeared in minutes. Soon she had a brisk side business selling to friends. After a batch found its way to a group of federal judges in Detroit—all of whom wanted to know where they could buy more—Todd reconsidered: The city was ready for cupcakes after all.

In January 2009, using their entire retirement fund of $100,000, they launched Just Baked (justbakedshop​.com) out of a rented commercial kitchen, selling wholesale to gourmet shops and small markets. Todd did most of the baking so Pam could keep her job and benefits. Three weeks into their venture, after mistakenly baking 50 cupcakes too many, the couple figured they’d try to sell them to passersby. They found a dusty neon open sign and hung it over the entrance to the kitchen, and by the end of the day they’d sold every cupcake for $1.75 each. They decided to stick with the open sign. That month they broke even. The following month they grossed $16,970, and Pam quit her job.

“Owning a cupcake business elevated us to rock-star status among our kids’ friends,” says Pam. “But in the beginning, we disagreed on how to grow the business. The stress on our relationship was huge. Todd wanted to buy equipment. I wanted to add staff.” The 18-hour days didn’t help. But gradually the couple came to recognize each other’s strengths: Pam is “a brilliant marketer,” says Todd, and she’s good at managing the employees. He’s the logistics expert and took charge of their expansion. The couple now has 10 stores, including three franchises. The business grossed about $2.5 million in 2011, but what thrills them most is that they created 75 new jobs for people in the Detroit area. “We both grew up here,” says Pam. “We chose to stay. I have friends who had big jobs who aren’t working now. But I have pride in this city. We’re part of Detroit’s turnaround.”

 The Driving-School Innovators

In 2008, Laura Shuler, then president of the New York City–based marketing firm Jack Morton Worldwide, came upon some statistics that appalled her: On average, one in every three teenagers will be in a car accident in the first year of driving; about 6,000 teens ages 16 to 20 die annually in car accidents.

With a stepson nearly old enough for driver’s education and vivid memories of two friends killed in car crashes when she was young, Laura had a personal interest in the subject. She also knew a good business opportunity when she saw one. She brought it up one evening with her husband, Steve Mochel, an account executive at her company. “Did you know driver’s ed hasn’t changed at all since the 1950s?” she asked him. “We should start a driving school. We could modernize driver’s ed.”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Too seedy.”

Eight months later, Steve was laid off. Laura, unwilling to participate in the firing of hundreds more employees, quit the firm. Her stepson, Steve’s oldest child, had just attended his first driver’s-ed class, and after hearing his account, Steve changed his mind.

The couple created a cutting-edge curriculum that includes the use of computer simulators designed by the same company that makes training simulators for the military. With $250,000 of their savings, Laura and Steve launched Fresh Green Light (fresh​greenlight.com) in November 2009. The couple now has 14 employees; offices in Rye, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut; and a computer simulator at each location.

Steve manages day-to-day operations at their Rye headquarters, while Laura oversees the company’s advertising and finances from a home office overlooking blossoming dahlias and a vegetable patch. “The art director in Laura has come out,” says Steve. “I didn’t know it was there.”

They’ve recouped their investment and are turning a profit, but best of all are the results: “We asked former students how they’re doing, and fewer than 10 percent said they’d had accidents the first year, ” says Laura. “I wish I’d started the business sooner. Fear of leaving the corporate nest keeps people in situations they should get out of.” 

Jennifer Margulisis a travel and culture writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon.

 

The bedroom-to-boardroom learning curve

Rex: “Never talk business in the bedroom. Choose calm moments to approach problems. I try to remember that my job is to listen when Jane’s upset, not jump in to fix the problem. Agree on your goals but don’t waste time, morale and energy nitpicking every step.”

Jane: “Do what brings you the most fulfillment and passion, then stay out of each other’s day-to-day area except for planning meetings. Be thoughtful in your words and actions. You can’t take them back. Honor your relationship above your work.”

Todd: “You’d better like each other, because working together will test your relationship. The normal filters that exist in a work environment aren’t there between intimate partners. Regardless of who made the mistake or caused the problem, take the position that these issues are yours to solve together.This can become a relationship builder.”

PAM: “Never blame the other
for things that go wrong. If you’re simmering over a personalconflict, one of you should stay home. Don’t take your tension into the office. Also, it helps to really love what you’re doing. If we didn’t, we would have failed a long time ago.”

Laura: “If your relationship is solid, there’s very little downside to going into business together, and the possible rewards are great. Make sure you have a good idea to start with and twice the capital you think you’ll need to get the business off the ground.”

Steve: “Respect each other’s skill sets. For example, Laura is the idea generator, and I’m the salesperson. Set clear boundaries about when and when not to talk about work.”

 

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of More.

Read more reinvention stories here: Small Changes, Big Results.

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First Published Tue, 2012-01-03 11:33

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