Talk More, Talk Less

There’s no one path to office harmony for couples in business together, the stories of these entrepreneurial partners show.

Suzanne Gannon By Suzanne Gannon

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Laura and Doug Zander of Jimmy Beans Wool learned that being in business together requires talking a lot.

Editor’s Note: This article is the last in a three-part series on couples in business together.

It helps to have history — and mutual respect. That’s what entrepreneur Laura Zander has learned about ensuring both marital and workplace harmony while running Jimmy Beans Wool, a Reno, Nev., yarn business, with her husband Doug Zander.

The couple met in the late 1990s when they were software engineers in the Bay Area and almost adversaries working for different companies involved in the modernization of the State of California’s automated public-assistance system. As professional peers on par with each other they were ultimately able to see that they shared the same goal — much as they did years later when they opened the Jimmy Beans coffee shop near Tahoe that in 2002 became the Jimmy Beans yarn company.

“Still now we have a high-level goal, which is to grow the business and to ensure the team is happy, along with the customers and the vendors,” Laura says. “We are each other’s board of advisors.”

Laura Zander currently wears four wool caps as CEO, CMO, CFO and COO. Meanwhile her husband, who she says built every piece of software in the company’s lifetime, from inventory management to the phone system, is the technology architect, the detail person who functions as CTO and CIO.

Now 45 employees strong with 20,000 square feet of space, the company has gotten creative with its marketing, offering“microbrew” yarns by select hand-dyers every month and contributing products to Birchbox.

Related Video: Jimmy Beans Getting Back to Knitting Basics

“I’m driven by fast growth,” she says. “What drives him is being able to go ski.”  

Skiing and other outdoor sports have factored into their relationship for the entire time they’ve been together — running together seven days a week, descending down the slopes before work, mountain-biking.

But the together-all-the-time-whether-working-or-playing model hit a speed bump six years ago when their son was born and they didn’t want to send him to daycare more than eight hours a day. That led them to sharpen their work-time focus to gain time at home.

“The first big challenge was that we weren’t able to instant-message all day long about business as we had prior,” Zander says. “Work time was work time not chatting time.”

She says it took years to figure out, but they realized they needed to talk more, and to resume old roles as each other’s advisors.

“Now we’re chatting again, texting, instant-messaging, stopping by to ask questions. After I drop my son off at school, I call Doug and we talk for 30 minutes. We’ll go to lunch and [do] not feel guilty.”

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Heather Sandford and Brad Marshall go their own ways during the work day.

Together Apart

Another key to long-term harmony may be splitting up during the work day. This arrangement has benefited Heather Sandford and her husband Brad Marshall, president and secretary, respectively, of The Piggery, a farm-to-table butcher shop and wholesaler of pasture-raised meat and house-made charcuterie in Ithaca, N.Y.

Marshall handles CFO duties, but mostly spends his days out on their 70-acre farm in nearby Trumansburg and leading the development of recipes — his bacon is consistently sold out. Sandford oversees marketing, retail, operations, human resources and customer relationships.

“Farming is not rewarding financially,” she says. “It’s been romanticized. Something breaks every day. If there’s not enough money, the animals die. So partners have to complement each other in their skill sets and cheer each other on.”

She and Marshall have had a lot of practice. They attended Cornell together and graduated in 1997.

In the early days when they started out, she says, “We were out on the farm all day, we worked the farmers’ market together, cut each piece of fence together. And we never fought — maybe once a year.”

Their relationship may take its cues from their handling of their “really easy” charges, a herd of roughly 450 Herefords, Old Spots and cross-breeds of “handsome” Mulefoot and Glouchestshire Old Spot boars with Yorkshire, Duroc, Hampshire and Tamworth “ladies.”

“We do the work we do because we care about pigs and that they’re raised with honor and respect,” says Sandford, adding that her piglets spend two more months with their mothers than commercially raised pigs, which lessens the stress seen in the meat. “Affection breeds good quality.”

Perhaps in more than just pork.

Posted: February 22, 2016

Suzanne GannonTalk More, Talk Less