By Hanah Cho
The Dallas Morning News.
Business partners often joke that they’re married to one another.
What happens when you actually are married to your business partner?
Consider husband and wife Jeremy and Lila Stewart, who launched flip-flop brand Hari Mari in Dallas two years ago.
They knew that combining home life and work life can be fraught with landmines.
But just as there are horror stories, there are also successful couples who have built household brands together.
Through some missteps, the Stewarts learned to navigate the challenges of working as husband-and-wife entrepreneurs and find balance between their personal and professional lives.
“You have to work on it, and it’s a continual process,” said Jeremy, 35. “We’re at a really good stage right now.”
Along the way, they’ve nurtured Hari Mari into a premium flip-flop brand that is carried in 270 stores across 39 states.
Hari Mari recently celebrated a milestone: It got picked up by national brands Jack Spade and Urban Outfitters. And sales are growing rapidly: Hari Mari sold more flip-flops in the first three months of 2014 than it had for all of last year.
“It’s been an absolute blast working with my husband. I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else,” said Lila, 33.
The transition from husband and wife to business partners wasn’t always easy, though, the couple say.
The simple part was knowing that they would work together to launch Hari Mari after the couple saw a void in the flip-flop market: a lack of color, character and comfort.
The brand also has a social mission, giving $3 for every pair purchased to a pediatrics cancer fund at Cook Children’s Health Care System in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Jeremy is the genius behind Hari Mari. I jumped on board the second I saw the flip-flops.
He didn’t have a decision. I told him I would handle sales,” said Lila, who previously worked as a sales executive for AEG Live.
Lila handles sales and marketing while Jeremy oversees design and manufacturing.
The couple says their complementary skills help run the company’s day-to-day operations.
In the early days, though, the couple struggled with resolving office conflicts. They first tried to handle business disagreements like they did personal ones.
That meant having unfiltered, unvarnished conversations, which don’t always translate well in a professional setting, the couple acknowledged.
“We were talking in the office like we would talk to each other at home,” Jeremy said. “And it’s surprising and off-putting to everyone else, outside of us.”
Through those early disagreements, they learned not to give unsolicited advice. They also work hard to defer to the other’s expertise or focus.
Recently, the team was choosing color combinations for the brand’s 2015 line.
As the creative one, Jeremy wanted wild and bright colors, such as a black and pink combination for men.
Lila leaned more conservative because she has to sell the line to customers.
“I tried to nix it, and he strongly disagreed,” Lila said.
In the end, the two agreed that Lila would make decisions for women’s colors and Jeremy for men’s colors.
It also helps the business to have a third partner, John Veatch, who provides an independent opinion and at times acts as a mediator.
Veatch said he uses humor to defuse tension between Jeremy and Lila.
“It’s a tough position that they’re in, and I’ve definitely noticed a marked improvement in the way they maintain the professionalism and not blur the line,” said Veatch, who handles advertising, marketing and other creative decisions.
The line between professional and personal issues is clear. While it took time, the couple has made a concerted effort not to let personal squabbles affect their work life.
“There are times where we go back home and it resumes, but again, it’s beneficial to everyone and to ourselves to not bring the extra baggage to the office,” Jeremy said.
The challenges of working with a spouse have been minimal compared with the upside of bringing up their professional “baby” together. The experience also has been good for the marriage, the couple say.
“You see your spouse in a totally different light, and it’s attractive,” Lila said recently from their new Dallas headquarters.
Jeremy added: “I think so, too.”
MAKING IT WORK:
Lila and Jeremy Stewart’s tips on working together:
_Keep communications professional: Maintain business-related talks and emails, preserving a consistent style of communication across all work relationships.
-Help each other: Divide the labor and be understanding about the amount of work the other is doing and help out when you can.
-Strike a balance: It may vary from couple to couple. For some, it may mean working at home or discussing work at home in moderation. For us, rigid rules haven’t worked. Instead, we’ve adopted a flexible approach to work at home on an “as-needed” basis. Find what works for you.
-Remember to compliment: Not unlike marriage, it’s important to let your co-workers know when they’re doing a great job. It’s no different when that co-worker is a spouse.
-Celebrate successes: It’s important to balance the daily grind with wins and successes when they arise. It serves as a good reminder of what you’re working together toward.
-Leave personal problems at home: Doing otherwise is a productivity killer. There’s plenty of time to settle those differences later at home.