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ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

12.9.98  
How One Couple Parlayed Their Differences Into a Thriving PR Company
The secret: Avoid the classic traps for married working partners

Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz just bought a vacation house that needs a lot of work. With no discussion, he tackled the chimney, she took on the basement. He cleaned the toilet, she chose the trees. After living together for 21 years, "we instinctively knew which of us should deal with which assignments," Steve says.

That holds true in the executive suite as well. The pair presides over Schwartz Communications, a Waltham (Mass.) public-relations company for high-tech startups. From a high-rise overlooking New England's equivalent of Silicon Valley, Paula Mae runs internal operations. Steve works the front of the house. Dubbed the fastest-growing high-tech PR agency by Inside PR and Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter last year, the company's annual sales are nearly $16 million. Its 78 clients -- 10 new ones came aboard last month -- include Internet portal Lycos and communications group Wildfire. And its staff has ballooned from one -- Paula Mae -- to 150 in eight years.

The Schwartzes are on the cusp of a hot industry as well as a hot social trend -- married couples in business together, says Jane Hilburt-Davis, executive director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Center for Creative Enterprise, a nonprofit group that trains and advises family business owners. The reasons are compelling: Spouses know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and they can set up shop at home to spend more time together or with the kids.

GROUND RULES. But intimacy brings problems. "We realized early on it was necessary to put down some rules so we could keep business in the office," says Paula Mae. "We said, 'If anyone of us brings up business at the dinner table, the other one has to hold up their hand and say: Stop. The first night after making this pact I held up my hand and said, 'Stop.' And we couldn't think of anything else to say. There was just dead silence."

The pair vowed to avoid other perils of married entrepreneurs by structuring their work relationship in a businesslike way. They drew up a list of strengths and weaknesses, and delegated accordingly. "The typical problems in a 'co-preneurial' relationship stem from who does what," says Hilburt-Davis. "It's very common early on to say, 'We'll just each do what we can.' But as the business grows, that becomes very inefficient."

At first, Paula Mae did everything. Shortly after the birth of her third child, she started to freelance from home. "Steve really had an idea of me sitting at home eating croissants and drinking tea and watching Oprah. He thought I could talk to the plumber and take the clothes to the cleaners," she recalls. "I really had to push back and say, 'You don't know what I'm doing here.' "

Within two years, one account turned to three, then to six. Paula Mae rented a cubby in an ad agency and found herself directing a posse of freelancers, then galloping home in time for the school bell. When her youngest reached kindergarten, she decided it was time to recruit a top prospect she had been eyeing: her husband, then a vice-president for the software developer Interleaf. "I was going to pitches for larger high-tech companies. These people wanted full-service programs and somebody who could talk the talk. I thought the combination of me and Steve together was magical. I was totally sure it would work," Paula Mae recalls.

Her top prospect, however, was no pushover. "I didn't think the world needed another PR agency," Steve admits. He liked his job. He questioned lumping their resources into one business. Eventually, he began to mull the decision over. Steve studied advertising and marketing trends, and he discovered that high-tech startups were big spenders on publicity. A year later, he joined his wife in business.

In 1990, they renamed the company Schwartz Communications. To avoid getting on each other's nerves, they chose offices at different ends of the hall. ("Separating themselves -- that's the first thing co-preneurs do right," Hilburt-Davis says.) Then, the Schwartzes split the stock ownership and the tasks 50-50 (the second thing they did right).

SMALL-BIZ BLISS. Successful married entrepreneurs such as the Schwartzes have five things in common, Hilburt-Davis says. They: 1) have separate identities, 2) divide responsibilities appropriately, 3) don't play out long, unresolved issues in the business, 4) defer to one another and compete with rival businesses, not each other, 5) have a way to settle disputes.

The Schwartzes say they realized from the get-go that the business could founder if they didn't have a means to resolve points of contention. The solution: to trust each other's judgment. "If either one of us is really passionate about something, the other one will generally give in," Steve says. He wanted to be president, for example, so he got the title (Paula Mae is chief operating officer). She wanted a West Coast presence. He bucked, but caved in two years ago. Now, the San Francisco branch accounts for 40 of the company's staffers.

The couple also saw the need for discretion. "If we have an argument, we go into the office, shut the door, and hash it out, because we realize how devastating and divisive it would be to have it in public," says Paula Mae. "We absolutely do disagree. But when we disagree, we give real reasons."

The partnership has had its pitfalls. Though Paula Mae founded the company, she faced the "little woman" syndrome once her husband joined. So she devised an antidote: Her business card reads "Paula Mae." No last name. "At first, many people don't know I'm his wife, and I like that. I don't want to be treated like his wife. I want to be treated like the COO."

That goes for Steve, too. "He'll dance into my office sometimes and say, 'Roger [their son] had his teeth fixed today.' I don't like to be disrupted in the office. So I ask him to make an appointment with me, just like anybody else," she says.

Dave Stiehr, who worked for the Schwartzes' first client eight years ago, plans to use their agency for his current company, SURx, a health startup in San Francisco. Stiehr admits to initially having misgivings about enlisting a married couple's business services. Could the pair handle a business and a personal relationship? But no problems materialized. "Working with them tends to be more personalized. As the client, no matter who you're talking to, you're talking to one of the owners," he says. For couples who can pull it off, that's a strong selling point.

By Carol Dannhauser in Fairfield, Conn.

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