Owning a business with spouse can be challenging, rewarding

Published in UT San Diego, November 4, 2013

Rule No. 328

Even if it is a small ship, you are still the captain.

So you’ve had it up to here and you want to tell “the Man to take a hike, pound sand and, by the way, I am outta here.” Making a successful transition from a large organization to owning your own small business can be treacherous.

Suddenly you are the ultimate decision-maker operating without the safety net of a regular paycheck and easy-to-access help for everything from fixing a broken computer to cleaning the bathroom. The situation poses major changes and challenges both for you and your family. And if you decide to do this “together with my spouse,” be aware that marital strife can be exacerbated by aggravation at the office.

In 2004, after 25 years in corporate America, Paul Jester decided it was time to own a business. Although he had spent a number of years working for startup technology companies, including the successful HNC Software, he decided to look for something low-tech because he didn’t “want to look over my shoulder and wonder what new technology was going to bite me on the ass.”

Jester followed our Rule No. 2: “Networking is a profession, become a professional at it,” and he started by talking with numerous business owners in a variety of sectors. This led to a conversation with a sign company owner. Jester decided that he liked the business — the fabrication part particularly appealed to his engineering background.

Through further research, he identified an 8-month-old company that he was able to buy for $75,000 — more than the liquidation value and less than it would have cost to replicate. Meet the proud owner of Miramar Sign Works & Graphics.

Next, he spent an additional $35,000 to join Signworld, an organization of more than 260 sign owners that provides training and support as well as a forum in which the individual owners can post questions and share best practices. This was a smart move because often you don’t know what you don’t know but you have to be willing to take a leap.

“I didn’t know anything about signs, but I knew how to sell,” said Jester. “When someone asked if I could make a particular type of sign, I always said ‘yes, absolutely.’ Then I would ask for advice on the Signworld forum.”

For the first 18 months, cash flow was tight, and Jester dipped into savings to keep the business operating. As he looked around, he noticed that most successful sign companies were run by a team of two — two brothers, two sisters, or two spouses. Four years after buying Miramar, after their two sons were older, his wife, Karen Sypolt, joined as the head of sales. Her experience selling office furniture helped the company enormously, he said, and was key in getting them through the recession.

After some initial tension, they learned the importance of defining their roles and responsibilities and trusting that the other person would make the appropriate decision. He handles the back office, and she is the major link with customers — and they are still happily married.

The hardest part of owning Miramar has been “managing the 100 holes in the dike. Every sign is unique, and we are making something different every day,” said Jester. As a small-business owner, you are always responsible, and it’s hard to take time off.

Today, the company has 12 employees and posted revenue in 2012 of $1.2 million, according to Jester, who expects sales will rise to $1.35 million this year.

(Neil’s note: I love the idea that Paul morphed from high-tech software (HNC) to low-tech American manufacturing; he makes real things.)

Jester and Sypolt have never looked back and believe the rewards of business ownership are about more than money. The benefits include being able to hire their sons in order to teach them about business and to set the corporate culture and rules (they love bringing their dogs to work).

During his career in corporations, Jester grew to hate meetings, so Miramar holds very few of them. Most importantly, he said, “I’m truly the captain of my ship, I love my team, and ownership is addictive and satisfying.”

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