In 2008, Liesl Gibson launched a sewing pattern company for kids called Oliver + S. She’d recently left her job as a designer for a large fashion brand and was enjoying working by herself out of the home she shared with her husband, Todd, and their young daughter.

“Originally, the business was to be a part time thing for Liesl,” Todd recalls. “She thought maybe she’d hire an assistant at some point, but that was about it.”

Todd and Liesl Gibson.

Photo by Katherine Slingluff

It turned out that Gibson had great timing. She’d entered the market at the moment when home sewing was having resurgence. Consumers were eager to get their hands on patterns by independent designers and Oliver + S products were in high demand. Soon, so was Gibson.

“Opportunities began to come in and she couldn’t take advantage of them by herself. She was being asked to travel and teach, to write a book and do fabric collections,” Todd says of his wife’s early days at Oliver + S. “She needed a growth path for the business and we had to make a decision — do we want to grow this or keep it an extremely small, part time hobby?”

The couple chose growth.

A former college professor with a PhD in literature, Todd was working at an investment bank after a 10-year stretch in management consulting. Not entirely happy with his current job, Todd decided to quit and come to work for Oliver + S full-time. With their combined skills and work experience, the Gibsons were able to grow the company into a mainstay on the home sewing market.

One of the first things Liesl and Todd considered when discussing Todd’s move to full-time, was whether they could afford it.


Todd and Liesl Gibson.

Photo by Katherine Slingluff

“Hiring someone else with my skills and level of experience would mean a paying a salary and providing benefits that would have been way too expensive,” Todd explains.
“Fortunately, we had built up a financial cushion that allowed us to live for a while without a salary, which was a good thing because neither of us drew a salary that first year,” he said.

Pattern designer Jen Beeman found herself in a similar position when her women’s sewing pattern business, Grainline, began to grow. Beeman began asking her partner, Jon Krohn, to help her during his off-hours. A graphic designer by training with experience in laying out books, Krohn was able to help Beeman create her first print patterns.

“I’d be so stressed about creating stuff for print and he’d take one look at it and say, ‘Oh, this is easy. Let me do it.’ He’d lay it out and call the printer and set it all up. It was great,” Beeman says of Krohn’s contributions.

In May of 2015, Krohn began working for Grainline full-time, taking over all of the graphic design work and managing shipping and distribution — a time-consuming task that Beeman desperately needed help with.


“I’m not even allowed to do the shipping anymore,” Beeman jokes. “I made too many mistakes. [My employee] Kendra and I were spending two to three hours a day on shipping. Now Jon does it. He’s better at it and he loves it.”

For other creative business owners, bringing their spouse on full-time is a future goal.

Right out of art school, Jordan Perme started making faux taxidermy creatures by carving foam and covering it in felt shapes. She called them Horrible Adorables and took them to a craft show in Philadelphia to see if they might sell. Her husband, Chris Lees, came along to help out.

“For the first show I just did the logistical stuff,” Lees recalls. “I booked the hotel room and helped her pack the car.”

Shoppers loved Perme’s quirky critters and she felt encouraged to continue making them, but cutting the felt shapes that covered each animal was labor intensive. Lees, a mechanical engineer and artist, helped to streamline production in a way that would allow Perme to create a Horrible Adorables creature quickly and efficiently enough to sell in a retail setting.

“I sourced custom dies Jordan could use to cut felt faster and I learned about how to create foam molds. Now we cast forms for her pieces — we can cast 10 pieces in an hour, which allows us to make so many more than before,” Lees says.
Nowadays, Lees spends 10 to 20 hours a week working for Horrible Adorables, in addition to his full-time job. He’s taken over the bookkeeping and he manages the production schedule and has recently helped Perme trademark Horrible Adorables.

“He’s really good at spreadsheets,” Perme laughs.

Lees also makes much of the product that goes to retail stores they stock around the country while Perme focuses on more intricate fine art pieces for gallery shows.


Jordan Perme cuts the felt she uses to make Horrible Adorables.

Photo courtesy of Chris Lees and Jordan Perme

Chris Lees sculpts Horrible Adorables.

Photo courtesy of Chris Lees and Jordan Perme

Until now, Lees has kept his engineering job because the couple needs the income and health benefits, but in 2016 they’re hoping that Lees will come to work for the business full-time.

“It’s a leap of faith,” Lees says. “But we’ve put money aside in savings so that even if we don’t make any profit in 2016 we can still live.”

“I’m a little nervous about having us both home all day,” Perme says. “I think it’s going to be important to be respectful of how each other work.”

Todd Gibson, of Oliver + S, agrees: “Working together will have an impact on your relationship. You’re going to be spending a lot more time with that person. You’re raising kids together, living together and now working together, so any disagreements in any sphere are going to spill over.”

Gibson recommends setting boundaries and deciding when you’ll talk about work and when you’ll leave work behind.

Lees and Perme say they talk about the business almost all the time, but it works for them.

“I work at home and I really don’t have anything else to talk about,” Perme says. “This is all I do. Well, this summer we got beehives, so sometimes we talk about the bees.”

For some couples, the dynamic of their personal relationship helps them manage the stresses of owning a business. Beeman says Krohn is a good balance for her emotionally and that plays out in their business in a positive way.

“We get stressed out in opposite ways and he’s great at calming me down,” Beeman says.

Before bringing your spouse on full-time, consider whether their skills are complimentary to yours and are a match for what the business needs. For the Gibsons, Todd’s skills were a perfect fit.

“I’m a business person. I know how to do strategic and financial planning. I know how to do forecasting and how to focus on process. And I have the skills to build the technology we needed to grow,” he explains, adding that Liesl wouldn’t have been able to afford to hire someone at his level otherwise.

“It’s just too easy for your work to become all encompassing when your work and life partner are the same,” Gibson says. “We have a strict ‘no discussion about the business and no technology at the dinner table’ rule.”
Chris Lees and Jordan Perme are hoping to work together on Jordan’s business, Horrible Adorables, full-time in 2016.

Photo courtesy of Chris Lees and Jordan Perme

Krohn also brings skills to Grainline that Beeman needed and couldn’t have afforded otherwise.

“When Jon works a design job it’s $100 per page,” Beeman explains. “I can’t afford to pay that. But he said, ‘Yes, let’s build this thing together.’ If you hire someone they’re never going to say that.”

It’s also important to think through how you’ll define your spouse’s work status for legal, payroll, and tax purposes; will they be a contractor, an employee, or a partner?

The Gibsons own Oliver + S as an equal partnership while Krohn is an employee of Grainline with Beeman retaining sole ownership of the company.

“He feels like, ‘You built this company. You can own it.’” Beeman explains. “He’s not a person who feels he needs to be in charge. As a graphic designer, he was used to taking assignments from clients. Then again, we don’t really have typical gender roles. Jon does all the grocery shopping and all the cooking for us.”

Permes still has her business registered as a sole proprietorship LLC, but plans to amend that to bring Lees on as an equal partner in the coming year.

Owning a business that you both work for can give couples a level of flexibility in their work lives that can feel very freeing. Beeman says: “I set our schedule so if we want to go on vacation we can go on vacation.”

The Gibsons have rented their home in New York City to spend this year in Spain with their daughter, an experience that would have likely been impossible if they didn’t own their own business.

Being in business together doesn’t come without risk, though. When both partners’ financial futures are tied to a single business, the stakes are high. Beeman says Krohn helps her relax when she begins to worry about the risks involved.

“Jon tells me, ‘We can always go and get jobs if everything fails,’” she says.

And the Gibsons say the trade-off has been worth it: “Even now, we both make less money than we did when we were working corporate jobs, but it’s really about how you define success. If success means owning a second home and a big boat and two or three cars this wouldn’t be success, but we feel we’ve been able to use this business to escape from working for the man and being tied to an office cubicle in midtown Manhattan. This business gives us the lifestyle we want.”


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