Penn State

Growing a business, and a relationship too

Hunter Swisher and Erin Knabe, of Phospholutions, collect data on their product trials at Mountain View County Club on Sept. 7.
Hunter Swisher and Erin Knabe, of Phospholutions, collect data on their product trials at Mountain View County Club on Sept. 7.

For many Americans, leaving work at the office is a Sisyphean task. When your business partner is also your partner outside of work, life, if possible, can get more complicated.

Yet for the more than 3 million U.S. small businesses owned by couples, it’s part of the job. For Hunter Swisher and Erin Knabe, growing their business has had, in many ways, the same effect on their relationship.

“It throws a whole new mix into it,” Swisher said.

Both 22, the pair knew each other in high school — she was the class president, he the budding scientist — but didn’t start dating until college. Now set to graduate from Penn State in December, their immediate plans are clearer than many of their peers, and their relationship goals all the more ambitious.

“We push each other,” Knabe said. “We are bouncing ideas off of each other all day long.”

Their company, Phospholutions, began as an idea in the lab, something Swisher had mulled over for about a year before Knabe came on board. After they paired up professionally, Swisher noticed not only the relief of a shared workload, but also that ideas flowed more easily.

Working hours in a lab can be isolating, he said. Working together, with your girlfriend no less, was anything but.

“It’s been really fun trying to figure out our personalities and our characteristics and what we’re good at,” Swisher said. “A lot of the time, I’ve been speaking so much for the business that I’ve been kind of put on the spotlight, but in the background she’s doing a lot of the nitty gritty to get me prepared.

“And it’s kind of cool that we’ve developed this relationship where we can fade in and out of that when necessary.”

Being able to navigate combined work and personal lives, rather than fence them off, experts say, is key to building success in both. Instead, co-working couples can actually foster a better understanding of why their partners are stressed, according to research from the University of Minnesota.

But in terms of workload, experts suggest a “divide-and-conquer” approach. According to Fortune, couples with defined roles generally perform better than their unmoored counterparts. Researchers call this distinction “spousal capital,” or the skills partners can contribute to the business. One partner, for instance, may be better at managing finances, while the other has a knack for brokering deals.

In the case of Phospholutions, which is seeking to commercialize a buffering agent for phosphorus in soils, Swisher, a plant sciences major, takes care of the product development side. Knabe, meanwhile, handles marketing and administrative duties.

“She is way more organized than I am,” Swisher said. “I’m all over the place. She honestly keeps me on track.”

Originally, the couple planned to have Knabe, the outgoing athlete and former class president, handling the public speaking engagements. Swisher, more comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt than a blazer, said he doesn’t like “standing up in front of people,” but that changed as the company evolved. They realized Swisher, with his knowledge on the research side, was more suited to the position.

“It’s interesting because in the beginning we thought, ‘OK, you’re going to be the public face, you’re going to be the figure that everyone responds to and doing all the phone calls and things like that,’ and I ended up doing most of that,” he said. “So it’s kind of funny.”

Despite being partners, the pair often work separately in their roles. Over the summer, Swisher traveled to Florida to meet with potential clients, while Knabe stayed behind to manage the business side. By the time the fall semester started, the couple had made their first sale.

So “complicated” doesn’t necessarily mean “worse.” Just complicated.

“Sometimes you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings because you don’t like their idea, but you have to speak up for the better of the company,” Knabe said. “Just because you may be girlfriend or boyfriend, doesn’t mean you can disrespect each other in a business sense either.”

But both admit disagreements happen. It’s part of working together, they said — or being in a relationship.

“I think that we’ve learned how to handle things better,” Swisher said. “You really have to set aside your personal relationship in this kind of aspect. For us it takes a lot of willpower to kind of hold back and not let your personal life get in the way of those things.”

The pair also live together. When they come home, they brainstorm and share, like many other couples, how their days went.

But due to the nature of their relationship, successes and failures feel more relatable.

“When someone accomplishes something, the other one is so proud and it’s not like it’s ‘oh yeah, honey, this is what I did at work today,’ ” Swisher said. “Instead you were there sweating and bleeding the whole time with this person and now you saw them making the next sale or coming home with a new accomplishment we made that day.

“I feel like you appreciate it and you understand the other person a lot better.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy