by Lauren Festa
They say don’t mix business with pleasure, but for these creative couples, that’s just the perfect working formula between themselves and their clients in producing some of the best work in the industry today. For this series, we’re speaking to creative couples at the top of their game, running small design studios near and far, proving that there really is such thing as a better half. As for ‘who’ well, that depends on what day of the week it is.
It was 1996 when Jake Lefebure – then a CEO at a Washington DC-based design firm where Pum was an intern – that a relationship would blossom between the two co-workers over late nights and happy hours. When the firm changed owners, Jake and Pum (now a senior art director) decided to start their own thing. The late nights continued in 2003 when they founded Design Army – working on expense reports sometimes until 3AM at their kitchen table. Soon they’d get a lucky break – not a high paying client, but the right client. They would eventually need to start hiring a literal design army and fill up their newly purchased office space to meet their workload. Design Army has been taking over ever since.
Names: Pum Lefebure and Jake Lefebure
Ages: No comment
Location: Washington, DC
Company: Design Army
Working Titles: Pum is CO-Founder & Chief Creative Officer and Jake is CO-Founder & CEO
ADC: Everyone here is refreshingly breaking the cardinal rule: Don’t date in the workplace. Do you think it’s time we changed this traditional sensibility?
Pum: Welcome to 2015, there are no rules in anything anymore – you need to follow your heart.
Jake: Plus, if we weren’t working together, we would never see each other.
Pum: Yea, I am a work-a-holic. If I wasn’t married to Jake, I don’t think I would be married at all. I barely even see him now!
Jake: Yet we’re together all day anyways… Which is fine.
Pum: Yes, very fine.
ADC: Sometimes you end up liking the people you work with and I think that’s okay. Thoughts?
Jake: You need to know the difference between like and love, if you’re going to get into a relationship with a co-worker, do it for the long haul. If not, it’s going to be very challenging.
Pum: It’s the same in business as well, if you’re going to start a business with someone, you need to love that person. There has to be trust and commitment for it to be successful – you can’t worry about the big picture, that needs to be very clear.
ADC: Has a client ever been skeptical to approach or have you ever been turned down work given the work dynamic? Some people feel like work may not get done, or there are too many emotions involved.
Pum: I don’t think the client has an issue with it – all that matters is that we deliver the best product to move and evolve their business. We also have an advantage; by being partners in business and life we can talk about work all the time. We try to keep them separate, but sometimes you can’t help brushing your teeth and talking business – even though Jake doesn’t like to.
ADC: Did you think this would work from the get go? Any doubts?
Jake: We were pretty confident. We were young, but we had a hard work ethic (something missing in today’s young creatives) so failure was not an option. We also figured that if it didn’t work out, we would be able to get a job somewhere else.
ADC: How do your employees feel (if you have any) about the fact that their bosses are together?
Jake: I would assume for them it’s a bit of love / hate situation. They probably see a lot of craziness.
Pum: Jake and I are so different; people don’t understand how we are married. We are opposite sides of a coin. But, while our perspectives are different, when it comes to big decisions we seem to always agree.
ADC: Is this one of those things that “is not for everyone?”
Pum: No, it is not for everyone, it is very difficult. You can’t go into business with your spouse if you can’t stand seeing them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If you need ‘me’ time or ‘man cave’ time – it is definitely not a good idea. It works for us because of our background, this is how we met, and I don’t know a world of Jake without him being my co-worker and my collaborator.
ADC: Have you ever had a moment where you guys were like “that’s it, I quit!”
Jake: Yes! Everyday! But, quitting is not an option. This is what we signed up for, not just in marriage, but also in business. We make compromises, we push forward, and we come to resolutions because, at the end of the day, this is what we really love to do.
Pum: By being a business owner you can’t get fired, but you can’t quit either. So, for me quitting is not an option. It’s a decision that we made and we want to see it through.
ADC: What are some of the main differences between working in this dynamic (together as a couple), versus working in a larger agency setting with different people?
Pum: We are in charge of our own destinies – we drive the boat, we lead the team and we get people on board to take the journey with us. We have full control over where we want to take our company and what the next step is. We can take risks, since we aren’t worried about what people think or about the corporate stuff.
Jake: Working for someone else is a lot easier than owning your own business, but at the same time, owning your own business is way better then working for somebody else.
Pum: I like the freedom to be able to pick and choose our clients and the projects that we want to take on. We decline clients as much as we accept projects. I see it as a marriage; taking on a project is the same as getting into bed with them. You have to like them – you have to filter them to make sure the DNA and the vibe is connected with our brand. Being small and working together gives us the freedom to be much more creative and take risk. We are fast and furious – which is very efficient.
ADC: How does it help each of you personally, to be able to work with someone you also cook with and do laundry with?
Pum: Jake does all of that.
Jake: Which doesn’t help me at all.
Pum: We divide tasks – and then he does them.
ADC: Given that you work on different sides of the business, are there times when you’ll ask the others opinion on something, even though that may not exactly be their area of expertise?
Jake: We each have our strengths and weaknesses. Design is definitely more Pum’s area of expertise; I suck at picking colors and fonts. Whereas if something is dimensional and requires structural building or architectural conception in any form of manner it’s just second nature to me. Pum on the other hand stinks at it – for her it has to be a finished thing to respond and then change it creatively.
Pum: I need to build a prototype to really believe in it. Seeing is believing.
Jake: Whereas I can look at a diagram and picture it.
Pum: Checks and balances is always good, you need a partner that you mesh with.
ADC: Any tips, tricks or advice?
Jake: It’s more complex, but it’s easier. You always know what the other person…
Jake: Right. Before you even do it. Pum asks for my opinion all the time, when I know she has already made up her mind. It drives me crazy – she already knows the answer and still asks me.
Pum: I do it to be polite, but it’s important to communicate.
Jake: We’ve developed some mental telepathy over the years. We don’t have to speak, because I know exactly what she is going to say.
ADC: Do you generally work together as a team or as individuals and have check-ins?
Jake: It is definitely more individual. In the beginning we worked together as a team since both Pum and I were not only designing everything, but also selling it and conceptualizing it. As the company started to grow, we got our senior staff in place. Now, we are at the more hands-on side of teaching them as opposed to doing it ourselves. I also have veered off to focus more on the business and client side.
Pum: My role is looking at the big picture. We want our team to grow, and I think it’s important to let our team shine. I see myself as a coach, a cheerleader and a plumber.
ADC: Can you describe your daily routines?
Jake: They are the same as always. I get up, make Sophie (our daughter) lunch, take her to school, go to work, wait for everyone else to show up, and then I’m out around 5-6pm to pick her up. In between, everyday is different, but the beginning and end is consistent.
Pum: I work the entire time. I get up, try to exercise at least three times a week, go to the office. My role is to work with the design team and design is an art form. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it takes time to get it right. I don’t have time to go to lunch, and sometimes I stay late with the team. But, I want to get home in time to have dinner with Jake and Sophie. I need to see Sophie every night, or else I go crazy. During the weekend I spend a lot of time with her – we do Sophie Saturdays or Sophie Sundays – that is when Jake gets a break, he gets to go to his man cave or garage.
ADC: How do you balance the work/life thing? Do couples have a rule that when you aren’t at work you aren’t talking about work or does it blur into personal hours?
Pum: It’s blurred, there is no such thing as work life balance, it isn’t separate. It is all about blending it together, integrating it together and making it fun. We don’t have time to separate it. I am on call 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We work clients in different time zones and interview candidates on different continents. It’s all about working hard and working smart. When we go on Holiday though, we definitely try and cut that off. We check in once in a while but we also try and have some personal time.
ADC: Do you give yourselves or each other days off?
Jake: I don’t get any days off.
Pum: What do you mean!
Jake: I get Saturday and Sunday off – to go to the grocery store and to take Sophie to dance.
Pum: I can do all of that – but you feel the need to do it.
Jake: Because you won’t be done on time, last week you didn’t have her on dance on time.
Pum: She told me it was at 2… I am a Parisian mom.
Jake: So no, I don’t get any days off.
Pum: No, he totally gets days off – I don’t get days off, I work all the time.
ADC: Do you agree on most things or is there a lots of discussion and debate?
Pum: We have different opinions, but on big decisions we always agree. We have different perspectives, yet we come to the same answers, especially, when it comes to hiring. We are always on the same page, I don’t know how, I guess it is a gut feeling.
ADC: Are there things you wouldn’t be able to do if you were working in a traditional sense? Do you have more freedom?
Pum: Yes, I definitely think I have more freedom. I have freedom to be very ambitious, but not in a way of having freedom to take knitting classes or cook in the afternoon. When you work for big corporations, you have no freedom. I have full control of my time. If there is a parent-teacher conference, we will tell the client no, it has to be the next day.
ADC: Are responsibilities equal or based on talents/strengths?
Pum: It’s equal.
Jake: She does creative and I do business.
Pum: But, we do check in with each other, I check on the business side sometimes and he checks on the creative side. We do what it takes to get it right for the client.
ADC: It seems like the work came first and then the relationship. Does work still come first or are there more important things?
Pum It’s all mixed together for us; I don’t know what our world would be like without Jake as a business partner, as a husband, as a father, and as a partner. I have always known him as all of that.
ADC: What is one thing you wish people would understand about working as a creative couple?
Jake & Pum: We deserve a medal.
ADC: Please fill in the blanks: I ______ working with my significant other because ______.
Jake & Pum: I love and hate working with my significant other because I chose to.