Partners in a Pandemic

For husband-and-wife business owners Than and Emily Ruyle, running their online fitness apparel brand, WodBottom, during a pandemic takes a special kind of relationship.
Feature Running A Business With Spouse During Pandemic Panel
Emily and Than Ruyle, co-owners of WodBottom

In these socially distant times, when many professionals have traded the office for a desk or table or couch at home — at least for a stretch of time if not for the continuing duration of the COVID-19 pandemic — our newest co-workers are the people we live with — spouses, partners, roommates, and children. If that’s been a bit of an adjustment, well, that shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, we chose these people in our lives for reasons other than that we thought they’d be fun to work with.

But what about when the person you live with is the same person you chose to go into business with? Even during pre-pandemic times, running a business with a spouse could be challenging. During COVID-19 when tensions seem to only run high and you almost literally can’t escape from each other’s presence because work and home have all but combined? That’s a test of a partnership in every sense of the word.

When husband and wife Than and Emily Ruyle started WodBottom five years ago, it was as much about passion as profit. The couple were already active CrossFit athletes, and they saw a place in the market for their silicone wedding rings, which were quickly followed by even more popular workout clothing, in particular fun, pithy body-hugging shorts. The Verona-based online retailer also gives back to the community in the form of monthly donations to Domestic Abuse Intervention Services in Madison, something Emily has said is inspired by her childhood spent in an abusive household.

The business was chugging along earlier this year, even raising $250,000 in seed funding this spring, but the pandemic made doing business more difficult when WodBottom ran into supply chain issues.

The company’s Chinese manufacturer was forced to shut down for a time in response to the coronavirus, and while production eventually ramped back up, it threw off product delivery by months and forced WodBottom to release fewer designs of its activewear than it normally would.

“We did have some supply chain issues earlier this spring and unfortunately are still seeing slowdowns at times,” notes Than Ruyle. “We have taken steps to alleviate this, such as developing a relationship with a new manufacturer in Colombia for shorter lead times, easier communication, and access to new fabrics. We are also buying heavily to prepare for future slowdowns, like the Chinese New Year, and to make sure we have plenty of inventory for our busiest months ahead.”

The biggest setback for WodBottom, according to Ruyle, is the unreliability of others. “We order things with the expectation it will arrive when said, but we have to plan for the possibility of it arriving late. We also ship out orders same day or next, often likening ourselves to the speed of Amazon; however, we do not have any control over delays that happen once the products leave our hands.”

Unlike some other small retailers, however, one thing WodBottom had working in its favor was a robust online presence from the start, since the company doesn’t operate out of a brick-and-mortar storefront.

“We started the business to help as many people as possible and are fortunate to have established ourselves as an e-commerce brand from the beginning,” says Ruyle. “In the last five years, we have been able to grow our online presence with positive messaging both through our marketing and communication style. Our goal has always been to give our customers the experience that we would want to have — meaning an attentive, well thought out, and easy customer journey from the first time seeing one of our ads through receiving the product. Since we do this, we have not seen a disruption in our sales, and in fact, have been hitting record months.”

The loss of many in-person events due to COVID-19 also had an impact on WodBottom’s bottom line, but not as much as one might expect in a fitness industry where success is often dictated by being able to see products in action.

In-person events have always been a great opportunity for WodBottom to be part of the community and show how the company specializes in making women look and feel their strongest, explains Ruyle, but as the company has grown, the Ruyles have become more realistic and selective with the number of events they participate in.

“However, what we have done, and continue to do, is actively contribute to many events throughout the country in form of either a discount code provided, a giveaway prize, gift cards, and more,” says Ruyle. “Although this has slowed due to COVID-19, we have seen how resourceful people are with their ability to figure out a way to still run events by changing to an online format or changing their events to accommodate for COVID-19.”

But what about the challenges of enduring the pandemic while trying to run a business with your spouse?

“Luckily for Emily and me, working alongside each other is not new,” says Ruyle. “We have always been able to balance each other out really well. We do this by having a clear understanding of what we are each responsible for and by playing to our strengths. For example, Emily is very creative, patient, and ran her own marketing agency for years prior. This works well as she is our chief marketing officer and designer.

“On the other hand, I have always been great at organization, decisiveness, efficiency, communication, and have a passion for helping others,” Ruyle continues. “This has helped me throughout my life in several leadership positions and now as chief executive officer at WodBottom. We have also started using ClickUp, a cloud-based collaboration and management tool, to prioritize, collaborate, and assign tasks.”

Ruyle says the greatest challenge this year for the couple with the pandemic has been parenting. “We have four kids doing virtual learning at home while we are at the office all day. It is difficult to keep everything straight, make sure emails and homework are being done, and that they are being attentive and participating in class, on top of everything else. We use printed schedules, alarms on Alexa, and calendar notifications to try to keep them on task, while also trying to spend quality time with them every day. We have even started doing family workouts.”

According to Ruyle, while every couple may not be in business together, there are some lessons that he and Emily have learned over the years about complementing one another’s strengths that are applicable to business leaders at any organization.

“I think an important lesson that applies not just for business but in personal life as well is to be open and willing to change and to accept criticism not necessarily as a bad thing but as an opportunity to improve,” says Ruyle.

“Another great lesson is gratitude. There have been so many times during the last five years that we have said to each other that there is no way we could do this without the other. Emily has some amazing skills and qualities that I do not, and vice versa. Whenever we are feeling down or stressed, we are good at reminding each other that we have created an amazing business that inspires, motivates, and builds up others with our everyday actions. We have such gratitude for our customers, our employees, and each other.”

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