Business on board

Business on board

When I reach Anthony Middleton and Lara Swift at their Kitchener offices, time to talk is short: Middleton is about to board a plane to Las Vegas for the 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder extreme race. The 37-year-old former aerospace systems operator and co-founder of wireless testing services firm, Swift Labs, is looking forward to a break from the non-stop action the couple has seen since founding the company last spring.

“It’s important to have some time to decompress,” he says. “I’ll come back feeling a little more de-stressed and ready to take on the next challenge.”

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an injury-free weekend!” interjects Swift, 45, Middleton’s wife and business partner.

“You know, while I was on the phone registering for the event, Lara was on her phone increasing my life insurance … ”

“No ‒ just making sure we have an insurance policy … ”

The easy banter between Swift and Middleton is one clear sign of their close relationship, which started more than a decade ago at what was then RIM, now BlackBerry. Shortly after moving to Canada from Manchester, England, in 2003, Middleton went to work for the Waterloo tech pioneer, a year after Swift had joined. In 2004, the pair started working together on a project to develop new RIM radio technology.

“It was a lot of hours, very intense,” recalls Middleton. “You spent a lot of time with the people you were working with. We had a great working relationship, and then one thing led to another.”

“It just seemed natural,” says Swift of how their relationship evolved from professional to romantic, adding that there wasn’t any concern about perceptions from fellow co-workers. “It didn’t really surprise anybody. We are one of many couples that met at BlackBerry.”

Already having experience navigating that personal and professional relationship should be handy as their business grows, since running a business with a spouse is no easy task. One big challenge is the danger of putting all the family’s eggs into one basket. For better or for worse, Swift and Middleton, who married in 2009 and have a son named Henry, have dealt with this before. Both worked their way up the ranks at BlackBerry and both found themselves jobless within three weeks of one another. Middleton left to start what would become Swift Labs, though he didn’t want to put his family’s fate in the hands of one employer either. But then Swift got laid off.

While that experience would have deterred most couples from working together, with both of them now out of work they felt it made sense to launch a business – which Middleton had already sketched out – sooner than later. He had wanted to work with his wife again at some point anyway. The business, which began last April, relied heavily on the pair’s expertise at BlackBerry. Swift Labs provides in house development and pre-certification testing as wellas managed regulatory and compliance services to mobile and wireless companies. While the business is growing nicely, they do know that they’ll be in trouble if something goes awry. “We thought it was a very smart, calculated risk and we wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think it was viable,” says Swift. “But, yes, we have a mortgage, car payments and hockey classes to pay for.”

Another challenge of working with a spouse is separating personal and professional duties. While some people might make a clear separation between the two relationships, Swift suggests just going with the flow. She doesn’t worry much about separating work and home life. It’s about finding the right blend that works for the family. “Feel free to attend school events for your kids,” she suggests. “It’s also okay to talk about the business at dinner as long as the blend of work and personal time works for everyone involved.”

The key to both marital and business success, however, comes down to always keeping in mind why the partnership started in the first place. They’re passionate about growing a business together, but they’re also as enamoured with each other as they were when they first got married. Personal and professional lines can get blurred, but the flexibility that comes with entrepreneurship helps. “Our time is our own,” she says. “And our marriage and family remains our number one priority.”

- By Matt O’Grady / Photograph by Mike Watier