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Part II of II

(Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories on young entrepreneurs. These couples with kids thrive on managing a dizzying swirl of multiple businesses. First you’ll hear his perspective, then hers.)

Both accomplished swing dancers, David and Cirkl Janowski met on the dance floor nearly 20 years ago. They still teach swing at their Ellington Hall studio in Santa Rosa, but their dance card has expanded to include Wine Country Bride, a bustling retail wedding dress and tuxedo shop in Santa Rosa. The dress shop links to other business components including a biannual Wedding Expo that recently took place on Jan. 17 and a DJ company, Premier Productions, which is run by other partners.

Then there’s the dance of having two young sons ages 1 and 3. In that dance, the music never stops no matter how tuckered out the partners become, and most steps must be improvised on the spot.

The four main businesses combined with caring for kids might flatten most folks, but not the Janowskis. They thrive on pressure, deadlines, sheer intensity. She admits cheerfully to being a workaholic – one who genuinely loves helping brides and grooms make romantic weddings they won’t forget.

HIM

“This is our real business,” said David Janowski in the lobby of Santa Rosa-based Wine Country Bride, which they purchased about four years ago. They already owned the Wedding Expo, which has run 21 times and draws some 700 brides to Wells Fargo Center for the Arts for a five-hour shopping trip with about 150 vendors, most from Sonoma and Marin counties. “It’s insane,” he said of the crowds.

“Cirkl runs the shop and I produce the show,” he said. In the dress shop, she lines up tasks for him. With ample general contractor skills, he designed the physical space and managed construction.

He shows me a 14,000-square-foot dress showroom where brides-to-be choose from thousands of dresses in a color rainbow. Wine Country Bride expects gross sales of $1.5 million this year, but has yet to show a profit. “Being a retail store, it’s definitely not easy, but not everything we do is for profit,” he said. “The profit we don’t make at the dress shop – as a whole, it does really well,” with gross revenue of all their businesses in the range of $2 million to $2.5 million.

Part of the cost of the dress shop is time needed to serve each bride, who usually tries on numerous dresses before deciding on one. “The time intensity,” he said, requires expensive staffing, and paid-for dress inventory.“Our goal is not to make it a loss-leader,” he said. “Our goal is to make money. We’re in business, especially now with kids.”

Rarely do their two toddler boys visit the wedding dress shop – maybe a few minutes a week. “They never roam,” he said. From a previous marriage, Cirkl Janowski, 43, has a son aged 22 and living in Oakland. Mr. Janowski, 41, adopted her first son. “We have been teaching dance from the day we met,” said Mr. Janowski. Within a week of their meeting nearly 18 years ago, they worked together instructing a class, initially as volunteers.

“From the beginning, we learned how to work together at a level most couples don’t get to. Teaching dance, you have to work on your ego constantly.”

One may give instructions to the class that contradict what the other partner already expressed. They have to reckon with conflict in front of the class as an audience and turn it into a positive, perhaps with humor. “There’s no hiding it,” he said. “You’re on.”

Sometimes he is able to work tense energy back into what he is saying without students noticing conflict. “We walk off the floor and never even talk about it because it got worked out in the lesson. That took years to learn – years. In the beginning there was a lot of tension,” he said.

“It’s not easy. We have to rely on that other person every moment. It’s probably why we can own all these businesses together. It has stemmed from teaching swing dance,” he said.

They defined clear boundaries, ground rules. “Whenever I explain something to the guys (usually leads), she won’t add anything to it,” he said. She’s allowed to say whatever she wants to the women (usually follows). “I want the guys to hear what I’m saying,” he said. They practice moves he described two times before she can speak again.

They worked out hand cues to signal each other. “When she wants me to talk, she will give me a little squeeze,” he said. “I’ll do the same for her, so we’re not trying to talk at the same time.” They have never spoken about the nonverbal communication. It emerged on its own. Conversely, if Ms. Janowski is teaching steps to women students, he is allowed to say something only if it complements her teaching. “It’s a game we play,” he said. “We have little simple rules like that,” part of a shared philosophy of teaching.

“It’s like having kids,” he said. They don’t always agree on how to parent, but compromise and trade power back and forth. “This is what we suck at,” he said. “Oh, it’s so hard. Neither of us really knew what we were getting into.”

The shop outfits bride, groom, bridesmaids, groomsmen, moms and dads.

“The wedding industry in Sonoma County needed a home,” Mr. Janowski said. With a talent for system design, he worked with software coders to create a rewards program that allows vendors to gain clients through Wine Country Bride. Brides sign up on the program and connect directly to participating vendors that offer special rates on products or services. “We are working with the same customer,” he said. “We collaborate.”

A typical wedding costs $20,000. Some couples splurge and the cost soars past $50,000 if they include a honeymoon, rings, reception, rehearsal dinner.

Ellington Hall, their dance studio a few blocks away, offers instruction in Lindy hop, tango, jazz, tap and swing, and is rented for weddings. They teach one night a week. “We did that a lot until we had kids,” Mr. Janowski said. “Private time is not something we have any more.”

“They are real boys,” Mr. Janowski said, chuckling, noting their jet-fueled rambunctious toddler energy, 18 months apart in different developmental stages. Twins would have been easier.

He personally delivered their second son at home after Ms. Janowski went into labor then 15 minutes later, with only five contractions, the baby emerged. They were planning a home birth, but the midwife didn’t make it in time. “The first contraction was insane,” he said, and he dialed 9-1-1. Then “I was untangling the umbilical cord. The fire department showed up 10 minutes after. We’re like, it’s done. It’s all over. It’s really cool. I don’t think I would have it any other way now. It’s the first time in my life I ever wanted to go out and have a cigarette.”

The family lives in Santa Rosa, a 10-minute drive from the shop. Ms. Janowski handles about 75 percent of parenting. “Cirkl is amazing,” he said. “I’m fumbling all the time, can’t get clothes to be in the right place at the right time. She just dances it, completely leads it. It’s unbelievable. I follow her. I ask, what can I do to help? She’ll line it up for me, OK, change his diaper, put his shoes on. I can’t do it the way she does it. I need her.”

Sometimes when he is alone with the kids, he does a better job of parenting. “I know I am responsible and can’t rely on her,” he said. He rises to the occasion.

He has skills she doesn’t have. “I am a better salesperson,” he said. “She is better at multitasking, nuts and bolts. I am terrible at paper. She doesn’t let paper touch me.”

“Our businesses all do different things,” he said. “They fire at different times. The wedding industry starts on January 1.” Some 80 percent of engagements happen through Christmas and New Years, he said. “The first thing brides do is go dress shopping. It’s fun, instant gratification.”

About 18 years ago they started Premier Productions, a deejay music business. Two partners run the company. The Janowskis concentrate on other balls in the air. “That company is going strong,” he said.
“We’re both tapped out,” he said. “Cirkl and I are big infrastructure builders.” Structures help keep details on track, organizing a dozen employees.

Four main businesses aren’t enough to occupy them. They have six rental homes, one in Missouri and the rest local, a separate events business run out of the dance hall and a software development effort. “Dance lessons are actually a very small part,” he said. “The best profit is the homes. All our homes cash flow.”

He keeps a full-time information technology employee and a full-time web developer on staff. “We build programs, Web apps and iPhone apps that run my businesses,” he said. The customized app for the Wedding Expo, built from scratch, is sophisticated enough that he’s considering franchising the business. “I design it, and I have someone who writes” code. “I don’t understand code at all. What I understand is how it works without having to know how to write it. I am really good at designing systems that help me get away from using paper, having things automated.”

The entire expo and communication among vendors, checking in brides, printing labels, building lead lists, “happens with this cloud-based Web app. We have created this amazing connection between people getting married and vendors trying to reach them.” The software could be adapted to other trade shows.

An entrepreneur from an early age, he bought his first house as a foreclosure when he was only 20 using student loan money as a down payment. He rented out four of five bedrooms. “That was my first business,” he said. “I like business. It’s my creative outlet.”

With the rentals he pulls together a crew of construction workers as needed. “I love construction,” he said, “absolutely love it.” Ms. Janowski also thrives on building and renovation. “When we ripped the kitchen out of our house to remodel,” he said, “we were so excited, the opposite of most people.”

The business ventures often overlap. “I drive my bookkeeper nuts,” he said. “I get a new idea, she gets a headache.”

HER

Dancing is intimate, according to Cirkl Janowski. “It gets your physical and emotional sides all working at the same time,” she said. In partner dancing, “you’re also connected with another human being,” such as her partner and husband David Janowski.

“On the dance floor, “teaching amplifies that even more, figuring out how to complement each other and give each other space.”

From the beginning, they structured their businesses to work side by side. Before they bought the dress shop about four years ago, she did event and wedding planning as yet another business. She stopped that enterprise. “With wedding gowns, you have to devote 100 percent to your clients,” Ms. Janowski said. “This became the priority.”

Systems and automation invented by Mr. Janowski ease stress on both. “I’m not very techie-savvy,” she said. “I enjoy the benefits. I know what I want the outcome to be as a business. They make it happen.”

Technology helps keep all their business ventures going without failure. “David has a special talent for working backwards,” said Ms. Janowski. “He is able to see things from an angle most people don’t, to bring that together into a good product.

She’s gearing up for prom season, when their staff swells to 16. “The dress shop is definitely my baby,” she said, grinning. “I loved, loved, loved wedding planning.”

An artist who paints, she made custom wedding gowns years ago after attending fashion design school. Born American but raised by a Brazilian family in Brazil, London and New York, she participated in arts, dance and theater.

“Wedding planning brought that” together, she said, especially theatrical aspects of pulling together the big day. “There’s that minute where everything has to come together. It’s very exciting, this amazing beautiful setup. The colors, the décor, everything works together. I’m very stimulated by beauty.” Her voice trails off as she slips into an imaginative realm where romantic couples fuse lives in a magic she helps create. This personal artistic spark propels her business acumen.

The most talented planner practically disappears. “If they don’t notice the wedding planner,” she said, “that’s a good job, ideal. Guests feel as if they know where to be. It takes a lot of work from the background,” but it appears as if the event runs itself. “If you’re noticing the coordinator yelling at somebody or moving stuff around, you’ve broken the magic,” she said. “I love that magic, that bubble, helping somebody have that moment.”

“This is girl heaven,” she said of the dress shop. “I was very much a tomboy, and very much loved fashion since I was little.” Her mother worked in the fashion industry in Brazil. “I grew up in her business,” Ms. Janowski said.

“I’m not your typical girlie girl. I don’t dress up a whole bunch now,” she said, wearing jeans for an interview, “but I love to dress up other people, see brides in their gowns. That’s my favorite.” She assesses each client’s body type, personality, eye and hair color, the “vibe they are going for in their wedding” – a hundred threads woven together.

Having toddler boys has altered the way they run their businesses, she said. “I am pretty much a workaholic,” she said. “I work for fun. If I have a day off, it’s fun to get another project done. I am a business developer. I love coming up with ideas, improving on systems. I don’t settle.”

Before the children were born, she could indulge her workaholic urge with 14-hour days. “Now I have to share,” she said, smiling. “I wish I could clone myself. I love my business. And I love my children.”

After they were born, she often felt as if she wasn’t enough as a mom when she was at work. At home, she didn’t feel adequate as a business owner. “My personal growth has been to be 100 percent present when I’m at work,” she said, “and 100 percent present when I’m at home. When I’m with them, I’m just mommy. They slow me down in a way that I don’t slow myself down. They teach so much.”

Her eyes grow misty. “You go for a walk in the creek,” she said. “You notice little bugs, how a bird lands, the sound of the water. They ask questions that I stopped asking. That has been a lovely gift.”