After 23 years in business together, John and Patty Mueller, the owners of Menomonee Falls-based Idea Factory Inc., have managed to keep their marriage operating as smoothly as their business ventures.
“We’ve had three businesses, so it must work,” said Patty.
The high school sweethearts, who met at a Flag Day party the summer before their senior year at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, launched Idea Factory Inc. in 1994 after John developed the RINSE ACE Power Sprayer. The plug-in valve device was originally created to ease the process of cleaning home showers.
Idea Factory Inc. has since expanded its product line to provide RINSE ACE and ProFloss brand bath, shower and oral health care products to retailers nationwide.
Before founding Idea Factory, the Merton residents owned Stall Tactics, an indoor billboard advertising company based in Menomonee Falls. The two established Stall Tactics in 1990 and opened a second company location in Clearwater, Fla. They sold the Clearwater branch in 1995 and the Menomonee Falls branch in 1996 to focus on their Idea Factory endeavor.
Patty and John, who have been married for 24 years, entered business together somewhat blindly, according to Patty. They started Stall Tactics while Patty worked at manufacturer Kimberly-Clark Corp. in Neenah as a brand manager of Kleenex brand facial tissue. John, whose grandfather opened Menomonee Falls-based Mueller Food Service, later owned by his dad before being sold to Kraft Foods, focused on lifting Stall Tactics off the ground.
Growing up within a family-owned business influenced John’s initiative to create his own company and have the freedom to manage it as he wanted, he said.
At Idea Factory, John takes charge of the ideas while Patty cranks those ideas in motion.
“John is the idea man, and I’m the factory,” Patty said. “I’m the one who makes it all work. We’re a good team, though.”
There really is no typical day at Idea Factory for John and Patty. Some days, the two pop into each other’s offices constantly to bounce around ideas. Other days, the couple drives into work together, parts ways into their respective offices and then reconvenes in the evening when they’re ready to return home.
“We have very defined roles, so it’s not like we need to hold each other’s hand all day,” Patty said.
While Patty manages finances, operates the profit and loss statements, oversees human resources, heads the company’s legal department and directs the retail packaging development, John handles the buying, assists with creative product development, runs the IT department and contributes to the company’s graphic design efforts.
“We both have different skillsets,” Patty said. “Things that John’s good at I will concede I am not and vice versa.”
The two credit a large part of their success to recognizing their own weaknesses and trusting one another’s strengths.
“You need to be willing to relinquish and have trust that somebody else can do it,” Patty said.
Their success also stems from their staff of nine employees, who fill in the gaps between their skillsets.
While both Patty and John love their jobs and enjoy the unexpected turns they face day to day, they struggle to keep their business from invading their personal life, Patty moreso than John.
“It’s hard to turn it off when you go home, but you’ve got to,” John said. “If I don’t relax then I can’t sleep at night, so I’ve got to take some time and just relax and not think about it.”
Vacations and weekends help. So does living without children.
“That may have assisted with our marriage and the scope of our business,” Patty said. “Our stress is our business, and our business is our child.”
One last key to success in family business is a strong sense of friendship, according to the Muellers.
“We’re good friends,” John said.