Dynamic Duos: The married couple who successfully built a business

In Dynamic Duos this week, partners in life and work, Michelle O’Keeffe and Todd McPhee, share how their digital agency Engaging.io was started over a glass of wine, the trials and tribulations of building a business as a married couple and why there is a strict no shop talk rule on the weekends.

In Dynamic Duos, Mumbrella each week asks two colleagues with a professional and personal affiliation to share with readers the importance of workplace relationships in an increasingly hybridised world of work.

Todd McPhee

When I started Engaging Communications back in 2009, I had a plan. That plan did not include making my wife the first person I’d bring into the business. Or the second. Yet that was what happened.

It came about, as many great things do, over a glass of wine. I’d started Engaging to give businesses control and ownership of their own leads, customers, communities. I knew there was a better way to improve database segmentation and I had ideas around creating loyalty communities. So many ideas. This is where the wine came in – the wine, and talking to my incredibly smart wife over dinner. Michelle worked in strategic marketing and was contracting after the birth of our first son, Ryan. She kept coming up with really good ideas, and it occurred to me that either I needed to buy a lot more notepads to write all these ideas on, or, I could ask her to join me and she could write them down. Better still, she could just make them happen.

It hasn’t been easy. Not because I’ve ever found it hard to work with Michelle. Some may say I’m biased, but Michelle is one of the most selfless, caring and committed people I’ve ever met, so working together has been a blessing. The hard part comes when things get tough. When you’re both in the same start-up, when times are tough, and they were, they were tough for both of us. The other two directors who joined us shortly after Michelle had partners with other jobs, but we were all in on this, and at times it scared the shit out of me.

The business pivoted a few times over the years, trying on slightly different hats to see what fit best, but there for me were two defining moments. The first was when we decided to go all in on HubSpot. We’d always been agnostic, not solely affiliated with any tech platform and media had always been a large part of our revenue stream. Whilst the decision felt right, it was still a gamble, but Michelle trusted it was the right path, and I trusted her, so off we went.

The second defining moment came several years later when the new budget was released and there wasn’t a line item for media in it.

We’d done it. Together.

Michelle O’Keeffe

The older you get, the clearer it becomes what you don’t want. I’d worked for major corporations, and it wasn’t that I didn’t like big business, I just didn’t like being made to feel that family came second; that values had a price tag or that it was OK to compromise on being a good human being for a better profit margin. Wanting to leave the world a better place than we found it was one of things that had drawn Todd and I together to start with – that and wine.

The moment we started talking about working together, it became impossible to think of any other career route that even came close to making sense. Getting to work with someone who shares your values, beliefs and aspirations and happens to be your best friend to boot is a hard combination to beat.

That said, I absolutely wouldn’t recommend working with your spouse or partner. Not because it hasn’t worked for us, it has, but we’ve been lucky and it seems to be an exception to the rule. We’ve had to make some fairly stringent rules around talking shop at the weekends and actually both took up new hobbies to keep our minds elsewhere. Now, on a weekend when we’re not running around after teenage boys playing sports, Todd drums and plays the guitar and I sing, so we just jam, chill, and work is far from our minds. I’m not saying we don’t have the occasional lapse, but whenever we do one of our boys will soon point out that they are, in fact, the centre of the universe and we are suitably chastised.

There’ve been a lot of moments over the years, good and bad, but what sticks out in my mind was when Covid hit. We were sitting at our desks hearing the news as the pandemic was evolving, and I thought “that’s it, we’re screwed”. I went home, poured a large gin and tonic, and thought about how much I’d miss the house we’d need to sell. But we didn’t, we got through it for many reasons, some of which were luck, but mainly hard work, perseverance, and Todd’s insane ability to pivot, adapt and find a way. He never has any ego, he just gets on with what needs doing, and does it annoyingly well.

Todd on Michelle:

Most memorable moment with Michelle: Our very first management meeting that neither of us ran!

Best word to describe her: Leader.

Most annoying or endearing behaviour she has: Always puts everyone before herself (which can be both endearing and annoying).

Michelle on Todd:

Most memorable moment with Todd: At the start of Covid when we thought the world was coming to an end and the business was lost. Thankfully that’s not the case and we are bigger than ever.

Best word to describe him: Committed/trusting.

Most annoying or endearing behaviour he has: He’s so patient!


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