Should couples go into business together?

By Saira Syed
Business reporter, BBC, Singapore

Image caption,
Most of the Gohs' apartment is filled with merchandise

It was not a decision Yvonne Goh took lightly - to turn her home into her office, and go into business with her boyfriend.

"I was afraid, because when you work together in business there will be a lot of conflicts," she says.

But Yvonne's boyfriend Vincent, now her husband, persuaded her with some emotive reasoning.

He says: "I told her, 'There are so many more things to come - planning for a house, planning for a family, so many major decisions we have to make together. So if we can't work on a business, and make business decisions, how can we co-operate together as a couple in the future?'"

And so in 2009 the couple launched fashion e-commerce website Ministry of Retail from their apartment in Singapore.

This convergence of personal and professional goals to some seems like asking for trouble, but for others it can be a perfect convenience. So how do corporate couples make life and business work for them?

Marriage counsellor

Speaking to me in their bedroom, Yvonne has only days before given birth to their second child. Outside, one of their employees types away at a laptop on the dining table, while family members do chores in the kitchen and look after the baby.

Packages of clothes and accessories fill an entire room and spill over into almost every part of the house, waiting to be delivered or picked up.

But Yvonne's fears were not unfounded. Since both husband and wife joined the business full-time in 2009, they have suffered their fair share of setbacks.

"At one point of time, we even thought of seeing a marriage counsellor, that was how bad it got," says Yvonne, recalling a time of intense disagreements over differences in visions for the business.

"It felt like, how come it came to this that we can't even talk to each other properly?"

And then, Vincent was diagnosed with lymphoma.

"That was a wake-up call for both of us," he says. "In the past we had been quite focused on growing the business but when [we found out] I had cancer it was really life-changing," says Vincent. "Because of that episode we decided that we should always place priority on family first."

The fashion duo seem to defy all the rules experts spout about having a clear separation between when you are "at work" and when you are "at home". But they say this set-up allows them freedom to spend more time together and with their family.

They attribute a lot of their success to a decision they made early on to have very clearly defined and separate roles for each of them.

Vincent handles the technical side of the business while Yvonne uses her penchant for fashion to determine what merchandise customers will find appealing.

Competitive drive

Such an approach is something husband and wife team Violet Lim and Jamie Lee from Lunch Actually swear by as well.

They run a matchmaking service, setting up professional singles on lunch dates.

Image caption,
Violet and Jamie Lee know how to avoid arguing for the sake of it

With two children and offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, they say the trick is knowing when you are arguing for the sake of your ego.

"We can usually take a step back if we are fighting, and think whose idea is best for the business," says Violet.

"If his idea is better, I'll accept it, and I won't let my ego get in the way. We won't just keep pushing it because we want to win."

It's something sociologist Paulin Straughan says is the most common reason for ventures started by couples to run into trouble.

"The worst-case scenario is competition [between the couple]. That is the one thing that divides us. In a workspace of happy employees the minute you inject competition it cuts into solidarity," says Ms Straughan, from the National University of Singapore.

"Competition drives people apart."

Good test?

The danger of such competition is a lesson Ben (who did not want to give his real name) says he learned the hard way - spelling the end of his corporate coupledom.

He started a mobile app business with his then girlfriend and two other friends. Ben says he and his girlfriend didn't see eye to eye on many decisions, and eventually parted ways both as business and romantic partners.

"It's good for a relationships to be tested to a certain extent - you need to know it will last and survive," he says. "But that doesn't mean you purposefully put it through things to tests its endurance."

Image caption,
Ministry of Retail is run from a Singapore apartment

Ben says he would not be likely to enter into another business venture with someone he is in a relationship with.

But when it works, it seems, there can be no better outcome.

Violet and Jamie swear that being a corporate couple has not only not been a strain, but actually a convenience, because their interests are aligned.

Vincent from Ministry of Retail says he would recommend starting a business to any couple pondering the prospect.

"If you really want your relationship to strengthen you need challenges and obstacles that mould you into a lasting relationship - so if everything is smooth sailing you won't grow as a person or as a couple."

As in business, they complement each other, as Yvonne chimes in with some cold, hard truth to balance the optimism - don't for one second think it will be easy.

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