Running a business as a couple carries its own unique challenges – aside from battling the regular romantic rows that may spill over from the bedroom to the boardroom, there could be potential financial and legal squabbles when it comes to sharing what you have built together as business partners.
Saturday Magazine interviewed three couples who are in different stages of running their businesses together, to find out whether one can mix romance with business successfully.
CAROL & JEAN PAUL MAMBO OF MAMBO INTERIORS
If ever there were perfect synergy in how a couple runs its business, Mambo Interiors would be its model. Mambo Interiors is a local carpentry company producing high-end furniture for a niche market.
The company started in August 2008 and has since grown into a team of fourteen with a portfolio of just under 350 clients. Saturday Magazine spoke to the parents-of-two from their workshop in Industrial Area, Nairobi.
And amidst the stacks of timber and wood trimmings, the sawdust and the machinery, their synergy is telling: JP trails off on a sentence … and Carol picks up his unfinished thoughts to complete the sentence.
They laughed together, sharing in a private joke. She patted his back, he rubbed her knee. There was even the odd high-five. Synergy.
Carol and Jean Paul (JP) – 35 and 37 years respectively – were both working in the banking industry before they quit their jobs to get into Mambo Interiors.JP started the business out of his passion for sketching and design, and the need to fill the market’s gap of high-quality pieces driven by art.
Aside from an elementary training in metal work, JP had no other skills in carpentry or woodwork. Carol joined him last year after quitting a managerial position in a local leading bank to run the business with JP.
Carol has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and has always wanted to get into business. The decision to join JP in his business was therefore a no-brainer.
Carol eased her transition into the business by working twelve hours every Saturday for nine months. And it was on these Saturdays she and JP appreciated how much Mambo Interiors needed her – it needed her to streamline its internal processes, to manage its client relationships, and to maintain its books of accounts, skills which JP lacked.
Identifying the strength each is bringing into the business has contributed to the success of this husband-wife partnership. And in the year since Carol joined JP, the business has thrived in a way neither had anticipated.
“There is a clear separation of duties – I handle the creative and technical side of it, while she handles administration and finances,” says JP.
This in turn feeds into their shared vision for the business: “Our vision is to be a low-cost leader in high-quality furniture production,” says Carol.
“I use my strengths to make savings on the cost, thus pricing the products competitively. He sketches the best design, and makes products using high quality materials. All the while, focusing on our boss (the customer) and our kaizen (constant improvement.)”
Carol and JP incorporated Mambo Interiors as a company in June 2011. They are equal shareholders and directors of the company.
They each signed formal letters of employment with Mambo Interiors and their contracts have a salary package which is reviewed annually, based on the performance of the company.
Their word of advice to couples who wish to get into business together? “Do it,” says JP. “Extend the respect and friendship of your marriage into the shared vision of business, and to the team you work with. Be open to sharing each other’s ideas and opinions.”
Also, break the rules together. “We have done things differently; ours was a double-income household before we took the risk to leave employment to support each other in the business. That had to be done to make our business work.”
CAROLE MURITHI & NEVY JACKSON OF NEVYHOODZ CREATIONS
Between Carole, 23, and Nevy, 24, is a shared passion for creativity and avant-garde designs that have been the driving force for their business.
Through Nevyhoodz Creations they make customised jewellery, picture frames, belts, bags and shoes for sale.
The couple have been running the business together since March 2008, but Nevy started way back as a child in primary school, when he sold his artwork and customised t-shirts to neighbourhood kids.
Nevy is a self-taught pencil artist with a flair for adorning stuff with creative add-ons that catch his eye. Carole designs and makes clothes, shoes and handbags, a skill she picked up at the foot of her mother’s sewing machine.
The couple met as students at the Catholic University of East Africa. Carole was a customer of Nevy’s who first fell for his salesman lines then for his love lines.
At the time, Carole was making and selling her wares to a handful of her schoolmates. Nevy saw an opportunity to grow both their businesses through partnership – she’d bring her clients, her design skills and products to his business, and he’d give her a wider market. Carole didn’t think twice about his offer and gladly joined forces with Nevy.
So how has this young couple – still learning about relationships and learning about business – with no legal backing to their joint ownership of the business, handled being in business together?
Whatever each makes from their side of the business is theirs for keeping. Their distinct business arms meet in their shared customer base: the couple has amassed over 50, 000 likes on their Facebook fan page. This is no mean feat for a young business, even by today’s social media standards.
When it comes to business expenses, Nevy and Carole have made a gentleman’s agreement: She handles only 20 per cent of those in the town outlet, while Nevy handles the remainder and all expenses for their Ongata Rongai workshop.
The business has also worked because the couple complements each other: Nevy is good at managing the staff and money matters; Carole is good at brainstorming creative ideas.
It’s a simple model that works for them but it also presents a challenge. Nevy breaks it down: “Our business has been growing through ploughing back profit. Should Carole not carry her weight on her side of the business to make more money than we are making right now, we will have to postpone our plans to expand.”
Running the business together means it also eats into the private time the couple sets aside for the relationship. Nevyhoodz is Nevy’s pet project, and it is on his young mind all day, every day.
Ask him to deliver your product at 3am, and he will contemplate getting out of bed to make the delivery. Such gritty determination is good for business but is terrible for the relationship because it means the relationship is his second priority.
“It’s a challenge we are still working around,” says Carole. For a business partnership with your spouse to work, Carole says that the partners need to appreciate and understand each other.
Nevyhoodz is driven by its creativity, but there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to her as a business partner. She says, “There are items Nevy creates which I think are too avant-garde. And there are others I create he doesn’t think are tasteful enough”.
To resolve these differing opinions in taste, they have learnt to trust each other because each one has a proven track record of what sells and what doesn’t.
Nevy adds that the motivation and personal drive the couple has found in each other to run the business is what has made them excellent business partners.
JANE MUKAMI & IAN KELSALL OF CROSS CUT
Seated in their timber-yard office in Kitengela, Jane and Ian are the picture of a couple that gladly went into early retirement. Their team of 12 carpenters in the workshop next door carry on production.
Somewhere in the city, the other team of four is on site installing their products into clients’ houses.
Cross Cut is a Kitengela-based venture that makes interior wood products – doors, door and window frames, closets and curtain boxes. The owners of Cross Cut – Jane, 35, and Ian, 47 – are married with three kids.
The need for Cross Cut arose 10 years ago when the couple was building their home in Kitengela and were unable to find quality timber. The company started as JiMack in April 2005, and has grown to be known for its quality doors and arched window frames.
However, when Ian, a Germany-trained mechanical engineer with a hobby in hand-carving, got fewer contracts at his nine-to-five job at Toyota East Africa, Jane realised that the family needed a new stream of income to keep them afloat.
She and Ian decided to focus on turning Ian’s hobby into an income-generator for the family. They started by hiring out Ian’s hobby equipment to the home-builders in Kitengela.
When demand for their tools grew, the couple expanded their portfolio to source for their own timber and make products to sell. Demand kept growing, so they hired a timber-yard to make other high-quality wood products.
Ian is the technical director and head of design at Cross Cut – he sources for the timber from West Africa, cures it and creates the designs. He also manages and trains the team of carpenters and maintains the machines.
Jane handles the administrative, human resource and client-facing side of the business.
The couple maintained these roles and responsibilities for the five years they ran the business before they incorporated it as a company in 2008, a year after formalising their marriage.
The entire family holds a stake in the company– Ian holds 50 per cent, Jane holds 40 and five per cent each for two of their children.
Jane and Ian don’t pay themselves a salary: After all the business expenses have been settled, Jane puts aside what the family needs for the regular household into their joint bank account.
Whatever is left is our profit and more than half of this profit is reinvested into the business. One challenge the couple had to navigate as business partners is their clash of personalities: To their staff, Ian is the nice guy, while Jane is the harsh boss.
Ian is the spender, Jane is the penny-pincher. With a nostalgic laugh, Jane recalls a Christmas in December 2008 when Ian paid his staff a bonus without being aware that there would only be Sh2, 000 left for the family to spend during the holiday season.
To work around this challenge, Jane and Ian agreed that each would maintain the boundaries around their roles and responsibilities. And should there be an overlap, one consults with the other before a decision is made.
A constant and open line of communication for them both has also helped them work well together. “It doesn’t matter if you leave home in no mood to speak to each other, when you get to your shared office space, the business asks that you put that aside and talk,” says Jane.