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Couple-preneurs and the highs and lows of running a business

Vishal Krishna
15th Mar 2017
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In the US alone, there are more than 800,000 successful businesses run by husband and wife teams. Why then, should a couple of incidents in India deter young couples from starting up? As this story gets published, Rupal Yogendra, co-founder of Stayzilla, stands by her husband Yogendra Vasupal to help him get through the arrest and allegations of fraud. 

During the last financial year, Indian business circles witnessed the founding couples of two unicorns go their “separate ways”, thanks to misunderstandings and alleged infidelity.

The breakups can’t help but bring to mind the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Go Your Own Way’ from the album Rumours, where the artist duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks broke off their relationship just before the recording of the classic album from 1975. The band, however, endured, with the two artists reconciling their personal differences for the benefit of business and creative pursuits. The same cannot be said about the episodes that occurred in Indian business recently.

Mu Sigma founder Dhiraj Rajaram’s split with his wife Ambiga, who was also the CEO of the company, was well documented in the media. The dust settled only after a hefty settlement was agreed upon by both parties.

Mu Sigma founders Dhiraj Rajaram and Ambiga.

This week saw another ugly spat spill out in the open. Sandeep Aggarwal, Founder of Droom and Co-founder at ShopClues, burst out against his wife on social media, accusing her of several wrongdoings, including adultery. In this whole episode, the wife has so far chosen to remain silent. But with these stories of irreconcilable differences between couple-preneurs coming out in public in quick succession, it has led many to question whether couples should be in the same business at all.

Last year, when Dhiraj Rajaram spoke with YourStory, he admitted that while the divorce was real, he only feared that the media would sensationalise the episode. “The company is going to go from strength to strength, and our personal lives will not affect it,” Dhiraj had told YourStory.

In fact, a relevant question pertaining to this trend is whether such breakups happen due to the stress of running a company together, or whether it is just a simple case of two people, who happen to run a company together, choosing to part ways. The latter seems more likely of the two, and has no bearing on the companies in question. A breakup in a marriage does not represent a breakup in the company, unlike a spat between two co-founders whose visions do not converge anymore, in which case they either split the company or shut it down.

In fact, husband-wife duos have been fairly successful in the Indian context. There are several examples of this before us.

Husband-wife duo businesses are thriving

“Spouses who run businesses together need to have their personal lives sorted before they take the plunge. Rules and competencies should be defined so as to have in place clear boundaries in the business,” says K. Ganesh, Co-founder of Growth Story. Ganesh and his wife Meena have successfully built and exited several businesses, which includes TutorVista for a reported Rs 700 crore. Says Ganesh,

“Breakups are common these days, and a couple of incidents do not mean that couples cannot run startups together. There are successful businesses run by couples. It is no different from a friendship between two startup founders – if things work out, you stay on, otherwise, you split.”

There are several such businesses that are thriving. Amagi Media Labs, Campus Sutra, and Chumbak are but a few examples that have shown the world that couples, in fact, make good business partners. There are large companies such as Biocon, where Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the Chairman and her husband, John Shaw, is the Vice Chairman.

“It is a very thin line, but you have to own up to your mistakes and have clarity in your roles while working together. The most important thing to do is to not bring work back home, which is a difficult thing to do for most people,” says Khushboo Agarwal, Co-founder of Campus Sutra, whose husband Dhiraj is also a Co-founder of the company. She adds that if the personal relationship is fine, then the business relationship will flow smoothly.

They have the following advice for couples running a company together, ensure the following:

  • Clarity in roles must be followed.
  • Do not repeatedly remind the other of failed business experiments.
  • Resolve issues, no matter what they are, by speaking openly.
  • Do not take work home.
  • Take the support of the larger family if there are kids to tend to.
  • Relationships come first; business is second.

“In the end, if the personal chemistry does not work, nothing really falls into place. But for a couple who have an understanding with each other, it is easy to run a business, as they trust each other and agree to win and lose together,” says Dhiraj of Campus Sutra.

Recently, YourStory spoke with Adi Tatarko, Founder of Houzz.com, and she stressed the same dynamic of couple-preneurs separating the personal aspect of their lives from the business aspect. In her case, she and her husband, Alon Cohen, took to decorating and designing interiors as a hobby initially, which later grew to become a big business. She attributed her and her husband’s humble beginnings as a key factor in building a successful business.

In the US alone, the National Federation of Independent Business, which tracks small businesses, says that there are between 800,000 and slightly more than one million businesses run by husband-wife teams.

Finally, it's not always easy for couples running a business together to keep their personal lives separate from their work. “But that never is the problem,” says Ganesh, adding, “If both parties care for each other and share mutual respect, then there is no problem.” In the past, father, son, and daughter-run businesses have split, and brothers have run businesses built by their grandfathers into the ground. These are conflicts that have existed since the beginning of organised business. Husband-wife-run businesses need not be looked at any differently. Some will make it and most won’t.

 

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