Skills and roles of couples that help their businesses flourish

BT Weekend gets into the Valentine's Day mood by talking to couples whose roles and skills complement one another in making their lifestyle businesses flourish. 


Gerald Shen and Diana Chan
Co-founders of Vanda Fine Clothing

What started off as a joke and an ultimatum has since become a roaring online business for Gerald Shen and Diana Chan. The married couple run Vanda Fine Clothing, which creates handmade neckties and pocket squares.

Mr Shen and Ms Chan, both 29, first met back in 2003, when they were students in the same junior college. But they only started dating after they left school, in 2004, and got married in 2013.

Back in the day, the couple shared a hobby, of making pocket squares for Mr Shen's personal use. "I would ask Diana, can you make me a pocket square?," says Mr Shen. Ms Chan, who has an interest in sewing, and would often take apart clothes and put them back together again, took on the challenge.

With the extra pocket squares that she made, Mr Shen began selling them through an online forum, to much success. "The money made paid for our holidays and expenses," says Ms Chan.

Seeing how there was a huge market for handmade pocket squares - most of their customers were and are still from the US - Mr Shen would often joke with Ms Chan about starting a business creating these pieces. But for a long time, it remained an idea.

He would be the one taking orders, while she does all the sewing. Their idea of a date was not going to the movies, but the two would often be holed up at their parents' homes filling up orders.

"One day, I gave Gerald an ultimatum. Either he learns to sew as well or we give up doing it altogether," says Ms Chan.

At the back of his mind, Mr Shen was thinking about starting a business, and since he often joked about running a business with Ms Chan, they decided to turn it into reality. "We both liked the idea of turning this hobby into a business. We had nothing to lose, and if we failed, we would look for jobs," says Mr Shen. Vanda Fine Clothing started in 2011.

"My first reaction, when I had to learn sewing, was one of disbelief," says Mr Shen, who has since gotten the hang of it, and at times finds it calming. Ms Chan chimes in: "Gerald's sewing skills are very good now. Even when I look at a completed piece, I cannot tell who has sewn it."

The two run the business full-time with two employees. The tasks are split between them all, depending on competency. For example, Mr Shen is in charge of cutting the fabrics, such as vintage kimono fabrics from Japan, as well as other fabrics from Europe, into desired pieces. Ms Chan, who is the more organised partner, is in charge of processing the orders. He says that she is better at coming up with product designs, while she says that he is better at thinking up business ideas.

They have their roles down pat, but Ms Chan says that during the early years of their business, they waged cold wars. Ms Chan cites the example of how when they stepped into the office in the mornings, Mr Shen would chill out a little, and enjoy his coffee before starting work. Ms Chan, on the other hand, would dive head on into work immediately. "I would often ask Gerald why he is relaxing instead of working," she says. "It took me some time to figure out that if I gave Gerald time in the morning to do his thing, it would be a peaceful work day."

He on the other hand, found that his wife was not that great at prioritising tasks. "Diana is the sort that once she starts on something, she has to finish it, even though there are more urgent tasks at hand," he says. He would point out what should be done first, and in turn, she would take his advice and work on more urgent matters.

The cold wars would usually last half a day or the whole day. "We leave work together at the end of the day, so we would end up talking to each other by then," says Ms Chan.

The couple have spent time with each other nearly every day since they began dating. "Friends often ask how we can stand seeing each other, since we work together, and outside of work, but it's very natural for us," says Ms Chan.

Mr Shen says he loves his wife for being "extremely thoughtful", especially when he is sometimes forgetful and leaves things in a mess. "She'll be the one putting things back where they belong."

She on the other hand credits her husband for "taking my dream further". Ms Chan always had plans to create her own dresses, but "I'm not so ambitious".

"But with Gerald's support, my plan can be a reality." Indeed, the duo have plans to start a women's clothing line soon.

With their work cut out for them, the business can run smoothly even when one partner is away. "When Gerald is away on reservist, the processing of orders will be a little slower, but still manageable," says Ms Chan.

Mr Shen jokes: "If Diana goes away, I might be in trouble."

'We are a team'

Syaira Suhimi and Ashraf Alami
Owners of Fluff Bakery

It is not difficult to notice the constant playful banter between Syaira Suhimi, 28, and her husband Ashraf Alami, 34, who recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary.

Asked how they met, Ms Syaira says: "We met through Facebook, when he messaged to chat with me because he was bored." Mr Ashraf immediately interrupts and says: "Hang on, let me tell my side of the story."

It turns out that a mutual friend of theirs introduced them to each other, and after chatting on Facebook, he decided to ask her out. They went for a sushi dinner and a movie. "She wasn't interested in me, but went along, for a free meal and movie," he jokes.

But three months after they started dating, Mr Ashraf knew he wanted to marry Ms Syaira. "Somehow I just knew," he says. She needed a little more convincing, and said yes eventually, after noticing his sincerity, and how "he was willing to do anything to make me happy", she says.

In 2013, the couple quit their jobs - she was in public relations, while he was a tutor - and started a business together, selling cupcakes in the Kampong Glam area. "I knew that Syaira wasn't happy in her old job, and her dream was to own a bakery," says Mr Ashraf. "On my part, I knew I wanted to start a business, but had no idea what it would be."

For some years, Ms Syaira had been selling homemade cupcakes, and had also supplied to Penny University Cafe. Neither had experience in starting a business but they decided to take the plunge. "We had nothing to lose, and better to start now, than later, when we have kids," says Ms Syaira. Mr Ashraf did the sums, and found that it made more sense for them to open their own bakery, than for Ms Syaira to hold onto her previous job and do baking on the side.

When they first started, they sold 600 cupcakes a day. Today, the couple who have 13 full-time staff, sell about 1,600 cupcakes a day. Their cupcakes are certified Halal, and about 75 per cent of their customers are Muslims.

Mr Ashraf remembers the first time he found out that Ms Syaira bakes. "I'm not a fan of cupcakes," he says. "But after tasting hers, I was blown away."

When it comes to business, each person has a clear role. Ms Syaira is the baker, and her role is to train the staff and to create different flavoured cupcakes, such as ondeh ondeh, chendol and Milo. When she comes up with unusual flavours, she runs them by him. One time, she made a maple pancake and beef bacon flavoured cupcake, which he didn't think would sell. "I don't think the market is ready for such an unusual flavour," he says. Turns out that he was wrong. "I've been proven wrong many times," he quips.

Mr Ashraf's role in the business is to decide on the pricing of goods, the direction of the business and also to handle the accounts.

The couple say that they don't have big fights, but there are issues that they disagree with. Pricing of the cupcakes is one. "Most times, I ask Syaira, are you sure this price is right," says Mr Ashraf. Ms Syaira says: "Ashraf usually considers several factors before he decides on the price, he's better at that."

Both say the business wouldn't work, if they had to change roles. "I don't like baking," says Mr Ashraf. "I'll run the business to the ground," says his wife.

Outside of work, the topic of babies is another issue that the couple didn't see eye to eye on initially. "Many of my friends have kids, and I also want one," she says. He, on the other hand, has now agreed to the idea as the business is now more stable.

Spending nearly 24 hours with each other every day, Ms Syaira says "we have a one-arm length's marriage". But they wouldn't want to have it any other way. "Our relationship works because our skills complement each other," says Mr Ashraf. "It doesn't matter who's right or wrong when we disagree, because we are a team."

A deeper understanding

Colin Seah and Joy Chan Seah
Directors at Ministry of Design

Architecture-trained designer Colin Seah says that when he first saw Joy Chan Seah 14 years ago, he knew she was the one - a voice had told him that he would take care of her for life. But little did they think that not only would they be married, but be working together as well.

The couple first met at a bible study class. "We were so different. I was a sports jock and into touch rugby. Colin did pottery and was into the culture stuff," she says.

As they lived near each other, Mr Seah would send her home after class. "I found it strange that he would give me rides home, but never ask me out. I even wondered if he is gay," she recalls.

On his part, he says that he took sending her home as a way to develop the friendship. In the end, she asked him out, and their first date was at Jurong Point to watch a movie and later hang out at a coffeeshop.

Ms Chan Seah says that their courtship period was an intense one. "We had different characters and upbringing, and we also saw each other every day."

Mr Seah recalls the times when he would wait for Ms Chan Seah, then a business consultant, to finish work. "I remember once I cooked a New Year's Eve dinner for her, and at 11pm, she was still at work."

He jokes that their emotional roles were reversed. "She behaves more like a man, and won't talk, whereas I'm more like a woman. My family will talk over everything," he says.

Their different backgrounds and characters often lead to disagreements, but yet, this meant that they could introduce to each other their world.

They got married in 2002, when he was 29, and she was 23.

The thought of working together didn't cross their minds, and it only happened when Ministry of Design was moving to a bigger office in 2007. "There were two other designers with me then, and Joy came to the new office and said, 'you all are so organisationally challenged'. She was then in between jobs, and ended up joining the design firm."

Neither had experience working in a local architecture firm. "We didn't know the ins and outs but we would figure out what made sense," says Ms Chan Seah.

"With Joy joining the firm, it freed me up to focus on the design aspect of work," says Mr Seah, who is the firm's design director. Mr Seah's projects include the New Majestic Hotel and the Macalister Mansion in Penang.

As director of business development, Ms Chan Seah oversees the finances, contracts, public relations and human resources. "Joy is my paymaster," says Mr Seah. His wife doesn't contribute design-wise, but Mr Seah says that after being together for 14 years, "she definitely has more awareness about design now".

The couple admit that in their early days of working together, they would have arguments in front of their staff. "They used to go uh- oh, the 'parents' are fighting again, but now we fight with more graciousness," says Ms Chan Seah.

She says that there was a time, when she did consider leaving the company. "It was the recession, and work was slow, and I felt it was my fault," she recalls. "But I knew that if I left the company, there would be detrimental consequences."

Mr Seah remembers that time. "For months, I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Joy was giving me the cold shoulder, and I thought there was something wrong with the relationship."

The issue was brought up. "When Colin told me that it is alright if I wanted to leave the company, because he valued our marriage more than work, I was really touched",she recalls. He adds: "I could always downsize the firm if I had to."

The couple start and finish work together, and they make it a point not to talk about work from Friday evenings till Monday mornings.

Mr Seah says that because they are married, and not just colleagues, "we tend to take each other for granted. We may use less care in our choice of words, because we have a bond that we will not break. That's the downside."

The upside being, "we have a deeper understanding of the struggles we share",says Mr Seah.

Ms Chan Seah adds: "Our skills are complementary, so we are able to work together."

Brain and brawn combo

Gan Guo Yi and Indra Katono
Owners of Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall

When it comes to running their business, Indra Katono is the "brains" behind the concept while his wife Gan Guo Yi is the "brawn" behind the operations.

It was a natural allocation of roles too, and dates back to when they were still dating and conducting research before opening their bar Jigger & Pony in 2012. At the time, Ms Gan was still working with Singapore Airlines, while Mr Katono had a job in finance.

"Wherever she went, she would research the bars there. I was the research analyst back at the desktop, sending her maps of where to go," says Mr Katono.

Down the road, this has hardly changed, and resulted in a funny anecdote about the construction phase of their latest venture - a steakhouse named Sugarhall.

"Both of us would go to the site, and maybe because I'm male and most people in the construction business are male, they kept coming up to me and telling me 'Indra, the this-and-that got problems'. I'll just go, 'uhh, ask Guo Yi'," says Mr Katono, pointing sheepishly at his wife.

Laughing, Ms Gan adds: "It's like how to open an account, what you need to do first, the step by step organisation, and the one thing he's not good at that all women are good at - nagging. That's my job."

The pair first met in 2009 at a (surprise, surprise) bar - Ice Cold Beer at Emerald Hill. Mr Katono recalls: "It was Tuesday night, the bar was full. I was there with a colleague after work and we had no seats, but he happened to be acquainted with (Gan) so we joined the table, chit-chatted, and I got her number, and then I had to chase her real hard."

The story differs slightly from Ms Gan's perspective, however, as she shares: "(Katono) was with his colleague, whom I had just met recently at a friend's party. I guess it was natural instinct to say, 'would you like to join us?', but I wasn't expecting them to take up the offer."

What's clearer is it wasn't love at first sight, when asked if they clicked romantically then - Mr Katono guffaws loudly, while Ms Gan grins and says "definitely not romantically". Instead, it was through multiple group outings, guided by a natural ability to get along, and topped off with a trip to Bali with a bunch of friends, that they started dating.

Throughout the interview though, the pair steal glances at each other like teenagers in love rather than a couple that have been married for over a year and see each other every day at work. "Some weeks, 24/7 I'm within a 10m radius from her. So I think everything gets amplified when you're stressed or having a conflict. It can be super tiring because when you go home, it carries on. On the flipside, when it's something good, the happiness is also amplified," says Mr Katono.

The secret? Finding time to step away and hang out with their own friends, says Ms Gan. Plus compromise, understanding, and setting the same expectations. "In fact, we were joking that when we start a family, maybe we should have a mission statement and values statement on how we're going to raise our kids," chimes in Mr Katono.

Not that they intend to have any soon though. He says: "They always say life is what happens when you're making other plans, so we always try not to over-plan it, just take things the way it is. If we're blessed with a child, when the time comes, we'll have it. Same thing with the business - we don't have like a five-year goal or something. We'll open a new one if the time is right."

Different approaches come together

Daryl Tan and Stella Lim
Designers of Stale & Co and Stelliyah

At once rustic looking yet meticulously crafted, the creations by jewellery designers Daryl Tan and Stella Lim seem to arise from duality: Girlie, pastel stones are paired with raw brass to form a dainty ring, while lustrous silver is deliberately hammered to create a bark-like texture. And the duo behind the brands Stale & Co and Stelliyah, jewellery lines for men and women respectively, complement each other through their seemingly clashing traits.

"When it comes to our work, we're the extreme opposites of each other. Stella is the one who is more fluid and tends to go with the flow to allow her creativity to go wild; whereas I'm the logical planner and must have everything executed in a systematic manner," says Mr Tan. "Interestingly though, Stella is the neat and organised one in the studio and I'm the messy one (and I'll always get a earful for that)."

The two would work on both collections for men and women, and also run workshops to introduce the basics of their trade as well as showcase the laborious process of crafting their seemingly basic pieces. Whenever a new jewellery item is made, they would give it to the other to wear to test drive the product.

"The entire foundation of the business is really based on two very different approaches to design: Stella is very intrigued by rustic and imperfect beauty, whereas I'm obsessed with clean lines and the order of things, and how these two approaches come together to create accessories that are wearable pieces of art," explains Mr Tan. "It is amazing how our differences in design directions can slowly steer from the extreme ends of the spectrum to meet in the middle, resulting in something unique and surprising even to ourselves."

Having met in school, the couple got together only after graduation - almost seven years ago. However, the two brands were only launched last year. "We both majored in creative studies, so our connection began in a more creative manner as we were both very much into photography, music, fashion, design and what not," reveals Ms Lim. "But it was only after a while that we realised we clicked on so many other levels and then the romantic part naturally stepped in."

Both brand names are adapted from Ms Lim's nicknames and came about when she decided to make a rosary by hand as a gift for Mr Tan when he was baptised. She pursued her interest in jewellery-making through a basic metal-smithing course at Jewellery Design and Management International School (JDMIS).

"I guess when we first started out, it was rather intense as we were getting used to having to balance it out - being work partners and as a couple," says Mr Tan, who declares that the two hardly have major fights. "And over time, and of course after a few arguments here and there, we have somehow managed to find that balance by always discussing what went wrong and to reason it out logically with each other on how to resolve the problem at hand. Well, sometimes a chocolate or two for Stella works fine as well!"

Love is their common language

Andrew Tan and Mitsuko Murano
Founders of lifestyle boutique Atomi

Their relationship sounds like something out of an Asian drama series, and starting a business purely cemented this couple's cross- cultural romance.

"We met in late 2002 via a friend who is my junior college buddy. It was love at first sight and I immediately went after her when she just arrived in Singapore to work in a Japanese company," recalls Andrew Tan, co-founder of Japanese lifestyle boutique Atomi alongside his wife, Mitsuko Murano.

"Never did we expect to be in the creative or retail industry. I was a management consultant then and she was working in a Japanese cosmetics company. Love is our common language, as we work in totally different industries, from two different countries, grew up and studied in two totally different environments."

A self-professed "true blue Singaporean" who was educated in Singapore right up to university, Mr Tan first met Ms Murano 12 years ago in Singapore, when she first moved here.

"When I first knew her, she was a Japanese who spoke English with a strong American accent," says Mr Tan. "Now, she has assimilated very well and understands and appreciates the Singaporean style of English, culture and food."

In 2009, the couple extended their romantic relationship into a business partnership by establishing an intimate, independent boutique in Mandarin Gallery retailing Japanese design products, ranging from exclusive ceramic tea services to minimalist furniture. Its name, Atomi, is a portmanteau of "a" for "Andrew", "mi" for "Mitsuko" and "to" which means "and" in Japanese.

But as close as they may be as a couple, their job scopes are clearly defined at work: For example, technical negotiations, the vetting of Japanese contracts or dealing with suppliers who can only understand Japanese are handled by Ms Murano. Mr Tan manages the business aspects of operations, accounts, public relations, marketing and strategy.

"Andrew will be the one entertaining, drinking and dining with our Japanese contacts, establishing and maintaining the relationship as a figure head, while I serve as an interpreter, in both language and cultural aspects, so that nothing is lost in translation," adds Ms Murano.

However, being partners in love and work means there aren't clear boundaries between business and personal time. And because the pair run their own small business, it means they both have to be incredibly hands on.

"It's very intense as I am a workaholic," admits Mr Tan. "I can go on and on, from the moment I am awake to the seconds before sleeping. However, she is someone who is very strong willed in a very quiet way. Probably she is the only one who can stand my pace and keep up with it. We have been working every single day, especially more so over weekends and public holidays."

But despite being together 24/7, the duo hardly gets into heated disagreements, in part because they recognise their strengths rather than intrude on each other's realms of expertise.

"We are probably too busy to have any epic fights over work," admits Mr Tan. "Whatever she does, right or wrong, there is no way for me to offer any better alternative because she is the specialist in Japanese language, culture and ethics. Likewise, she can't interfere much whenever I am speaking in Chinese, Hokkien or any dialect she doesn't understand, be it with my parents, contractors and business associates. Thus, our work is mutually exclusive."

And what makes the fact that the course of true love indeed runs smooth in the case of this couple all the more surprising is that the two are opposites when it comes to their personalities. Although they're both natural left-handers, Mr Tan is more of a non-conformist who is willing to dabble in a variety of interests; whereas Ms Murano bears typical Japanese traits such as being a stickler for rules.

"As we are specialising in all things Japanese, right here in Singapore, this is a business that represents both of us," muses Ms Murano. "Such a unique structure helps as we are always Japanese and Singaporean, husband and wife, with roots and ties in Singapore and Japan. Come what may, we will always be Andrew and Mitsuko, or 'atomi'."

This article was first published on Feb 7, 2015.
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