According to research by the Institute for the Study of Labour on why couples go to business together, starting a business together is a great investment into human capital for spouses and also reduces income inequality within the household.
Starting a business with your spouse can bring you and your partner massive opportunities and lessons that you may never get somewhere else. It is a chance for both of you to join hands over a shared goal, work together under the same mission and vision, and aim to achieve your target.
Couple-grown enterprises have brought a unique touch to the business world. Although there is no magic secret to being successful in business as a couple just as in marriage, running a business with your partner requires lots of respect, great levels of trust, and communication.
There's an old cliche that says that you are not supposed to mix business with pleasure. But for Helen and Dennis Muhanji, who have been married for more than 8 years, that cliche has nothing on them.
Starting a business together has come with a lot of blessings for them as a couple and we got a chance to talk with them to find out how they are making it work both in the entrepreneurial world and at home.
Let’s get started...
Well, the pandemic seems to have been a blessing in disguise for many. Having been sparked by salary cuts during Covid-19, Helen and Dennis decided to start Garvins Royal Academy in November 2020 which is named after their first son - Garvin Muhanji. The school is located in Fedha Estate - Church Court.
“What brought us into starting our own was the fact that Covid-19 came in and we had challenges with our places of work because we had to go through half salaries and sometimes unpaid leaves. And we thought, why don’t we have our own? So we came to a conclusion that we need to start and my wife resigned from her place of work to come and manage the school.
And because we were surviving on half pay during the time, we were not contributing anything to our SACCOs and no bank could give us a loan. We had a small car which we decided to sell and we used the proceeds to start humbly. That is how we started,” Dennis recalls.
The couple has always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and they always wanted to start a business together although according to them, they were waiting for the right time.
Therefore, the decision to resign from her former school where she was the headteacher in the earliest stages of starting Garvins Royal Academy wasn’t really a challenge. It was time and she was ready. Although, that doesn’t mean that they never experienced a few struggles here and there. How was the transition for them?
“The process was a bit tough, very tough. It was not easy. You know beginning any business is not easy. After we sold our car and got the funds, that was the beginning for us. We are both teachers and so making the transition from being employed to owning our own wasn’t hard because this is our passion. We love kids. I am a P1 teacher and my husband is an ECD teacher. We began with 25 students and that was just amazing,” Helen says
Studies show that couples who are married are more likely to go into business together than those who are dating because they feel a sense of ownership. Before venturing into business with your spouse, it’s important for both of you to have a sit-down and agree on ownership/management and your priorities.
There are many power couples around the world doing very well in the business. The same applies to Kenya as well. Talk of Narendra Raval and Neeta Raval - the owners of Devki Group of Companies, who according to Forbes their company was amassing $650 million in annual revenues as of 2018.
Sarah and Simon Kabu are another couple making it big in the corporate world with Bonfire Adventures which they began with a start-up capital of less than Ksh23,000. But how do they manage to run these businesses together so well?
“For us, I’d say it’s easier. Running the business with my husband hasn’t been a challenge. I’m always in the school managing it as he deals with other things like our suppliers, etc. but before I make any decision, I have to involve him.
We are both directors. We are both managers of Garvins Royal Academy. However small the decision is, we have to consult each other before embarking on it...”
“In addition, I would agree with my wife that it’s easier running a business as a couple because there is sharing of ideas and coming to a consensus in decision making. So it becomes easy because we have two great minds put together and are focusing towards the same goal and when we bring our thoughts in one place, we are able to achieve more.
“The same respect we accord to each other at home is the respect we accord to each other at work. We see each other as partners, lovebirds, and family and so it is easier to relate and run things around the school smoothly.” Dennis adds.
Getting a business up and on its feet, hiring staff, and investing in development among many other details may often put a couple’s/family’s budget on a tight roll. Couples who have business may have to wait for longer periods before actually paying themselves or seeing the business’s profitability.
How have the directors of Garvins Royal Academy been handling finances?
“Mhhhh, well everything has to be planned. We don’t have impulse buying. We do budgeting early for the whole term knowing the income versus the expenditure. That is how we manage our finances to make sure we don’t waste funds and we do not go outside our budget.” says Dennis.
“I can’t say right now we are on payroll with my husband. Not really, because you know we are still settling. It’s not easy to fully settle. But that’s in our plans for the future as the school continues to progress. For now, we are just focusing on our employees, students who are now 125 with ongoing admissions, and the growth of the school.” Hellen Adds.
Sometimes people get so involved in their work and businesses that it outweighs every other thing. The desire to rise professionally can be an addiction that could take you away from your family if not well figured out.
Creating a harmonious balance is tricky but that’s the way out. How do the Muhanjis handle both business and family?
“I can say it’s not easy. Sometimes we are forced to leave the office very late, maybe the children are all asleep. At times we leave the house so early while they’re still sleeping as well.
“However, we have found a way to maximize our weekends and spend quality time with the children. Any little time we get with them, even during the week, we ensure that we make it count. Balancing is very key for us,” Helen says.
David Harland, a family business advisor says;
“Employing family members in your business can conversely be both a tremendous help and sometimes a hindrance. As a family business advisor, I have seen families where a family member may work 12 hour days as their “duty” and other family enterprises where a position in the business is seen as a right. Neither practice is correct, but they are difficult to address once entrenched.”
Would Dennis and Helen be comfortable hiring a family member as part of their staff?
“Family… There is that respect which you would like to accord one another. There’s the aspect of being a boss at your place of work and there’s the aspect of being a brother or a sister. Ahh… We can reach a point of employing a family member as long as they differentiate between the two. Where they are not ready to acknowledge and differentiate, it makes it tricky. There have to be clear boundaries.” Dennis explains.
Many couples are afraid of investing together due to different reasons. According to Nicole Torres, a former business editor at Harvard Business Review, most couples fear to invest together due to unclear working roles and the need to also balance family responsibilities.
Helen and Dennis mentioned that mutual support from each other and striking a balance between their roles at work, and at home is central for them and for their business.
When asked whether their relationship would be affected if the business ever went down this was their response.
“Our personal relationship wouldn’t really be affected if that ever happens. We’ve been down once and we’ve dealt with the challenge of being broke. So I don’t think it will be something new in case it happens. Ahhh... Because that’s something that we’ve passed through before and we are past it,” says Dennis.
Helen picks from where her husband left and adds;
“Just the way my husband puts it, we’ve been down. So whether we are in abundance or lack we are always good. Whether the business is there or not we are still tied up together. It’s for better and for worse.”
Their advice to couples who wish to get into business together? Helen looks at Dennis signaling him to go first.
Dennis says, “An advice to anyone who wants to start a business generally is to never think of themselves especially when starting out. The reason is you are still taking one step at a time with the business trying to move it forward.
“Fear is there, but once you deal with it you are good to go. Leave alone the capital. For couples wishing to start a business together, stretch the respect and friendship into your vision for the business.”
“Trust is key,” Helen adds. “Because to me, my husband is my number one supporter. Go for it. Support each other and that will make you succeed even more. Be open to sharing ideas and opinions with one another and weigh matters before you settle or make a decision.”