Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 November 2020

Why ‘couples commerce’ is a budget-friendly business model

Spouses who run businesses together make significant operational and staff cost savings, but struggle to balance work and personal life

James Thomas and Kathryn Jones co-own KJ Serums, a UAE skincare company they founded in 2017. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National
James Thomas and Kathryn Jones co-own KJ Serums, a UAE skincare company they founded in 2017. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National

Husband and wife businesses have commonly drawn on the romantic but practical motivation of simply seeking to build a dream together.

Amid economic trauma brought by the pandemic, that enduring business model is also being driven by frugality, convenience and framed by necessity.

As jobs evaporate and domestic budgets tighten, “couples commerce” yields attractive credentials, notably lower overheads and shared goals.

Following a career making life-saving medicines in the UK's biopharmaceutical sector, Kathryn Jones launched a UAE skincare products brand in 2017.

While she had “background knowledge to experiment and develop formulas”, husband James Thomas applied prior experience in a communications agency and as a UK business owner.

Ms Jones, 51, from Wales, says moving to Dubai in 2013 was a turning point, along with “knowing deep down that the corporate role I initially took was not the right fit for me”.

The mother-of-one says KJ Serums began out of necessity, when she couldn’t afford some top skincare brand prices.

“Dubai, being the hub of the beauty sector in the region, was the obvious choice to launch from,” she says. “Its got an entrepreneurial spirit, even during these unprecedented times.”

Another prime component was her husband.

While Ms Jones handles product creation and manufacturing, marketing and customer service delivery, Mr Thomas, 53, oversees delivery logistics, regulatory approvals/compliance, finance and retailer/distributor agreements.

And that brings significant operational and staff cost savings, as well as the positivity of a “cottage industry” with dedicated spouses at its heart.

“Commercially speaking, we feel there has been a noticeable trend towards supporting small local businesses during the pandemic,” says Ms Jones.

This business model has benefits such as minimal overheads, staffing costs, salaries [and] visas

James Thomas, co-founder, KJ Serums

“Once customers know it’s really you behind the brand, they are tremendously supportive.”

Mr Thomas, who also works as a freelance communications consultant, reveals there is a downside and the business model can be a “blessing and a curse”.

“Of course, you have benefits such as minimal overheads, staffing costs, salaries [and] visas,” he says.

“But, there is never an ‘off’ button when your livelihood is in your hands … weekdays, weekends and holidays blend into one seamless work stream.”

Mr Thomas says it’s essential to mark a “formal end” to the working day and week.

“Working so closely together, we have also drawn clear boundaries between our working relationship and our personal relationship ... allowing the two to become intertwined is something we found does not work for us.”

Sandeep and Latika Chawla are married business owners for nine years, since launching Giftbag.ae to fill a gap in the online gift delivery sector. Photo: Courtesy Sandeep and Latika Chawla
Sandeep and Latika Chawla are married business owners for nine years, since launching Giftbag.ae to fill a gap in the online gift delivery sector. Photo: Courtesy Sandeep and Latika Chawla

Latika and Sandeep Chawla, both 36, have experienced the positives and negatives of being married business owners for nine years since launching Giftbag.ae to fill a gap in the online gift delivery sector.

Operationally, Ms Chawla cites “team spirit” and communication as important benefits, including being accessible to each other at all times.

“Also, the understanding levels we share as a couple … no ego clashes, accountability issues, office politics,” she says.

“We share the stress and celebrate the victories of our personal and professional lives – it is a great feeling to live every aspect with your best friend and life partner.”

Ms Chawla, who has an F&B retail background, handles operations, business development and marketing from their Mankhool, Dubai, home.

Money saved is money earned for any small business owner

Sandeep Chawla, co-founder, Giftbag.ae

That arrangement removes office rent while also providing flexibility to work around sons aged 8 and 5, thereby reducing childcare costs and “mum guilt” by upping parental availability.

Mr Chawla runs a wholesale electronics trading business besides managing Giftbag’s strategic planning, decision making and technical demands.

He says the pandemic brought a “huge surge” in business as online shopping peaked, which suited a pay-as-you-go, service-oriented structure, free of management employee salaries.

“Working out of a home office and having only outsourced staff handling the majority of tasks other than the two of us, we do not have fixed liabilities weighing us and the business down.

“Money saved is money earned for any small business owner.”

Mr Chawla also highlights some negatives to their scenario, however, including no fixed incomes/salaries and the inability to switch off from “work mode” on evenings and weekends.

“It is tough as most date nights and any free time is spent discussing work issues,” he adds.

KJ Serums is exposed to elements of that but, while Ms Jones also cites the lack of potential for bonuses, health insurance and other corporate perks, she adds: “It’s always a question of is your glass half empty ... or half full.”

James and Melody Beale are the duo behind new business Curious Elephant Soulful Sauces. She applied foodie knowledge from extensive travels to recipes inspired by her Hong Kong heritage, while her spouse channelled planning, operational and finance skills. Photo: Chris Whiteoak / The National
James and Melody Beale are the duo behind new business Curious Elephant Soulful Sauces. She applied foodie knowledge from extensive travels to recipes inspired by her Hong Kong heritage, while her spouse channelled planning, operational and finance skills. Photo: Chris Whiteoak / The National

In the case of Melody Beale, when her job running corporate events fell casualty to Covid-19’s fall-out, she channelled her love of global foods to start a business with husband James.

Curious Elephant Soulful Sauces was established in May, just a month after the Australian-born Downtown Dubai resident lost her hospitality role. She applied foodie knowledge from extensive travels to recipes inspired by her Hong Kong heritage, while her spouse channelled planning, operational and finance skills.

“The idea of having my own business in the food industry had been there for as long as I can remember,” says Ms Beale, 32.

“The day after I was made redundant, I was scrolling through LinkedIn starting the inevitable job hunt and came across a video about pursuing your dreams and not letting fear of failure get in the way.”

So, she aligned a perceived gap in the market with her aspirations to create freshly made, chilli-based Asian condiments.

UK-born Mr Beale, meanwhile, used his experience from his day job as senior manager for a construction company, including setting up and operating firms in the UAE and beyond.

“Every country has its own hurdles, potential pitfalls to be aware of and ways to work around these and minimise your risk,” says the 36-year-old.

“It is important you try to understand these as best as you can before you start out and start spending money, as many involve incurring additional and unexpected costs, which, as a start-up, can be crippling if you dont have cash to fall back on.”

Mr Beale says he has learnt some of these aspects the hard way.

“They have given me a foundation for operating a business in the UAE, which Mel doesnt have first-hand experience of and would otherwise need to have sought external advice on.”

Ms Beale, who launched an online store last month, acknowledges that losing her job gave her the courage to mobilise an idea that could have remained dormant another 10 years.

Its not easy trying to wear many hats and cover all aspects, but that is the best way to keep overheads under control

James Beale, co-founder, Curious Elephant Soulful Sauces

“And as a couple, obviously the pressure and workload is spread a bit more,” she says, although her husband admits the line between work and personal life does blur sometimes.

“Even when we consciously tell each other we will not talk about Curious Elephant things for an hour over dinner, we always seem to somehow come back to it within 15 minutes,” says Mr Beale.

Both also agree having his wage gives “some level of comfort”, but that it doesn’t cloud their judgement when making business decisions.

“Its easy to take it for granted that every month this money will be coming in when, in the current pandemic situation, nothing is certain,” Mr Beale continues.

“So, we are running Curious Elephant with its own working cashflow, while funding personal expenses from my day job.

“This takes some pressure off the new business to turn an immediate profit and means we dont need to cut corners to achieve short-term profit at the potential cost of long-term goals.”

Overall, Mr Beale embraces the strengths of their business partnership.

“We are quite fortunate that between us we have a spread of skills that, although doesnt quite cover everything, gives a broad understanding of the full business lifecycle,” he adds.

“Its not easy trying to wear many hats and cover all aspects, but that is the best way to keep overheads under control while building customer base and brand awareness.

“Going forward, our plan is to expand our team so that responsibilities and workload can be shared.”

Giftbag’s Ms Chawla anticipates more married couples launching businesses in this uncertain economic climate.

“Small business start-ups are the way to go, and with working from home becoming the new norm, it is very natural for husband and wife teams to start working together towards achieving common goals.

“Being entrepreneurs gives us the independence and confidence to make decisions and live life on our own terms.”

Updated: November 17, 2020 02:11 PM

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