Couplepreneurs: Business With Bae

Couplepreneurs on the balancing act of business and relationships

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Nine couples share tips on how they make marriage and business co-exist.

Leading by example

Sumeet Mehta and Smita Deorah, Co-founders, LEAD

Started in 2012 by Sumeet Mehta and Smita Deorah, LEAD was born in Areri, 35 km from Ahmedabad, with just 14 students on day one. Sumeet completed his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and went on to work with Procter & Gamble in Singapore. But the small-town boy in him always thought about how the gap in education in metros as compared to a non-metro city affected children and their future. When he and his wife, Smita, left their cushy, corporate jobs in Singapore in 2012, they knew they had to build something meaningful in India. It led them to start LEAD and they are addressing the challenges associated with low fee schools with School Edtech solutions. Entering the Unicorn club after its recent Series E funding of $100 million, LEAD became the first School EdTech company to get the Unicorn status. Today, LEAD serves 3,000+ schools across 400+ cities and reaches more than 1.2 million students and 25,000+ teachers. Talking about the support the couple provides each other, the couple states, “Both of us are quite driven so the best support we give each other is to tell the other person went to take their foot off the accelerator. And be there as a sounding board to discuss ideas.”

When asked about sharing key roles played by their partner, Sumeet says, “If Smita had not chosen to persist with the company when we were at our lowest point, we would not be where we are today.” While Smita states, “If Sumeet had not pushed to accelerate growth from 150 to 2000 schools, we would not be here today.” Sharing tips for others, the couple states in unison, “During tense moments it is best to disengage because then we are able to respond and not react.”

The Hustle Couple

Rishi Das and Meghna Agarwal, co-founders, IndiQube

Couples that hustle together, stay together. The story of Meghna Agarwal and Rishi Das was similar as they co-founded IndiQube. The idea of IndiQube came to the couple very unexpectedly as Rishi was leading CareerNet and Meghna was leading HirePro. The speed at which they grew led to them moving out of their respective office space every other year. The couple decided to lease a large property and sub-lease a part of the office to the clients, majorly start-ups. Their clients started requesting access to infrastructure like meeting rooms, food court, internet and services like transport, asset maintenance and housekeeping. This is when they realized that there is a huge gap in the commercial real estate industry between premium tech parks & independent landlord owned buildings. The couple went on to create IndiQube, a managed office space brand that provides accessible, affordable & personalized workspaces.

The first time the two connected was through an online matrimonial platform and sparks flew the instant they met. They carried their initial chemistry to work and have developed a strong mutual respect for each other. The couple consciously decided to position themselves as an Enterprise Managed Office Space brand that provides accessible, affordable and personalized workspaces. This approach yielded great results for them as 85 per cent of the company’s clientele are enterprises.

“I think the ecosystem that we have built both at home and at work played a key role in handling any uncomfortable moments that may have occurred in our journey thus far. Family, friends, and colleagues that you could bank on, often help wither down the effects of these uncomfortable moments and aid in getting you back to normalcy sooner,” commented Meghna on handling uncomfortable moments.

According to Rishi, there were many moments which they believed to be impossible, transitioned to reality sooner than later. From bootstrapping IndiQube and onboarding its first few clients to scaling IndiQube into a Pan India operator with 60-plus properties & 80,000-plus seats, the couple believe that it has always been about focusing on a common goal, albeit choosing different paths. It was about having a good life, celebrating the milestones together and gunning for common objectives. The sudden emergence of COVID had put doubts in people’s mind regarding the growth of the sector. IndiQube, however, has been able to grow its business over 25 per cent annually.

The couple’s advise to other blooming couplepreneurs is to be open and honest with their spouse and express their emotions honestly. They also have to put in effort to communicate effectively and share the load. The couple on how to handle uncomfortable moments, “When uncomfortable moments arrive, we need to ensure that we don’t get stuck in the heat of the moment. Park the topic and sleep over it. Take the next day as a fresh start and pick up the topic once things settle down. The key is to not try winning these uncomfortable moments by giving back to your partner then and there.”

Tea-ming Up!

Kausshal Dugarr, Founder and CEO of Teabox, and Prachi Jain, Co-Founder and Brand Director of Teabox

Prachi was 21 then, fresh out of college beaming with ideas and energy with very little interest in relationships. It was around that time her parents decided that it was high time they found her a suitable boy. It was one fine summer day in Kolkata when she met Kausshal. “I remember the first thing he did ask me on meeting him was if I liked to read books. Previously, I had met a couple of other prospects and none of them had even bothered to ask me about my interests. I was enchanted by the conversation, he was as enthusiastic about his dreams back then as he is now, maybe even more. But I couldn’t bring myself to be swayed by his charm and give up my hard-earned career, so I decided to reject him, something we laughed about even today.

However, we did decide to stay in touch. We exchanged numbers and soon casual conversations stretched into midnights about our dreams of the future.” Stolen moments over a cup of tea were spent sketching our plans for a company that would bring fresh Indian teas to the world. Amidst all this, the burgeoning idea began to take place that they could perhaps build a life together without having to make any sacrifices. Of all the proposals I have received, he was the person who found a way to keep her and her dreams along with his and realized life with him would be better than without. So the next time he asked her again to be with him, she decided, to say yes.

Talking about their partnership, Dugarr says,Diversity of both background/education/gender is a real plus. As we both are very different, and such has really helped us achieve a combination of the yin & yang.”

Sharing the role of their partner in building Teabox, Dugarr says, “If she had not led our branding, I don’t think Teabox would be anywhere close to where it is.” While Prachi says, “It won't be where it is if it was not for the decision that he took some 8 years back to sell and promote Indian teas online when literally no one believed in the idea that tea could be sold online.” Discipline and Balance in everything. These are the two rules the couple plays by.

Talking about achieving the impossible together, Prachi says, “I think it's now become difficult to distinguish impossible or difficult vs normal situations but, yes I remember one when I was pregnant and Kausshal was setting up our new office in Bangalore. Every weekend he would travel to Siliguri managing both the offices.” While Dugarr states, “How Prachi opened all our offline stores literally from scratch in a very complex environment of Indian airports.” For any tense moments, the couple always calls it a day with a good cup of tea.

Staying in Love

Devendra Parulekar and Tejas Parulekar, Founders, SaffronStays

Devendra and Tejas first met in the canteen of Podar College, somewhere in 1994-95. It was right after their third year’s annual day in 1996 that they started dating. After finding their common interests of trekking, eating out and travelling the couple decide to tie the knot on 1st December, 2001.

Talking about deciding on the right time to startup as a couple, they mention, “The biggest stumbling block we had to overcome before we took off was ensuring that we are debt-free, we have a house, our savings are enough to help us sail through a few years and there’s enough safety net that we’ve created for ourselves to take the calculated risk at the right time in our life.”

In August 2013, they started the work on SaffronStays while the real work started in January 2014 when they commenced work on technology. After launching the aggregator model in Feb 2015 is when they also started doing sales. Until then, they were only acquiring supply. The company pivoted to the current model in December 2015 that’s when Deven decided to quit EY & joins full-time in July 2016. Deven looks after the Demand chain and tech part of the business while Tejas looks at the Supply chain and operations at SaffronStays.

Talking about how they complement each other, Deven says, “I’m someone who is riskier, thinks bigger and constantly comes up with new initiatives and ideas. She’s the one ensuring that all the work we’re planning to do and all that is under process sees the light of the day.” 

 When asked how they think together on a subject, DEVEN mentions, “It builds over time. I'm the one who usually outlines a new problem, comes up with an outlier solution, which usually gets rejected outright  There’s a RAMA model to this phase - Rejection-Agitation-Modification-Acceptance. After some bickering and negotiations, a period of cooling off, taking a walk and coming up with a far more credible solution.”

While 2020 was about surviving Covid-19, and 2021-22 was about deepening and focussing on a cluster approach in an independent market like Maharashtra, and constantly raising the service and quality standards, 2022-23 will be all about Pan India expansion. The plan is to continue adding 15-20 homes a month in 16 chosen sectors across 7 Indian states. On the future front Tejas mentions, “In the last two years, we’ve also worked extensively on our quality. For instance, we’ve introduced the ‘House of Brands’ concept, which focuses on structuring the homes under three categories - SaffronStays, Signature & X Series. Along with this, we’ve introduced a simple management contract with transparent commercial arrangements, which offers a completely hassle-free renting experience to home owners where everything is managed by our team. Simultaneously, we’ve also expanded our tech team to make all stakeholders’ experience digital-first - be it automation, design-led innovation, developing micro-products among other things.”

Weaving the Thread of Love

Aditi Chand & Udit Khanna, co-founders, Tilfi

Udit and Aditi first met in 2003 as classmates in St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University where both of them were pursuing their undergraduate studies in Mathematics. In the third year of college in 2005, both of them started seeing each other. “A fateful internship after our second year of college had us working for the same bank in Mumbai. Needless to say, we came back to Delhi quite smitten,” states Aditi. The couple eventually got married in 2012 after 7 years of dating.

Talking about companionship, Udit adds, “We have been classmates twice now, both in our undergraduate studies and again during our MBA at INSEAD. Completing our MBA as a married couple, led to several interesting moments as our personality and academic differences were unmistakable.”

Udit’s family had a flourishing business in Amritsar and used to supply textiles to the whole of North India and Pakistan. When India’s partition happened in 1947, like the fate of many businesses then, all family assets and the entire business were lost. The family moved base to Srinagar and set up a retail clothing business. The business soon achieved success, however, the situation in Kashmir became unstable and the family once again had to leave everything behind and moved to Varanasi in the 1960s. Starting from scratch in Varanasi, this time in Banarasi handloom textiles, with a very keen design aesthetic and honest business practices, his grandfather built his reputation in the trade. Udit’s father took over the reins from his father and continued to grow the business until it reached its peak. As wholesalers of handwoven textiles, his family was firmly entrenched in this business, when things changed drastically in the late 90s and 2000s. Changing consumer preferences, the proliferation of creations made on power-looms and the gradual decline of weaving traditions in artisan families resulted in a steady contraction of the business.

Ujjwal - Udit’s brother, Aditi and Udit had never really planned on joining the business. However, a chance conversation with a weaver in 2013 inspired their journey back to the roots. Born in Banaras in 2016, as a digitally-native, crafts-led, luxury brand, Tilfi brings the beauty and cultural wisdom of age-old craftsmanship of Banaras to the world. Udit heads marketing, new business development and customer experience, and Aditi heads communications, strategy and operations.

Talking about the growth of the brand, Udit mentions, “Almost 99% of our revenue currently comes from our brand-owned e-commerce website, and it is worthwhile to note that we have achieved this without ever having run sales or offers, without offering Cash on Delivery and with a return rate of less than 0.5%. Over the last 4 years, we have grown at a healthy CAGR of close to 55%.”

Since its inception, Tilfi has served around 10,000 customers in over 30 countries. Almost 1,000 of those customers have spent over Rs.100,000. The brand has a repeat customer rate of more than 35% and an average order value in excess of Rs 30,000.

Jumping on the love wagon

Naina & Prateek Ruhail, Co-founders, Vanity Wagon

In 2017, while Naina and Prateek were in Oxford, UK, Naina realised the momentous growth in the clean beauty segment. With the advent of numerous brands in the space in Europe, this definitely looked like a trend that was to stay. Naina started her journey in the beauty sector in 2014 and the clean beauty movement was not only exciting but also something she had been eyeing for a while, given its environment-friendly base. All of this led them back to India in late 2017 and both started work vigorously on a clean beauty concept event, that moves city to city in India and enables access to clean beauty for the Indian consumers, hence the name Vanity “Wagon”. With a back work on the costs and the time this would take to establish, they swiftly moved to an online marketplace model and set it up for the users by Sept 2018.

Right from supporting each other through their educational journeys to working together to build Vanity Wagon, today a 40cr company, Naina & Prateek have been side by side for more than a decade now. Vanity Wagon is a D2C aggregator for Clean Personal Care Products. The website hosts 185 brands, 65 categories and over 5000+ products presently. The startup creates a within reach easy to shop market for all Clean Personal Care needs of Indian consumers.

Talking about working in unison the couple says, “The success can only be tapped when both the partners are focussed on the same goal and purpose. This way the duo’s combined energy and skills enhance. Understanding each other’s skill set and letting them lead in their domain is one of the important lessons we have learnt.”

While on support and encouragement they go by saying, “We don’t let the stress rub off ourselves. We follow digital detox post work and give each other our undivided attention. We help each other identify the blind and give each other the right amount of space at work. Communicating well about work and personal life helps us emerge stronger from each other.”

On handling tense moments, they say, “Uncomfortable moments do arise at times, but we let the person take the final call in his/her respective domain, since, our skills are complementary to each other’s.” Naina is pretty good at conceptualizing new ideas, visioning and culture building. While Prateek is best at finance, strategy and M&A.

The Duo Behind Band Baaja Baaraat

Anand Shahani & Mehak Sagar, Founders, WedMeGood

Anand & Mehak met while interning for Glaxo Smithkline in the marketing department in 2008. Remembering the same Mehak says, “We had to share a computer. You know how they say, before you marry someone see how they react to slow internet. This was that saying being played out in real life.” The couple started dating during their internship in 2008. Anand is from Hyderabad and Mehak from Delhi and continued dating for four years long distance before they got married in June 2012. Talking about their common interests, Mehak laughs, “Currently our interests and hobbies are limited to our 3 yr old toddler Nirvaan, our startupWedMeGood and the latest Netflix series we watch.”

Personality wise both are very different. Anand is a hustler- he’s always in a rush, takes quick decisions, and has a large risk appetite. Mehak is an over thinker, and a little more laid back and more of a creative personality. “Maybe that’s why we make a good founding team, we are at either ends of the spectrum and that helps take balanced decisions,” adds Mehak. Anand handles external stakeholders, and internal ones with a key focus towards the business side. Mehak looks at more of the product, marketing and user acquisition side of things.

Weddings are one of the most impacted industry during COVID-19 and WedMeGood saw revenues tumble overnight. Navigating both wave 1 and wave 2, while trying to do justice to the company, keeping employees safe, and ensuring to weather the storm has been incredibly hard but they have come out stronger. “On the personal front, like most parents ofcourse we went a little bit cuckoo with schools shut and us having to work from home as well as entertain a toddler through the day. So yes...the last 2 years have been hard,” mentions Mehak.

At peak, they had more than 4 lakh unique weddings planned via WedMeGood in a year. Until ’20, they had grown on average at 100% Year over year, revenue wise. Users can browse from profiles of more than 100k wedding vendors across 24 categories, and the length and breadth of the country. The startup has broke even in no less than twice in the journey so far, and is actually on track to be profitable next year. The lean startup has a less than 100 member team currently. On future fromt, Mehak says, “Our plans over the next 2 years will mean we go very deep in our users’ journey. Apart from solving for discovery of wedding vendors (Which we do via detailed storefronts, genuine customer reviews etc), we plan to ease the booking and the execution process.”

Doubling Down on Commerce

Sonakshi Nathani, CEO & Co-founder and Ashutosh Singla, CTO & Co-founder, Bikayi

Sonakshi & Ashutosh have known each other since they were 17 year olds. Both of them started working on coding projects together since college. Met as classmates and have known each other since their college days, the founder duo worked in tech companies before starting Bikayi. In 2018, Ashutosh moved back to India to start Bikayi. Founded in 2019 by IIITians batchmates Sonakshi Nathani and Ashutosh Singla, the company enables small and medium-sized businesses scale up on digital platforms, helping them reach a wider audience. Sonakshi worked for Microsoft India as a software developer and Ashutosh worked with companies like Square, Zenefits in Canada. It all started with Sonakshi observing the chaos created by the existing process used in her family grocery business, back in Raipur. When she discussed these problems with Ashutosh, they both came up with a plan to simplify e-commerce for every business, irrespective of the size, area, or technical expertise of the business. Today Sonakshi takes care of everything, right from building and executing growth-driven strategies, cementing business partnerships, managing market dominance, and delivering innovation for customers and channel partners. Ashutosh on the other hand, looks after tech and product. Talking about dealing with tense moments Sonakshi says, “Any difference of opinion can be discussed and resolved, whether that is between spouses or co-founders. Communication is key. On the other hand, Ashutosh shares his tips saying, “Two individuals that sustain mutual respect for each other are happiest in even the most challenging times. The respect drives trust and faith in the other person to do their best in finding the solution to any problem. When you provide the other individual with the room for growth and their personal development, you create an environment for each other to grow together.” Bikayi raised $10 million led by Sequoia Capital in September 2021. The company currently has more than 5 million+ registered users on the platform.

Investing in each other

Sudarshan Lodha, Co-founder & CEO, and Priyanka Rathore, Co-founder & COO, Strata Property Management

Strata, founded by Sudarshan Lodha and Priyanka Rathore is a leading proptech platform offering fractional ownership in commercial real estate investment. Sudarshan hails from an entrepreneurial family that has been into financing and financing products for decades now. Besides as an experienced legal counsel in the real estate industry, gave him a clear idea about the big opportunity at the intersection of commercial real estate and finance. Priyanka who was working as an analyst with WeWork met Sudarshan through a common friend. As a lead real-estate analyst, she too realised the huge gap in the CRE (Commercial Real Estate) investing space, saw the huge potential in the business opportunity and left WeWork to join Sudarshan to kick-start Strata. The duo thus pioneered fractional ownership in commercial real estate investment in India in 2017 with the launch of Strata.

Sharing an important lesson Sudarshan says, “If you can't trust your partner to have your back, you are not going to survive. As the relationship and the business grows, new variables come into play and you have to trust your partner with their share of the work. It is impossible to grow if you keep second-guessing each other!” While Priyanka adds, “When we have a dispute, we try to come to an amicable solution; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s okay. Ultimately it’s the effort put in that shows we’re still a wonderful team together. We reminisce about all the things we have achieved, it’s our way of encouraging us to consider how far we have come as a person, entrepreneurs, and partners.” While Sudarshan drives innovation and is responsible for leading the company’s strategic roadmap, delivering world-class customer experience and also managing the key resources, Priyanka with a demonstrated history of working in the investment management industry, is deeply involved in Market Research, Management, Cash Flow Analysis, Business Strategy besides new business development.

The couple has fixed rules and is clear about their responsibilities. This ensures not to step on each other’s toes. Priyanka adds, “We also compartmentalise, in a startup, everyone looks to you to lead the way and so it's important to always put up a united front. Disputes are handled privately and we try to not bring them home to the office and vice versa.”

Sharing a pivotal moment about Priyanka, Sudarshan states, “In 2020, we were all working remotely and it was slowly taking a toll on the team. Coordination was breaking down and people were feeling left out. It was Priyanka who pushed for more regular town hall meetings and one-on-one calls to listen to people and boost morale. She also made me realise that it was high time to hire an HR manager. Without those actions, the company would not have grown to the scale it is today.”

In July 2021, Strata raised Series A funding of 6 million and recently added an AUM of INR 500 crore, making them the first company in the segment to cross an AUM of 500 crores. Priyanka concludes by saying, “Empathise, the other person is your partner so trust that they have a rational reason for whatever is happening. When talking about the issue, focus on the problem, not on the person.”