Kim and Mike Musso met in preschool. She worked for Primrose Schools, an early education and child care provider, and was heading up the golf tournament at the company conference. Mike, who then worked for a supplier of classroom and learning resources, was attending the conference and had signed up to play golf. They talked, they dated and 17 years ago, they married, blending their family of five children. In 2012, when the couple decided to go into business together, it was only fitting they chose Primrose as their first joint venture.
“We had always wanted to potentially acquire a school,” said Mike Musso. During the recession, a local franchise location with financial challenges came available. They decided the time was right. With her knowledge of the preschool industry and his experience in turnaround consulting, they turned Primrose School of Alpharetta East into a profitable business, doubling enrollment to more than 100 students.
Now the Alpharetta couple who have owned more than 10 pets over the years are gearing up for their next venture, which incorporates their love of animals. Dogtopia, a dog boarding and grooming studio in Halcyon, is opening soon at the new mixed-use development located in south Forsyth County.
The Mussos have joined the growing number of couples in the metro area who are turning shared passions into business ventures and navigating the ups and downs of blending life and love. Despite the old adage suggesting business and pleasure make poor bedfellows, local couples say that with proper communication, boundaries and conflict management, becoming business partners has only enhanced their relationships.
About 80% of businesses worldwide employ family members, and one-third include co-habiting spouses, according to data from a 2014 discussion paper on entrepreneurial couples. Couples may go into business for economic or noneconomic reasons ranging from limited employment opportunities for one spouse, wealth constraints that may prevent them from launching individual businesses, to greater levels of trust among spouses or pleasure derived from working on a shared passion, according to the research.
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But even the strongest couples can run into trouble as business partners if they don’t plan ahead. “One of the things that couples don’t realize when they are first getting involved in having a business together is if you don’t have clearly defined roles in the company, it gets really murky really fast,” said Marla Mattenson, a relationship and intimacy expert for entrepreneur couples. Without well-defined roles, the partner with control issues will end up taking the lead, the other will become subordinate and that could lead to strain and resentment in the relationship, she said.
The Mussos’ shared passion for children and pets along with the desire to leave something to their children drove the creation of their businesses, but having a strong division of labor has helped them keep it all together. “The division of labor was initially that I would have some say-so, but it has turned out that I have very little,” said Mike as Kim laughed.
“He is the CFO. I want to spend money,” she said. “We don’t always see eye to eye, but we get through it.” That includes the time she wanted to spend $40,000 on new floors, and her husband convinced her to spend it instead on a new playground. “He does look at things differently than I do from a financial standpoint. At the end of the day, he wants the same things that I want.”
Though Mike travels extensively as a consultant, they set aside Sunday afternoons to talk business. Regular check-ins to discuss business issues are vital, said Mattenson. It is also important to schedule a weekly resentment clearing session in which each partner gets a turn to say whatever is bothering him or her while the other writes down those concerns. After reading it back and offering more time for complaints to be registered, the partners switch roles.
When you live and work with your spouse, it can be hard to limit your conversations about the business to a set time. Corey and Kiara Johnson take the opposite approach. They regularly schedule downtime. Sunday is the one day they don’t talk about their business. The couple, who met through a mutual friend, prioritize their faith and their marriage, and the business flows from there.
Two years ago, the newlyweds hatched the idea to open a yoga studio in Atlantic Station. As residents of the mixed-use community, they had both participated in the yoga in the park events and came to view yoga as a way to connect to the community. ATL Kula, opening in early 2020, means community. “That is the biggest thing we are passionate about,” Corey said.
ATL Kula will feature a room with yoga, a room with Pilates and barre as well as a private meditation area and a koi pond. “We want everyone who comes by the studio to be engaged in different elements. People’s connection to nature is very important,” Corey said.
But getting a new business up and running while balancing their full-time jobs can be stressful. One of the markers of successful couple entrepreneurs is learning to manage the stress of starting a business. “It is like peeling an onion and you just keep crying because there are layers and layers,” said Kiara Johnson.
Corey, an engineer by trade, has the big ideas and vision, and Kiara, a financial analyst, is better with details, planning and execution, but they balance each other out in other ways. When they have conflict, their stress management plan most often involves Corey insisting they continue to talk about an issue. Sometimes those conversations happen as they walk around Atlantic Station, allowing them to blow off steam while being productive.
Helping young entrepreneurs like the Johnsons who are just starting out has been part of the mission for Ken and Jeannette Katz. More than two decades ago, Ken Katz left Atlanta to work for a restaurant group in San Francisco. Jeannette Katz, a native of El Salvador, was the lead hostess at the restaurant. Weeks of training had cautioned him against dating staff, but Ken and Jeannette managed to keep their relationship under wraps until she left the company.
Years later, seated at a table in La Bodega, their latest joint venture designed as grocery store, restaurant and source for food education, the couple talked about their journey from young dreamers to business owners.
“We always want to bring produce to areas that have no access. We decided to do a transition with both food and grocery,” said Jeannette Katz, the creative force behind their restaurant holdings, which include the already established Buenos Dias Cafe in downtown Atlanta.
When La Bodega — located at the MET in the West End — is completed, there will be cooking classes for simple dishes, along with prepared foods and fresh produce in an area that has limited options. “Hopefully we will be out of business in 10 years when everyone learns how to cook for themselves,” said Jeannette. They also hope La Bodega will serve as a resource for other young business owners, offering them a place to grow their business without the risk involved in striking out on their own before they are ready.
While they have learned to separate their business and marriage, in some ways, the strategies they learned as a couple help them as co-business owners. “The business and the marriage is the same: There are ups and downs. There are good days and bad days. The whole idea is that this is your life. It is just one day or one hour of your life,” Jeannette said.
Partners who naturally have an easy flow of communication are often better suited for being business partners, said Mattenson. “Things go so quickly in business, from time to time you have a flurry of activity and if you don’t have great communication, you have two hurdles to jump over,” she said.
Remembering to compliment each other through the day can go a long way in running a business with your spouse, a lesson that longtime couples like the Katzes have already learned. “We are now at the point where we have been together longer than we haven’t. We have 26 years of no problems in communicating because of who we already were,” said Ken. “I don’t have a bigger fan than Jeannette.”
For many years, Kristle Pressley was her husband’s No. 1 fan as well. When DeMario Pressley, a former defensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints, retired from football, the couple decided to go into business together. Kristle wanted to launch a bike rental service in Forsyth County that would allow area residents to get outside and enjoy green spaces. Geaux Bikes was born in June and has since had more than 500 users.
“We were ready to start a new chapter in our lives,” said Kristle of the business. Their biggest challenge has been learning to stop blurring the lines between their roles as business partners and as husband and wife.
More than once, Kristle has had to bite her tongue to avoid calling DeMario “honey” or “babe” in a business meeting, she said. And they have both found it challenging to set a hard stop to their workday.
Finding an off-site location is a practice that many couple entrepreneurs employ to help them draw firm lines between work and home, say experts. To make sure their business doesn’t take over their home, the Pressleys can often be found at the local coffee shop developing the next phase of their business, which includes a new location at Halcyon.
Even with the challenges that come with starting a business, becoming couple entrepreneurs has brought them closer and helped them see each other in a new light, they said.
“When we go to a business meeting or are on a conference call, she is in the zone doing her thing. It is awesome and surprising to see that side of her,” said DeMario.
“Being in business together has allowed me to see some of his strengths that I didn’t know he had,” Kristle said. “It has helped me learn how to relinquish control. It is a lot easier when you have a partner to support you.”
Being in business and in love with your partner is one of the greatest experiences on earth, said Mattenson. “If you are dedicated to growing as an individual, couple and business, there is no better fodder than being in business with your sweetheart,” she said. “Anything that arises is an opportunity to be more kind and loving to each other and be the best version of yourself.”
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