We’ve heard it all before from the people around us – couples who work together don’t stay together.
But Singaporean entrepreneurial couple Kong Wan Sing and Lu Liu, who are parents of two young children, are shattering that stereotype day by day.
Kong and Liu, who are both in their early 40s, have been working together for six years building Southeast Asia’s biggest co-working space provider.
Kong serves as CEO of JustCo, which he co-founded alongside Liu, who is chief operating officer, and his brother Kong Wan Long.
But all this might have never happened if Kong never met and fell in love with Liu in New York University’s Stern School of Business.
While the duo had initially taken on different career paths in the US – Kong started his own finance firm in Boston and Liu worked in finance at Procter & Gamble (P&G) – a spurt of inspiration in 2011 led Kong to start his own business, JustOffice, which provided serviced office solutions.
By then, Kong had already attained over 15 years of experience in real estate – working first for his family business in Malaysia, then at Temasek Holdings’ Mapletree Investments as Senior Associate Director.
But after four years of running the business, and after thoughtful inspection and close surveying of the market, the entrepreneur decided to transform JustOffice into JustCo.
That transformation proved to be a key turning point for the young businessman.
Initially, Kong struggled financially to hire employees. As a result, Liu took a pay cut by quitting her job at P&G to work for JustCo.
But little did they know that money was only the start of their struggles. The couple also had to deal with naysayers and skeptics.
“Every day, we had 1,001 people telling us that the business model was wrong, that it doesn’t make sense,” Kong told Business Insider.
Investors had also cast doubts on a husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team.
“Investors aren’t just investing in the business, but also the person. And when they found out that the key team members were in a relationship, they were afraid we wouldn’t make it, and that we’d quarrel and break up,” he said.
As a result of these difficulties, the company was self-funded for the first four years.
Despite their struggles, the adamant entrepreneurs refused to give up and that losing streak was eventually broken.
Last year, JustCo received a US$12 million (S$16.4 million) Series B funding from Thai developer Sansiri, valuing the company at US$200 million.
Since its birth, JustCo has opened 19 co-working centres across Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Shanghai, hiring a total of 200 employees. It is currently Southeast Asia’s largest co-working space player after just three years of operations.
In May, the company announced plans to develop a co-working platform across Asia using a joint investment of US$177 million made with Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC and multinational property company Frasers.
Kong was also named winner under the Professional & Business Services category of the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Awards (APEA) in August.
Of course, all this is thanks to Kong and Liu’s joint determination to make things work.
But their greatest achievement is not just building a successful business. What’s more impressive is that they’ve managed to overcome differences and build up a happy family while navigating murky waters in business.
Needless to say, it wasn’t easy. According to the couple, there are four key things that made it all possible.
1. Practise keeping work and personal life separated
No matter how hard you try to draw the line between work and personal life, it still gets blurred, Kong said.
When asked how he and his wife keep work and love separated, Kong said humorously: “It’s very clear cut – I’m the boss at work and she’s the boss at home.”
He added: “We have some rules. But we’re human and sometimes, personal life will be brought to the office, and work will be brought home. In the very beginning, there was a lot of overlapping. You just have to fine-tune and realign – try not to talk too much about work at home, things like that. We’ve been trying to do this for the last seven years.”
2. Take the time to build trust
Liu revealed that she and her other half are both opinionated and strong in character.
Initially, the duo argued and nitpicked at the little things.
“Wan Sing is a perfectionist – which is what you see in every successful entrepreneur. So he would want to know everything… it took some time to build the trust. Once he saw that I could run my portfolios well, he started to give me more and more autonomy.”
She added that her husband is very respectful of her portfolios at work, and one area which he trusts her in is people management.
“I think I’m quite good with people in general. So, he would ask me how to bring the best out of the team.”
And like in all types of relationships, there are disagreements.
“A lot of times, we probably do not agree on the process 100 per cent, but then it’s important that we know where we’re heading to in the end. I think that bigger picture really needs to be aligned.
“Of course, Wan Sing is the final decision maker, but he will take a lot of inputs from me,” Liu said.
Liu also added that working with her husband has fostered deeper understanding.
“When I was with P&G, I couldn’t fully understand why he was so busy all the time… So, I think working together made me more appreciative and supportive of his schedule and workload. I think that’s a big plus.”
3. Find every opportunity to include family
As busy as things may get, Kong and Liu make sure that they spend quality time with their daughters – aged six and eight – on weekends and holidays.
Liu said: “For me, my priority is my home. I need to make sure I spend time with (the children) every evening. I spend time playing with them a lot. I think they’re at the age where they learn a lot through playing.”
And despite their young ages, the girls are already interested in hearing about the business and are supportive of their parents’ work.
She finds every opportunity to include her daughters in her work life. She invites her daughters to speaker events, public parties and events where they meet JustCo employees and learn more about the company.
- Facebook / JustCo
“They’re like a part of the (JustCo) family,” Liu said.
4. Find and build support systems
Liu said that finding and building good support systems both at home and at work is the key to attaining success.
She added that at home, the couple’s family is their support system.
Kong’s parents are usually around to take care of the house whenever Kong and Liu are working, and Liu said that she fully trusts her mother-in-law with the kids.
In business, there is also deep trust in the managers they work with, allowing them to focus on what they need to do as co-founders and senior managers of the firm.
“We have very strong second-liners who help take away a lot of our headaches,” Liu said.