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Building A Business Together
This Minneapolis couple has designed a successful business together in tough economic times.

By Joni Strandquest
Mo Murphy and husband Chris Strouth in their new salon.

In the late 1990’s, when hair stylist Mo Murphy met music industry executive Chris Strouth backstage at Edgefest, a live music festival in Somerset, Wisconsin she heard the screech of electric guitars and amplifier feedback—not wedding bells. Much to the surprise of both of them, not only would they one day get married, but eight years after saying "I do," they would become business partners in their own small business enterprise. The couple founded Miyagi: a Dojo for Beauty (http://dojoforbeauty.com), an Aveda concept salon in northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"Somehow we’ve managed to open a business in the worst economy since Hoover," Strouth laughed, about Miyagi’s August 2008 opening. "We stress about money more than we ever did, but then again who’s not stressing? We’re learning to look at things differently than we once did."

Adaptation and creativity has become necessary for a majority of small business owners, according to a January 2009 report released by San Francisco-based Vertical Response, the leading provider of self-service email marketing and direct mail solutions. Their recent political impact survey, which included responses from 50,000 small businesses nationwide, found that 66.4 percent of small business owners have been affected for the worse by the recession.

Mo and Chris's Tips for Couples Going Into Business Together

1. Cash is the key
Save your money ahead of time, even if starting a business together is the minutest granule of a thought in your mind. If we had started socking away $100 a month, essentially what we used to spend in liquor, it would have made a big difference.

2. Do your homework
Educate yourself. Take classes. Read a ton of books to best learn about your business and how to make smart choices. What we have learned has come in handy and prepared us for things that otherwise would have thrown us off course.
When the idea for Miyagi first came about, Strouth had a full-time job as creative director at a college and Murphy was working in an unfulfilling salon environment. A master-stylist and educator for Aveda, Murphy loved what she was doing, but not where she was doing it. "I’d never thought of being a salon owner before," she said. "Then I realized I desired to create a place where I would want to work forever."

Their process towards the goal of opening Miyagi began in early 2007. Murphy and Strouth began reading different types of business books, took small business classes and courses through the Aveda Institute on establishing a successful salon and retail environment. They also paid down their debts.

In December 2007, they created an LLC and assertively began seeking financing options. It took another eight months to find the building space and to make the financial and aesthetic preparations to get things running.

At first the concept of working together didn’t make logical sense because the two had historically always worked in different industries—Murphy in hair and Strouth with record labels, television and media. But once they found a point of intersection, the pieces fell into place… sort of.

Things got very scary about two months before Miyagi opened. Strouth got laid off from his full-time job; the financial cushion the couple was relying on disappeared overnight. "I went from making a really great salary to unemployment," he said. "It felt like someone dropped a bombshell."

The couple went to the bank to get loans. Having no debt they felt optimistic. Unfortunately, bankers told them that they didn’t have enough cash. "Had we not paid off debts then we could have gotten more stuff," Strouth said. "It doesn’t make sense logically, but it certainly explains the financial situation that the world is in today."

Tenacious in their efforts, this forced them to get more creative with financing than they had originally planned. Every penny mattered as they bartered, traded and did a lot of the work themselves on the build-out that they otherwise would not have done.

Utilizing vivid paint schemes, hand-made light fixtures, recycled furniture and a mission statement painted in graffiti style on one of the walls, the funky styled space has attracted everyone from punk rock kids to older women on a lunch break from work. No Muzak allowed. Tunes from artists such as Iggy and the Stooges or Velvet Underground keep the pace moving energetically, adding to a vibrant atmosphere that makes Miyagi quite different from the would-be competition.

"Working in the entertainment field, I had a weird record of having never lost a dime on a project I’ve managed. I’m real proud of that," Strouth said. "I haven’t made many dimes, but haven’t lost dimes either. That became our approach to Miyagi: Let’s just do the work, follow the numbers, make projections and be careful."

In developing their business plan, Murphy shared that they projected financials quite conservatively. "It was a good thing because right now, we are right on target,” she said. As part of their business plan, roles and responsibilities had to be determined. Strouth, who had managed businesses before, handles the macrocosmic responsibilities, including advertising, promotions and marketing. Murphy deals with the microcosmic details of design, as well as the day-to-day operations, including training and overseeing employees.

The couple’s days are long; often working more than 12 hours a day, but it is a labor of love. "The business is our child," Murphy said. "It requires a lot of care and attention to keep it growing and thriving. And in keeping our focus, we try to ignore news about the economy as much as we can."

"In business, you either paddle or you surf," Strouth concluded. "Right now we’re paddling. And we’ll just keep paddling and paddling until there’s a wave. Hopefully when one comes along we can ride it for a while."

Joni Strandquest is part owner of EaglesQuest Media Inc., a freelance writing service focusing on travel, lifestyles and business. To learn more, or to suggest ideas for future columns, visit her website at www.eaglesquestmedia.com.

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