Managing a business and marriage: How 3 Fil-Am couples make it work

IT’S Valentine’s Day this week and you can expect couples posting on social media about how they’re spending the day, their “love story,” and what they enjoy about one another.

Among the relationship dynamics that exist, there is a rare crop of couples who have added another level by working and running a business together. The National Federation of Independent Business reveals that 43 percent of small businesses are family businesses; of that number, 53 percent of managers say a spouse shares day-to-day management duties.

Continuing a series by the Asian Journal, in this issue we speak to three couples on the lessons and challenges that come with successfully balancing business and family.

Valerie and Zach Fishbain — Los Angeles

Val and Zach Fishbain of Spread the Love, which handcrafts all-natural, vegan and gluten-free spreads like peanut and almond butters. (Contributed photo)

When Valerie (“Val”) and Zach Fishbain gave away 150 jars of homemade peanut butter — using a Vitamix Valerie received as a bridal shower gift — as their wedding favors in 2013, little did they know that it was a sign of another union they would enter.

The peanut butter was a resounding hit that friends would put in special orders, which soon led to the couple acquiring a business license and starting a venture together called Spread the Love based in Los Angeles.

“This opportunity presented itself and as an entrepreneur, it was so exciting because it was the chance to build a business quite literally as old as our family,” Zach says. “This business, although we didn’t know it at the time, started the same day our marriage did.”

Nearly six years later (and with two young daughters in tow), Spread the Love’s handcrafted, all-natural, vegan and gluten-free products can be found in over 100 stores across the United States and is an Amazon Best Seller for the peanut butter category. The brand has expanded its offerings from the initial ‘naked’ organic peanut butter to unsalted and crunchy varieties, as well as almond butter and raspberry and marionberry artisanal jams.

Delegate and outsource tasks
Spread the Love started as a side venture for the couple, with Val working as a social worker for LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services and Zach running a translation and multilingual content creation agency.

They would spend their free time concocting peanut butter to sell at weekly farmers’ markets like the one at Melrose Place every Sunday, which “was our test and laboratory, essentially what validated that we had a good product,” Zach shares.

The manual process that went into making each jar from their home kitchen took a toll, especially when Valerie was pregnant with their second daughter, so she suggested outsourcing to a facility. “I cried and said, ‘I’m done making peanut butter and doing the farmers market.’ This was heavy work,” she recalls.

“We got smart with how we marketed our products so we ended up moving out of our kitchen and into a co-packing facility in Central Valley where our time and effort could be spent growing the business and not necessarily roasting and grinding the peanuts. That’s something we were able to outsource,” Zach says.

From the farmers’ markets, Spread the Love made its way onto the shelves of local markets and secured large food service accounts in Los Angeles and nationally, such as Erewhon where they produced buckets of the peanut butter to be used in the market’s ice cream and smoothies, and Porto’s Bakery.

Being parents with a business has also led them to seek some help with child care as well. Val notes how her mom is “a very big part of our family and business because she allows Zach and me to really focus on work by helping out with the kids.”

Recognize each other’s strengths and set boundaries
Val handles most of the branding, marketing and partnerships for the business, while Zach manages the operations, sales and logistics.

“I wouldn’t say we stay in each other’s lanes because we’re a small company so there’s overlap but Val and her thought leadership when it comes to brand management will override any decision I may make when it comes to that,” Zach says. “When it comes to production or which shipping carrier to use, some of the less glamorous stuff, that’s on me.”

Unlike couples who work separately and can see off-duty hours as time to decompress, it can be easy for entrepreneurial couples to transfer the work to the household. However, the Fishbains agree that a line has to be drawn.

“You have to have limits and boundaries…It’s a challenge, but at the same time, it’s a gift because we like being with each other and get to communicate a lot about the family and the business. You have to make it work,” Val shares.

They moved to an outside office space last year to delineate that physical boundary between home and work. Having a weekly date is also important to remember they’re a married couple foremost.

“Every Thursday night Val and I have a date night. Whether we’re at each other’s throats or not, it’s something that’s sacred to us. It’s what allows us to unwind, recharge, reflect and we let any tensions melt. We’re having a good dinner, a bottle of wine, or whatever it is…it’s something we need to do. It really helps us survive as a team and married couple,” Zach says.

Be authentic
As any successful company can attest to, a strong and authentic brand story establishes a connection with the audience. The Fishbains’ wedding story is the reason why Spread the Love exists — it shows a human element to the brand and customers can trust that they’re talking to actual people.

“I came here to the United States when I was 15 so we’re a minority, woman-owned business,” Valerie says of her story as an immigrant from the Philippines. “It’s part of our narrative that we’re very proud of.”

Adds Zach, “Our daughters are growing up in a multicultural, multilingual household. They’re seeing mom and dad work hard — they know what Spread the Love is, they ask for it every day and it’s pretty cool as our business, family and lives grow. It’s all very intertwined in a good way.”

Align on business plans and goals
Going on six years in business, Spread the Love has gotten creative with engaging with its audience, whether it’s partnering with social media influencers who share how they incorporate the products into their daily lives or doing in-person events where potential customers can sample the brand.

They are now at the point where they can give back to their community — ‘spreading it forward,’ as the Fishbains say. They teamed up with People Assisting The Homeless (PATH) and held a fundraiser for the organization last year.

The couple is conscious when it comes to introducing new products as they don’t want to “spread too thin,” but they can agree that in the coming years, they envision developing more offerings and fortifying Spread the Love as a go-to health brand.

“We listen to our audience before we introduce other products and that’s what we stand for now.  We don’t try to be a gourmet company, but we try to be a company that is fueling healthy lifestyles — a company that’s focused on nutrition, quality flavor…something that people can have confidence in, knowing that what they’re feeding themselves and their families is something that is made with integrity and that’s very healthy,” Zach says.

Adds Val, “We see ourselves definitely as a leader in the natural food and condiments space. It’s not just peanut butter and almond butter. But we want to do other spreadables, like cream cheese, honey or hummus. We see ourselves getting into more lines of products.”


Marisse Panlilio and Cosette Malig — New Jersey

In this photo taken by Jersey Journal photographer Reena Sibayan on June 26, 2015, Marisse Panlilio and Cosette Malig celebrate the Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality across the 50 states. (Contributed photo)

Marisse Panlilio and Cosette Malig first met in the Philippines, but reconnected in New Jersey. They have now been together for 29 years and married for three.

Over the years, the couple has delved in various entrepreneurial ventures from health care to apparel. But today, they juggle three: MPEntertainment, an events company; MP Grafx, a printing and graphics service; and Popsie’s Mobile Food Concession, a Filipino cuisine pop-up/food truck.

“It’s [about] feeding each other’s strengths and correcting one’s weakness and flaws. Patience is the key,” Marisse says.

Designate roles
Marisse shares that with the three ventures, they have clear roles and responsibilities for each. For MPEntertainment, she trained Cosette on how to handle the equipment and connect wires and cables because outside contractors wouldn’t take extra care of the expensive equipment. MPGrafx is “pretty much my turf,” Marisse says, but Cosette occasionally helps with t-shirt production and finishing touches on signs and graphics. Cosette is in charge of the front end of Popsie’s, but the two prepare the food together.

“She does play an important role in my business,” Marisse says. “There are times when nerves cannot be avoided, but at the end of the day, we realize that it is a day’s worth of work.”

Seek advice and feedback
Marisse sees Cosette as her “extra eyes and ears” especially when there’s a business decision to be made. “She tells me like it is when she does not feel right or good about a project, an individual, [or] money matters,” Marisse says.

Having that sounding board has been proven useful because Marisse is quick to say ‘yes’ on projects or purchases. Cosette “gives me her input on why she thinks it is ok or not. We argue, yes,” Marisse says. “I have invested thousands of dollars in all my businesses from buying a $35,000 printer in cash to countless light and sound equipment for my production company. With my new business, I listen to her input first before I make the move.”

Keep it transparent
“If we were not meant to be, we would have parted ways a long time ago,” Marisse says. “Twenty-nine years is a testament that love does endure the test of time.” The couple says having no secrets and adopting and rescuing pets (“great pacifiers” that they treat as their own children) have contributed to the longevity of their relationship.

Spend time out outside of work, but also give each other space
When they’re not mounting events, the couple likes to go watch movies, eat out and have a routine where they de-stress and spend time together outside of a professional setting. They also make sure to give each other space, like Marisse going out to run errands alone, while Cosette stays at home to catch up on her favorite TV shows.


Mia McLeod and Leonard Mercado — Walnut, CA

Mia McLeod and Len Mercado of McLeod & Associates, a real estate and mortgage company in Walnut, California. (Contributed photo)

When Mia McLeod and Leonard “Len” Mercado met over a decade ago, it was “instant chemistry.” The couple can thank Mia’s mom for playing matchmaker after she introduced Len to Mia because they were both real estate brokers.

In 2004, Mia established McLeod & Associates, a real estate and mortgage company in Walnut, California, at the age of 22 and was recognized as a 30 under 30 honoree by Realtor Magazine at 25.

“I was in the thick of my career and I was super driven in building my own business. The chemistry was so strong but I almost didn’t want to see it in a way because I wanted to stay focused on my business,” Mia recalls her initial interactions with Len. “But when it’s really meant to be, there’s nothing you can do.”

Len joined Mia’s team as a broker in 2008, but their relationship was professional and platonic. In fact, he would see her leave work at the end of the day and head to dinner dates.

Set a professional working environment
When Mia and Len started dating, they kept it professional and private that their colleagues, for the most part, did not sense there was a romance brewing between the two.

Mia says she was discreet about the relationship until she was “comfortable” enough to share it with her team. When she was ready, she called a meeting and told them because she “knew we would move into the next stage where engagement and all of that would come.” Mia and Len got engaged in 2014 and were married the year after. Len, who started out as a broker associate at the firm, is now also a partner.

“Even to this day as husband and wife, we are still professional and keep that same environment,” Mia says.

Though, don’t expect their office atmosphere to be stiff and uptight. Len, who is known for his playful humor, says that being in business together is serious, but that doesn’t mean “you should take yourself so seriously.”

“He has grit, perseverance, strength, and a caring and loving spirit, while I’m more of a feeler and have a strong intuition. Bringing those two spirits together has worked well for us,” Mia shares, adding that the way that they communicate with each other and their team is without much of a filter, but “we just say how we feel in a caring way. What you see is what you get.”

Len also says that they are intentional and think about whether their responses would add value to a situation, especially on sensitive topics because “sometimes proving a point doesn’t serve anyone.”

Seek mentors and have a conflict resolution plan
Over the years, Mia began to understand the importance of personal and leadership development and has since extended those opportunities to her team members through access to coaches, trainings, and a monthly book club for example.

She and Len have mentors for their work and personal lives, such as coaches, role models in their industry, or other couples in the community. When brainstorming or having to make crucial decisions, Len says they turn to one of their trusted advisers for guidance or they take on the mindset of these people and think about how they would handle the scenario. “We also ask, ‘Are we looking at it in alignment with our core values and purpose?’” he adds.

They have found that their values and mindsets are so aligned that even if a team member asks them a question separately, they will usually have the same answer.

One of the questions they frequently get asked is, ‘do you both ever fight?’ to which they laugh at because they “are not super humans,” Mia says. Though they do have small ‘fights’ — which “people find refreshing and relieving to hear” — they choose their battles and remember that the end goal is to find a solution.

“Conflict happens but it doesn’t feel like it happens. I hate to sound like it’s all rainbows and unicorns because it’s not. The truth is, when you dig deeper and when you understand that your goals, purpose and dreams are the same and you respect each other, for us at least, it’s really hard to get into heated conflict and discussions,” Mia says. “It doesn’t really happen on the business side, it’s more of asking questions: Are we missing something by not looking at it this way? Do we need to bring in a coach to help us find clarity in this particular decision? It’s more that so it never becomes what you think of as an argument or conflict.”

Cherish the time together and be each other’s champions
The couple warns that working together is not for every couple, but they don’t take it for granted that they spend almost 24/7 with one another. Faith is a core value for them so they pray daily and carve out time for church on Sundays. On most days, they carpool to the office and have lunch together which allows them to catch up and talk about a multitude of things beyond work too. “These are special things that are not typical in today’s environment because both husband and wife are working,” Mia says.

“When we talk to our other friends, couples and even clients, we realize what a blessing it is because a lot of these people…don’t really get to see their significant other because they’re so busy in their individual careers,” Len says. “So for another relationship if I was working elsewhere and in a totally different frame of mind, I could see how that could cause some friction. If you’re not growing together, you’re growing apart.”

The couple also shares that one of their recipes to success is having that support system, whether it’s understanding that they need to shut off work or finding opportunities to boost their business.

Each year, Mia has a handful of speaking engagements and workshops, “which makes me proud as her husband and partner,” Len says.

“Why wouldn’t you want to be with a boss lady and…do everything you could to support your partner? I know Mia is very supportive of me,” he adds. “Mia gets invited to all these engagements and I want to see more of them because she has so much substance to share. If I could support that, would that make me insecure? Absolutely not.”

Define a purpose statement
Mia and Len advise that couples who want to be in a venture together must have a guiding principle to remind them why they’re in this business. Though selling homes is what McLeod & Associates does, at its heart they are focused on the difference they make in people’s lives and what kind of legacy they want to leave — that is something they want to impart on their one-year-old son Leon as well.

“The purpose statement, how you decide you want to live your life and the impact you want to make, needs to be so clear. In a marriage, what kind of life do you want to live together? You really have to put time and effort into that statement because when challenges do come up — because they will — that will be your foundation and you can always go back and build on that,” Mia says. “If you’re coming together for a business or a project, you need to understand why and the purpose behind that and make sure you are 100 percent aligned there.”

Christina M. Oriel
Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is the Managing Editor of the Asian Journal Weekly Newspapers.

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