THERE was no end of to-ing and fro-ing when entrepreneur Yvonne Tan and her boyfriend debated starting a business, until he posed the killer question: “If we can’t even run a project together, how are we to plan for bigger commitments like marriage?”.

That was it. Ms Tan knew they had to take the leap and try to turn what had been a hobby into a going concern, but it was still a hard decision.

A previous bad experience in a small business venture with some friends was still fresh in her mind, so going back into what would certainly be a stressful process with then boyfriend Vincent Goh looked daunting.

“I didn’t want to spoil the relationship if the business was to fail,” said Ms Tan, 25.

She had already planted the seeds of what was to become their Ministry Of Retail online shopping site.

Ms Tan was used to organised shopping sprees – where strangers collectively order in bulk from overseas brands to save on shipping charges. She would then sort out the items and mail them to people in Singapore, all in her own time and at her own expense.

Mr Goh, 31, saw the potential of the venture four years ago and challenged Ms Tan, then an accountancy undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University, to think and dream bigger. “Why are you wasting your time doing this for free? You should set up your own business or we can do it together,” he said, before coming out with that killer question.

Ms Tan had no answer other than yes, and the duo set up their online business in late 2009. They decided to run it on a pre-order model so there would be no need to hold too much stock or cough up capital upfront. And having no brick and mortar outlet meant Ministry Of Retail could save on rent, staff costs and utilities.

They decided to specialise in South Korean fashion and office wear and, armed with just $1,000, set off to Seoul to check out fashion ideas and supplies.

As if that was not enough to keep them busy, they also got married in December 2009. For the first three years, Ms Tan was the sole manager while husband Vincent had a full-time job as a civil servant but helped out on weekday nights and over the weekends. 

Business was slow in the first few months until they publicised the brand through a Facebook fanpage and advertising in January 2010. “The small ads that would appear on the Facebook sidebar cost us $300 a month, but it brought more traffic to our site and allowed us to engage with potential buyers,” said Mr Goh.

Its fan base on Facebook has grown 60-fold to nearly 60,000.

The firm now spends a five-figure sum a month on advertising, which makes up about 90 per cent of their expenses. March is their busiest month, when it gets more than 1,000 orders, mostly from professionals in their 30s to 50s. Its dresses, tops, outerwear and accessories are priced at an average of $40 apiece. 

The couple have a three- year-old daughter and are expecting their second child early next month. The couple were tested when Mr Goh was diagnosed with cancer. He took a year of unpaid leave last July to recuperate. This also saw him get more involved in the business, prompting his recent decision to resign so he can join Ms Tan in managing the business full-time from next month.

In the past year, annual sales grew 50 per cent to just under $1 million but the business is still a shoestring operation.

The couple operate the firm out of their five-room flat in Jurong West, using a spare bedroom to store inventory. They have hired four people to manage invoices, respond to queries and pack the orders before mailing them out.

When asked what it is like working and living in the same house day-in and day-out, the couple looked at each other and burst out laughing. “I’d say that we have a very complementary sort of business relationship,” said Mr Goh.

“I manage the website and technical aspects, while Yvonne is in charge of the fashion styling and sourcing. “Both of us will chip in and discuss issues when it comes to the long-term plans.”

Arguments occurred more often during the first two years of the venture. “There was once when I raised ideas on how to grow the business, but Yvonne just shot them down without giving them much thought,” recalled Mr Goh. “As her husband, that hurt my feelings.”

But Ms Tan noted that they do not bear grudges and will iron out any issues or differences before going to bed. Their openness and willingness to forgive have kept their marriage and business going strong.

The Gohs hope to grow annual sales beyond $1 million despite the intense competition in the online retail sphere.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 12, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.