Asking for a Friend: What Does It Take to Build a Successful Partnership?
During the nine years Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo ran the design-minded e-commerce business Of a Kind, they learned a lot—and a lot of it the hard way. To spare you some of the head- and heartaches they experienced, they’re answering a couple Qs about creative entrepreneurship to help you on your way. This is the first installment of a two-part series. You can follow their weekly newsletter and podcast for more intel—business, design, and otherwise.
Q. I’m thinking about starting a business with a friend because now, weirdly, is feeling like the right time to go for it. We’ve known each other a long time, but we’ve never worked together. Before we dive into this uncharted territory, what should we know about building a successful partnership?
First things first: We’re so excited for you! About a decade ago (during a recession, it’s worth noting), we were contemplating making this move ourselves, and taking the plunge was one of the best professional and personal decisions we’ve ever made. We feel so strongly about the partnership we’ve built and the life-changing magic of solid business partnerships in general that we wrote a whole book on the topic called Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses. That said, we also very much understand that teaming up with a pal doesn’t always work out the way it has for us. There are plenty of friendship-to-business breakups to look to—Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner come to mind—and probably at least as many people in your life advising you to never go into business with a friend because you’re putting the relationship on the line.
The fact of the matter is that we can’t imagine starting a company with someone who doesn’t know us in the way we know each other. How different would it be if we couldn’t glimpse across the table in a meeting and say a thousand words with just one look or if we didn’t have the context to help one another navigate the family drama that inevitably weasels its way into the work day? But making the transition from friend to partner takes a ton of trust and plenty of work. Below, our checklist for getting it right.
Kick the Tires on Your Relationship Before You Make Anything Official
You might not have worked together in an official capacity, but have you planned another pal’s birthday together or coordinated a big group trip? If so, were your communication styles similar? Did this potential future business partner do things during that process that made your eyes bulge or your head spin? Because you better believe the same is bound to happen in a high-stress work setting. Be honest with yourself about the clues your friend has given you about the ways they operate in the world—and the ways those things affect you. If your would-be partner dominated the conversation during a Zoom baby shower and you wanted to shout "MUTE!," trust that the same is likely to happen during business calls. Also remember that if you find yourselves professionally incompatible, it says absolutely nothing about the value of your friendship.
Make Sure You Both Feel a Sense of Ownership
If you do decide to move forward with this pursuit (hey, congrats!), discuss who’s in charge of what early and often. Having clarity on this will keep you from stepping on each other’s toes and also ensures that you both feel like you have authority. As wonderful as collaboration is, you need to be able to divide and conquer—and you need a structured way to make decisions when you have differing opinions.
Our approach: Make an oh-so-simple spreadsheet with your names in two columns and everything that needs to be done to run your business in the rows. Divvy up the responsibilities, and, in doing so, determine that the person with the X by their name is the one who gets final say. This doesn’t mean that the other can’t and shouldn’t weigh in about, say, pricing strategy or social media—just that you’re not going to make every single call by committee and that you trust one another to make good decisions about something, even if it’s not the one you might have made.
Welcome the Power of "We"
A key to establishing a strong partnership is putting egos aside. This is hard! You will fail at it time and time again! One of the best ways we’ve found to remind ourselves—and everyone we’ve worked with, internally and externally—is to lean hard on the word “we,” as in “We’ll get back to you” or “We really appreciate your support.” It’s an itty-bitty, two-letter trick that hammers home that we’re doing this together, and that even if one of us didn't sign the contract or deliver a piece of hard news, we are both on board. Over the years, we’ve been surprised by the number of people who try to play us off one another or figure out who’s really in charge (talk about infuriating), and this language guards against that, too.
Listen, all of these tips are important, but we might have saved the best for last: You have to be willing to share your feelings, fears, and hang-ups with one another. Expressing that you feel insecure about your role in a project or that your personal finances are in a precarious, anxiety-inducing state is not a to-do list item any of us wants to tackle. But if your partner doesn’t know the things that are keeping you up at night—or the side projects you need to bite off to keep the bills paid—you can’t support each other and make sure this bond is serving both of you.
One tactic that works for us is to end weekly check-ins (you’re having these, right?) by asking, “How are you feeling about everything?” This is a question that creates an opening for someone to voice any concerns or discontent—related to the partnership or otherwise. It can often feel hard or awkward to know when it’s the right time to bring up something tense. But creating this routine means there’s always an opportunity to do so, and if nothing tough needs to be addressed, great. It’s an opening to hear how the other person is doing, which is just as important.
We understand the instinct to put on a brave face and to want to prove how competent you are, but acting like everything is just peachy when it’s not serves no one. Over time, that will create distance between the two of you and take its toll. And we all (the two of us perhaps more than anyone!) want your partnership to last for the long haul.
More about Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur
Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur founded the e-commerce site Of a Kind in 2010, sold the company to Bed Bath & Beyond in 2015, and grew their business until 2019. They’re the authors of the book Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses and have grown a diehard following for their newsletter and companion podcast, A Thing or Two and members-only hub Secret Menu. You can find them on Instagram @ericacerulo and @clairemazur.