Our spring salon focused on women working together in business - whether as partners, clients, or studio sharers. Lee Clifford is the co-founder of Altruette, a jewelry company with a philanthropic focus, donating 50% of their net profits to their cause partners. Lee brings an interesting perspective to the table, as she and her co-founder live halfway across the country from one another. Today Lee shares advice on a few items to consider before starting a business partnership with another individual.
Reader's Note: this piece is adapted from an online column Lee wrote for Inc. Magazine's website.
After diving into the Spring salon theme, I’m thrilled to be sharing a bit about working with a business partner long distance today. Julie and I met more than a decade ago (we had offices across the hall from each other as young reporters at Fortune Magazine in New York). When we decided to leave our jobs together to start a company in 2010, we really only knew one thing: that we loved working together. (Oh, and that we wanted to create a really awesome company that helped raise money for the causes we cared about – Altruette). I say ‘together,’ though by the time we quit our jobs, we were based in different cities. People ask me all the time what it’s like having a business partner and how we knew we could make a partnership work. I always say it’s a leap of faith – but in truth I was pretty certain Julie and I would make great business partners. Here’s why.
We’re Not Best Friends!
Don’t get me wrong – we are great friends. We went to each other’s weddings, we’ve traveled with our families, our babies play together. But we’re not best friends. We met through work and that has always been the starting point of our relationship. Seeing someone at work is different from knowing someone socially. Julie had seen me hit deadline after deadline. I’ve seen Julie take a room full of editors and art directors with completely opposing visions and get them all on the same page. We had traveled together. We’d disagreed and compromised. But the beautiful thing is that having that history, now when we disagree – and even the best of partners do – it’s not loaded with emotional baggage like it might be with a close friend. (“She always has to have the last word – it’s been like that since 7th grade!”)
The Houseguest Test
You know how there are some people in life who you adore, admire, respect, maybe even think they’re brilliant…but if they were to stay with you for more than two nights you might lose your mind? Well, a business partner is somewhat like a houseguest that moves in permanently. You will be stunned by the amount of time you spend working on your startup. The hundreds of hours you spend together on the phone, the thousands of emails, the number of trips. If your partner has the potential to get under your skin even a little bit, you’re going to be in big trouble. Think about it this way: if you wouldn’t want this person moving into your spare bedroom for the summer, don’t go into business with them.
It’s said that forming a partnership is like a second marriage. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we each ended up with a business partner that shares many similarities with our spouses. Lee’s husband is a champion brainstormer – just like Julie. Julie’s husband is a detail oriented perfectionist – as is Lee. That underscores an important point: we picked someone to work with that has skills that complement our own. With only two of us running Altruette, we had to cover as many bases as possible. Julie’s love of meeting new people and networking is vital to our business, as is Lee’s glee at making sure each spec sheet is picture perfect. One of the questions we’re asked the most is how we divide our responsibilities, and the truth is: we don’t really have to. We’re both so clearly good at different things that nine times out of ten it’s obvious who should handle what job.
Which brings me to one final point about working with a partner – especially one that lives in another city. This is a variant of the marriage rule “never go to bed mad.” I’d amend that to say “Never send an angry email.” Email is a great tool – but can cause so much friction. Whenever I find myself typing something that has even a hint of annoyance in it, I hit delete and pick up the phone. It has saved so much drama and meant that there are no hidden agendas/bitter feelings/misinterpreted comments.
I feel so lucky to have found such a wonderful partner and I’d love to hear from others out there in the Forth community that have business partners. Do opposites always attract? Do you ever get sick of each other? How do you handle disagreements?
If you have answers to any of Lee's questions, or thoughts of your own to share, we'd love to hear 'em!