Opinion
In Mixed Company

The Partner Advantage

How four co-founders are erasing the imaginary line between work and life—to the benefit of their business and sanity.

The Partner Advantage

Because I founded a business with three other women, we often hear from men how difficult it must be for the four of us to work together. It’s actually been suggested to me that our “sensitive nature” must get in the way of productivity—as if they think our periods have synced and there’s no way we can function with all the pillow fights. Well, good news for us and many women business owners: Qualities often perceived as barriers—nurturing, caring, and being “emotional”—make us great business partners.

We do not subscribe to the traditional business models that say you can’t have a family or a life outside of our startup. Yes, we still work 90-hour weeks and run ourselves ragged some days to maintain profitability, but we’ve debunked the myth of work-life balance, because our small business is our life’s work. The work we put into it involves our families, partners, and friends more than we could have ever imagined.

Starting a business alone can be a isolating practice, where the owner has all of the questions and only some of the answers. Having several co-founders has allowed us to lean in, lean on, and lean out on any given day. It’s expanded our network and our efficiency, and saved our sanity. We ask each other to show up as our whole selves, which gives us permission to have what my co-founder Bethany Iverson calls “the best and worst days at the same time.” We watch each others’ children, take each other lunch, and help each other stay motivated. We’ve taken the term “work wives” to another level.

In addition to my own experience as co-founder of The Coven, a community and workspace in the North Loop, I’ve heard the joys and challenges of other founders and organizational leaders who are among The Coven’s more than 400 members. Lani Basa, Coven member and owner/CEO of the Business Women’s Circle, works with hundreds of women, coaching and guiding them as they grow their business. She has mentored my partners and I through the ups, downs, and sideways of business ownership; in fact, this very practice is one of her top tips for co-founders. “Sometimes you need to get [outside] help to deal with an issue,” she says. “A coach, mentor, group, etc. is a great resource.”

Our combined recipe for a successful partnership includes some key elements:

  1. Communicate. There’s nothing worse than a teammate bringing up an issue from months ago that you knew nothing about. Starting a business involves a significant level of trust that allows for an open-door policy (or open-floor policy, if you’re like my team and don’t have an office).
  2. Challenge each other. Just because we get along doesn’t mean we always agree. What keeps us grounded is our strong sense of organizational mission and values. If we go off the rails a bit, it doesn’t take long to find the track again with a little reflection, mission alignment, and sometimes outside advising.
  3. Acknowledge personal goals. As your business evolves, so will the human beings at the helm. We all have personal goals that are, hopefully, in service to the business. If they change, then it might be time to evaluate roles and responsibilities. Raising a family, relocating, or going back to school don’t have to be reasons to get out of a business, but it might mean a look at a priority shift. Do quarterly check-ins to make sure you’re all still rowing in the same direction.
  4. Define clear roles. There’s so much to do early on in an organization’s life that sometimes founders leave roles too flexible, so no one ends up being accountable for the work. “There is a tendency to believe you can figure this out as you go, but this causes conflict and resentment,” Basa says. Define everyone’s roles in alignment with the needs of the business so you can easily recognize deficits and fill the holes with outside support.
  5. Get it in writing! It’s better to put agreements in writing when things are going well than when they’re not. Basa asks her business owners these questions: What happens if one owner wants to leave? What if someone is no longer able to help run the business—mentally or physically? How will money be shared? Decide these things up front to avoid issues later. This is where a lawyer can be helpful, keeping emotions at bay and building a solid, pragmatic, and fair plan.

Building a business with co-founders increases brain power, but without processes in place for decision making and accountability, that power can stall. Prepare your team for difficult conversations by building trust among partners, exercising a little emotional intelligence, and getting outside help when you need it. Basa says the best teams “have each other to help keep things moving forward.” With an equal commitment to the business and the team, even the late nights seem a little brighter knowing there’s someone else burning the midnight oil.

Alex West Steinman is co-founder of The Coven, a community and workspace for women and non-binary people. She is also a public relations consultant, freelance content writer, and mother of two toddlers.

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