Start a Successful Business with a Friend

These entrepreneurs share tips for building a thriving company without jeopardizing your relationship.

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Open Communication Lines from the Start

Their friendship: Kara Jensen Zitnick and Tracy Corcoran met on Twitter. “After tweeting back and forth a few times, we discovered we lived within 10 minutes of each other,” Zitnick said. “We met up and instantly clicked.”


Their company: Both ran homemade shops: Zitnick designed high-end organic baby linens, while Corcoran produced hair clips. “Supporting each other was natural, since we both understood the challenges of trying to do it all--create products, run a shop, pitch to the press, as well as be an active participant in each of our young families,” Zitnick said. They wished to make it easier for other women to launch new brands, so they combined their expertise and founded, LaunchHER, a company that offers business consulting, marketing, branding as well as legal services at flat-fee prices.


Their advice: “Before you make the decision to go into business together, have an open and honest talk with each other about what your vision, goals, expectations, etc are for the business, as well as for your friendship. These conversations are sometimes not the easiest to have, but by being honest about what this potential partnership means to each of you personally and professionally, you each know where the other is coming from, right from the start.”
 

Photo Credit: Megan Norman of Megan Norman Photography

Think Carefully About Your Priorities

Their friendship: Sarah Graff and Meredith Johnson live four houses from each other. They met while raising babies, but their friendship grew because of their shared interest in personalized paper. Johnson worked for a Tennessee company, Write Away. “As my personalized stationery representative, only Meredith knew the name of our yet-to-be-born son,” Graff said.

 

Their company: When Johnson heard Write Away was up for sale, she expressed interest in buying it. “We are running partners, so we often have long periods of time to chat while on our training runs,” Graff said. “Eventually she suggested that we buy the company together.” Now they’re co-owners, selling personalized stationary and other products to support the art of note writing.   

 

Their Advice: “Don't do it!  That may sound strange but we really believe that a partnership between friends could be a recipe for failure!  Our relationship is unique. We've always said that if things start to go south, the only option is to close the doors on Write Away because neither of our families plans to move. Harmony in our friendship will always be our priority.”
 

Photo Credit: Dietrich Gesk

Work on Your Business, not Just In It

Their Friendship: Molly Herrmann and Tracy Morgan met through a mutual friend. "Molly hired me as her business consultant back in early 2010," Morgan said. “We just aligned on so many levels." Both loved good food and cooking, as well as supporting local businesses.

 

Their Company: Herrmann, a caterer, informally shared a commercial kitchen space called Kitchen in the Market (KITM). "There was never enough room for everyone who wanted to participate," said Morgan, who worked as a strategic consultant at Midtown Global Market, where KITM was housed. Now they co-own KITM and have expanded it to include retail space as well as a cooking school. "You get to cook on 30,000 BTUs with a glass of wine and quite possibly karaoke," said Morgan. "You just can't get that experience anywhere."

 

Their Advice: “Take time to work on the business, even while you're working in the business.  We try to allow at least a half-day each week to go offsite and really think about how things are going, what needs to change, how our books are rolling, how our staff is doing, etc.”
 

Photo Credit: Amber Procaccini

Play to Your Strengths

Their Friendship: Beth Blair, Kara Williams and Jennifer Miner met in an online travel forum and later in person at an invite-only industry conference for travel journalists. “Since the three of us had similar lifestyles, it was rather easy for us to bond,” said Blair. “I have the youngest children of the three of us. Since the day we met, Kara and Jen have passed along motherly words of wisdom.”

 

Their Company: One night at dinner, Blair and Miner talked about starting a travel website with a discussion forum for moms. In 2009, together with Williams, they launched The Vacation Gals, where they share their favorite destinations for family trips, girlfriend getaways and romantic escapes. Their award-winning blog features travel gear as well as travel news and tips.

 

Their Advice: “Know your role. When starting a business with your friends, the first thing everyone should do is sit down and hash out the details. Discuss goals, dreams and, most importantly, recognize everyone's strengths and weaknesses. Putting everyone's strengths to work in the right role is the recipe to success.”
 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Vacation Gals

Spend Some Time Apart

Their Friendship: Kelly Daugherty and Jayne Drew met each other through a local newcomers’ club. “We became friends when we started playing tennis together as partners in a summer league,” said Drew. Often they practiced with Alyssa Pazdan.

 

Their Company: During an evening of pomegranate martinis, the three women brainstormed about business ideas. “We realized none of us wore t-shirts on the court, or out in public,” said Drew. “We hated the fat sucking, muffin-top inducing styles--we wanted something that was figure flattering.” They launched Smashing Golf & Tennis, a line of women’s golf and tennis apparel that shapes, tones and slims.
 
Their Advice: “Make sure that you also spend time away from each other. It’s very easy to have your new venture creep into every social setting. In the beginning, we spent many parties discussing what we need to do next week. We've stopped doing that and now have a separate weekly status meeting.”
 

Photo Credit: Tracy Cysewski

Choose Your Leader

Their Friendship: When Alesandra Rain lectured about her battle to get off prescriptions drugs, Andrea Crocker was so moved by the audience's response that she offered to help her spread her message. "I've had 34 surgeries, with 14 on my spine," Rain explained. "I was considered permanently disabled but there was a tiny voice inside me that refused to give up." When she stopped taking her prescribed medications, she suffered from painful withdrawls, but slowly her body and brain began to repair itself. 

 

Their company: "Andrea said she could no longer do fashion knowing that so many people were suffering,” said Rain. “She asked if I wanted to build a company together.” Originally they planned to lecture to inspire people to try healthier alternatives to pharmaceuticals. "What we realized quickly was that the public was already on too many pharmaceuticals and they begged for help to get off them,” said Rain. They launched Point of Return, putting together a medical team to help them develop a withdrawal program. "To date we've helped about 20,000 people in 63 countries,” said Rain.

 

Their Advice: "Choose who is the most competent to lead the company. There can't be two presidents. Andrea is president although it is my story that is the face of our company. She is by far the one to lead the organization while I'm by far the one to inspire. We both revel in the accomplishments of each other.”

Photo Credit: Terry Crocker

Allow Do-Overs

Their friendship: Marilyn Cairo and Hilary Lanzer met while working together for a Caribbean-based all-inclusive resort chain. “We shared the same work ethic, the same drive and focus,” said Lanzer.

 

Their Company: After Cairo was laid-off and Lanzer quit, they met over lunch with their mentor, Armando Chomat, and tossed around ideas. Eventually the three launched a sales and marketing firm, Ask Me Inc, targeting hotels and destinations, specializing in destination weddings (Chomat has since left). “I think if I started a business on my own I would feel isolated, unsure and overwhelmed,” Cairo said. “With a friend by my side, I have a partner who believes in the company and the clients as much as I do.”  

 

Their Advice: “Clearly define each others' business roles and allow ‘do-overs’. If I blow-up or if Marilyn does, we get to come back and say, 'Okay, I regret saying that. Let’s forget I said it and start from scratch.' Respect each other's mode of operation.  Not everyone is a 9-5 office person, and we may not reach success by going down the same path.”
 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ask Me Inc

Make Sure You’re on the Same Page

Their Friendship: Dr. Lisa Ballehr and Kimberly Ring met at a motorcycle racing school. “We kept in touch and began setting up our pits near each other at track days,” said Ring.

 

Their Company: After being laid off as a marketing executive in the homebuilding industry, Ring toyed with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. The gourmet category appealed to her because of its great taste and growth potential. She sought Ballehr's opinion. “Lisa told me immediately that she wanted to get involved. I didn’t think she was serious,” said Ring. “I’ve come to learn that Lisa means what she says, and I was thrilled to gain her intelligence, inspirational drive and financial support as well.” They launched Premium Organic Cafe, an online retail store selling gourmet organic coffees, teas, chocolates, gift boxes and accessories.  
 
Their Advice: “My brother gave me good advice (he’s a CEO of a medical equipment manufacturer) and said to have each of us review our SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis and see if we agree on what the top 2-3 items are.  It’s really important that both of you are operating off the same page so decisions can be made efficiently and in the business’ best interest.” 
 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Premium Organic Cafe, LLC

Make Sure You Share a Work Ethic

Their friendship: Julie Trade Levitch and Mary McDowell met at their children’s preschool when their kids begged for a play date. “It turned out we were both exactly the same age, spent our childhoods competing in gymnastics, loved 1980s music--and had backgrounds in technology,” Levitch said.

 

Their company: Levitch was working as a freelance writer for technology companies, while McDowell had been recently laid off from a top consulting firm. “We started thinking about how we could combine our skills,” Levitch said. They founded Say Current, a company that provides web content to help businesses engage customers and improve search engine rankings.

 

Often they draw their talent from the pool of educated at-home moms where they live. “Many of these women want to be able to make some extra money while having the flexibility in their schedule for their children,” said Levitch. “So, it’s really a win-win.”

 

Their Advice: "Make sure that you're compatible in terms of capabilities and work ethic. Without these things being aligned, there will ultimately be difficulties in dividing responsibilities and sharing successes.” 

Photo Credit: Carrie Vega

Make Sure Your Foundation Supports You

Their Friendship: Coryanne Ettiene and Mindy Lockard met on Twitter and bonded over kitchen living as well as social graces. “Arranging a phone call seemed like a logical next step to see if we could either collaborate or help one another in some way,” said Ettiene.

 

Their Company: Ettiene wished to bring the concept of modern living behind her blog, Housewife Bliss, to life. She approached Lockard with her ideas. They put together WifeStyle Conference, where attendees could learn how to entertain in style from industry experts. “It was Mindy's clever thinking that coined the term 'WifeStyle' and for that I am eternally grateful,” said Ettiene. “I love the tongue and cheek tone of 'WifeStyle' but also the clear meaning behind it that fully captures the conference.”  
 
Their Advice: ”For anyone undertaking a business with a friend, the most important thing to consider is the foundation you build upon, because respect, trust and a mutual desire to meet a successful end are priceless commodities and the key to any successful venture. “ 
 

Photo Credit: Kelsey Helgeson

Be Willing to Compromise

Their Friendship: Kim McCay Kern and BaBa Doyle were born two weeks apart. They met as infants, when their maids, who were good friends, pushed their strollers down the streets of Belzoni, Mississippi. They remained good friends after Kern moved to Clinton, Mississippi with her family. “We visited back and forth and we double dated all through our high school years,” said Kern.

 

Their Company: For 20 years, Kern worked to perfect a cheese straw recipe handed down to her from her husband’s mother. But when her husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, she put her dream to take her product to market on hold. After he died, her friend Doyle, a fellow entrepreneurial spirit, sold her home to help Kern launch Delta Bred, a fine food company devoted to Mississippi Delta traditions. “We basically put everything on the line to make this business work,” Kern said.

 

Their Advice: “Always be honest with each other. Be willing to compromise and put the friendship before the business.”
 

Photo Credit: Amanda Brandon

Know How You’ll Fold Them

Their Friendship: Irene Kelly, Carol Harris-Fike and Jane Kerschner met in a learning program at Villanova University. “I sat beside Carol the first day,” said Kelly. “We learned that we were both internet dating at the same time.”


Their Company: From there, as professional coaches they formed a “Wisdom Group," advising each other on a weekly conference call. Eventually, another colleague, Tom Hatton, joined them. And they noticed an industry need. “As the economy turned, some managers, not trained to facilitate, found themselves doing training due to layoffs, etc.,” said Kelly. They launched JICT Images: Journey with Intuition & Creativity to Transformation, a product with 72 images, which acts as a springboard to stimulate conversation and creativity for problem solving.


Their Advice: “An exit agreement is extremely important.  We were guided by an attorney; I believe investing in those who have expertise and offer an objective view is wise.”  

Photo Credit: Jim Graves

Keep Criticism Constructive

Their Friendship: Laurie Strack and Debbie Spaniol met while their children were in preschool together--18 years ago. “Debbie had a terrific sense of humor, totally invaluable in life,” said Strack.


Their Company: Over the years, Strack and Spaniol worked together on school fundraisers and other non-profit projects, eventually job sharing a special-events position. “Our motto has always been, ‘If it isn’t fun, we don’t want to do it',” said Strack. “Life’s too short not to have fun.” They decided to launch their own business as event planners. With We’ll Get It Done, LLC, they’ve hosted author book launches, weddings, and fundraisers, including one for a local food shelf.


Their Advice: “Look for a friend who can compliment your own personality traits and always keep communication open and criticisms or comments constructive. I believe we both feel very blessed to be working with each other and sharing a friendship such as ours is just an added bonus.”
 

Photo Credit: Laurie Strack

Honor Your Commitment

Their friendship: Alice Guilford and Terrie Rogers met at a national softball tournament in Macon, GA in 1987. “We became pen pals after our initial meeting,” said Guilford. A year later, Rogers moved to Florida, where Guilford lived, seeking a teaching position.


Their company: In 1999, Guilford’s father was diagnosed with emphysema. Shortly thereafter, he broke his hip and required constant care, so he moved in with her. After he died, Guilford’s mother was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Meanwhile, Rogers cared for her aging parents and their health concerns.


Their caregiving experiences led them to open Age Advantage in Palm Bay, FL, to provide affordable, comprehensive, non-medical care. “Instead of feeling as though we had to fight to make it work, the idea and process just flowed as if it was supposed to happen that way.”


Their advice: “To be honest, it has been a little tough, at times.  There have been moments, and still are times, when one of us just doesn’t get what the other has in mind.  But you’ve got to throw away your ego at times and look at the commitment you made when you got into it.“

Photo Credit: Alice Guilford

Laugh a Lot

Their Friendship: Jean Ketcham and C. Suzanne Bates met more than 35 years ago in St. Louis, MO. “We can finish each other’s sentences,” Bates said. “When I had a tumor in my head growing inches from my brain, she was with me the whole time.”

 

Their Company: Both Ketcham and Bates wished to help women get out of their mid-life ruts, so they founded a company, Aging But Dangerous, to give women over 50 an opportunity to expand their boundaries “and reduce their butts.” One event they host is the Martini Jump Skydive. “Last year we had 106 women over the age of 50 skydive in one day, a world record,” said Bates. This year, renowned polar explorer Ann Bancroft made her first jump with them.

 

Their Advice: “Make a pact with yourself that nothing is more important than your friendship.  Laugh a lot and don’t take anything more seriously than your bond with each other.”

 


Jennifer Jeanne Patterson is a freelance writer and author of 52 Fights. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three children. Find her blog at Unplanned Cooking


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Photo Credit: Jana Noonan Photography
First Published October 12, 2011

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