We all dream of business success, but often success can mean your business grows faster than you can handle. Sometimes the answer is bringing on an equal partner, someone who is as invested as you are in your business’ success.
When I started The Sewing Directory while on maternity leave in 2010, I planned for it to be a part-time business which allowed me to stay at home with my baby. Within a matter of months I was working 60-hour weeks while looking after my son at the same time. Somehow, I managed to keep that pace up for over four years until I hit burn out. It was then that I realized the only way forward was to bring in help.
Why choose a partner instead of an employee or a freelancer? For me, I was putting so much time and effort into my business and I needed help from someone who was prepared to do the same. The best way to ensure that was to sell them half the company. By giving them a stake in the business, the more they put in the more they would get out.
Claire-Louise Hardie, the founder of The Thrifty Stitcher a London-based online sewing school, has had three business partners. In the past she brought in a business partner when she was struggling with her workload and wanted more time to focus on the creative side of her business. More recently she took on a partner for her online sewing school because she needed someone with filming and editing skills but didn’t have the budget to pay them on a per-job basis. Hardie knew she needed a partner rather than just an employee.
“A partner is invested in growing a company and making it profitable, whereas an employee isn’t,” Hardie explained.
Hardie initially tried partnering with a friend but found it affected their friendship when they discovered their core values and work ethics were not aligned. She advises not partnering with a friend unless you are prepared to lose that friendship. She met her other partners through work.
For Anna Bruce, founder of Make It Patterns, that same realization came after doing all the groundwork to get the business up and running and launching her first collection. She knew at that early stage she needed help if she was to promote and grow her brand. Bruce had originally planned to get freelance help but started corresponding with Olu Falola (her future partner) after Falola won a competition she was running. Falola offered to host a blog tour for her, and Bruce was very impressed with her professionalism and talent. So, when she found out that Falola also had the skills she was looking for, she invited her to become an equal partner.
I met my business partner, Julie Briggs, through her role as editor of Sewing World Magazine. I had freelanced for her for several years, meeting up every few months to pitch article ideas. I knew we worked well together and had similar ideas and ways of working. When she mentioned she was thinking of moving on from the magazine, I asked her to come run the Sewing Directory with me.
For both myself and Bruce, the determining factor for who to invite to become our partners came down to a gut feeling that we would work well together. We also knew that our future partners had the skills and expertise we needed to complement our own. For Hardie, this was the basis of her most recent partnership.
When asked what has made their partnership successful, Bruce said:
“I think having the same vision and a completely different skill set has been the secret to a successful business partnership. Also, maybe not knowing Olu on a personal level at first has allowed us to gradually develop a relationship that works on both a professional and a friendship level.”
Hardie feels that another key to a successful partnership is to make sure you create an agreement together which covers goals, aspirations, and deal breakers to make sure you both have the same plans for the business. She also believes it is essential both partners are honest about what time, skills, and money they can commit to the business, and that there is a clear separation of roles and workload.
It can be difficult bringing someone new into your business, especially when, like me, you have spent several years running it your way. Before Briggs joined, we talked about who would take which roles, what our plans for the future of the business were, and what we would do if the partnership didn’t work out. Because I have a legal background I was able to draft up a partnership agreement covering every eventuality we could think of. I drew up process guides for the various roles she would be taking on and once she had settled into the business we did a process review to change things a bit and streamline the business. That allowed us to both work fewer hours while keeping the income steady and for her to start making her stamp on the business.
Bruce and Falola took a more relaxed route—they did not formally designate roles. Instead, they just happened upon their roles based on their different areas of expertise. If anything comes up that either of them could do, they decide between them who will take responsibility. They didn’t have a written partnership agreement but updated the company registration to ensure they were both named as equal partners.
Hardie’s most recent partnership is based upon them both having very different skills and roles within the business, and it is working well.
If you are thinking about taking on a partner, be sure to review the Craft Industry Alliance list of discussion questions as you prepare your operating agreement.
It can be tricky taking on a new partner, especially in that transitional phase (learning to let go!), but I am so grateful for my partner. I would not be able to keep on top of my workload without her, and it is much easier to bounce ideas between two people than working alone. Bruce says for her it was a great fit right from the beginning, and it is great having someone to share the journey with. Hardie says of her third, and most successful partnership, that it has been a brilliant experience to be working with someone who brings as much enthusiasm to the business as she does.
Fiona is the founder of The Sewing Directory – www.thesewingdirectory.co.uk – and author of the forthcoming book Making & Marketing a Successful Art & Craft Business, published in September 2018.