1. The importance of yin and yang
Having met at uni, friends Liha Okunniwa and Abi Oyepitan had long discussed starting a business together before they set up cosmetic brand LIHA Beauty. Here Liha shares the experiences of having a co-founder.
‘At the beginning it was like a free-for-all, finding our feet and seeing who was better at doing what. Then the roles naturally defined themselves. I’m more of an analogue person and Abi had more knowledge of digital – she was adamant that we sell online and make the website really interactive. Obviously, things have a structure, but for us the structure has come naturally.
‘We’re super close but very different – yin and yang. That difference in itself is a challenge because we’re always trying to find the balance, trying to find this place where we’re not disagreeing but just seeing it from different sides. Whatever idea I have, I already know what I need to have done before I put it to her. It’s great for the business because we don’t just “yes” each other all the time. Whatever I want to do, she wants to do the other thing. So we end up drilling down into absolutely everything.
‘We set up from our kitchen, with £3k each; that rapid growth has been challenging. I don’t think we could have done it without each other. Abi’s got the athlete mentality – everything is a competition and has to be done to a degree of excellence. She has pushed me out of my comfort zone.
‘This might sound extreme, but I’d say consider therapy. It’ll be the relationship you spend most of your time on, so all your shit’s going to come out. If you go into business with a friend, you need a very clear delineation – and be aware that sometimes the business will overtake the friendship. That can be quite weird if you’re not prepared for it.’
2. ‘In the end someone has to be the boss’
James Nord is founder of Fohr Card, a New York-based influencer marketing company. He shares the key lessons he’s learned while navigating the co-founder relationship.
‘Like any long-term relationship, making it work with a co-founder is predicated on an ability to change. After all, a business’ journey from an initial idea to a team of five employees is going to need different leadership than its journey from 50 to 100 employees – and on, and on, and on. Growth changes, and change is hard.
‘In my eight years of running my business, there have been a few key transitions that have been particularly hard on the co-founder relationship – and one that eventually ended it. These three lessons have been crucial.
‘First, a good co-founder is going to be someone who can do 10 jobs well today and one job exceptionally years down the track. Someone who can go from generalist to specialist.
‘Second, it’s important to consider that the kind of people who quit their jobs and start businesses aren’t always the same people who want to scale and grow that business. Building and optimising processes isn’t going to require the same toolbox as launching something new.
‘Third – and this was the hardest for us – in the end, someone has to be the boss. Even in a 50/50 partnership there still has to be someone with veto power, generally the CEO, and that leaves one co-founder essentially working for the other.
‘I see more co-founder relationships end than I do flourish, but I still believe in them. It’s true that a business couldn’t have existed without someone and, at the same time, it can also be true that it’s best for it to continue without them.’
3. Finding a partner after launch
Remington Matters runs a design and production studio in Australia, focused on custom furniture and lighting solutions. He launched his company without a partner but, as the business expanded, he decided he needed one. He explains why.
‘For me, it wasn’t a necessity to take on a partner in the beginning. I had close relationships with my staff and they were all invested in the business, so they acted almost as partners. But there was a lack of security and a feeling at the end of the day that you’re still on your own.
‘Someone started working for me right at the moment when the business started to grow. It was a friendship first and foremost, but there was an energising element that was so valuable. I always struggled with drive; in moments when things were quiet, I’d get distracted. I needed somebody to offset that part of me and ensure everything was still moving in a linear direction.
‘This was the first time I’d offered a share of the business to somebody. The actual process of taking on a partner is way more of a headache than I imagined. Ours is a creative business – we’re designers, and practical with our hands – so gathering all the documents was arduous, but valuable to understand.
‘I have a workshop in Perth and one in Adelaide, but it seemed the most reasonable thing to allow my partner Angus McBride to buy into the whole business. We still speak on the phone every day; the conversations are energising still, even though he’s 2,800 kilometres away.
‘Now, we’re pushing towards a goal together and it feels really good. It’s kind of like getting married – you’re confirming that you want to be with this person and you want to venture into the next phase of your business life.’
This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.