Lessons from work partners who struck out on their own, together
Published on August 19, 2022
When your co-founder is your friend, how do you make work work?
When Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo had an idea for a fashion business that mixed retail with storytelling, they were cautiously optimistic about turning their long-time friendship into a professional one. “There was a bit of a testing period where we treated it like an extracurricular activity at first,” says Erica. “And I think that was a really good way for us to both feel out how we work together.”
It turned out their hunch was right—for the business and their working relationship. What started as an idea to offer limited edition pieces from independent designers and telling their stories has kicked off over a decade of partnership. They’ve since built, grown and eventually sold what later became Of A Kind and literally wrote the book on the power of female friends in business along the way. Claire and Erica are still working together today as consultants and co-hosts of the cult podcast and newsletter A Thing Or Two.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, doing it on your own gets a lot of praise. But even the scrappiest solopreneur understands that turning a spark of an idea into a full-fledged enterprise requires more than just one pair of hands—something the co-founders, work partners, and professional twin flames of the entrepreneur world know all too well. For these duopreneurs, a shared dream is just the kindling they need to strike out on their own—together.
Starting a company together was a deeply personal endeavor for Vanessa and Kim Pham. Not only are they sisters and best friends, but their business is also rooted in their family history and identity as daughters of Vietnamese refugees. “Growing up as first-gen Vietnamese Americans, Kim and I never felt seen or heard by the ethnic aisles in mainstream grocery stores,” says Vanessa. “So we quit our jobs to build a brand that would re-imagine this whole category.”
The result was Omsom, a food brand that offers a variety of Asian pantry staples that pays homage to their culture. The name originated from the Vietnamese phrase om sòm, which roughly translates to ‘rowdy’ or ‘rambunctious.’ Since their launch in May 2020, they’ve amassed a huge following and their products are now sold in select retail stores across the US, including Whole Foods.
These duos are part of a cohort of entrepreneurs who are leaving their traditional jobs behind and starting new ventures with someone they trust. For the duopreneurs who turn friendships, family ties, and other personal connections into business ones, how do you find success while keeping your individual creativity, as well as your relationship, intact? According to these duopreneurs, creating clearly defined roles, making space for personal pursuits and downtime, and being open to tough conversations are key.
Define clear roles
Starting a business with someone you know well has its benefits, but it doesn’t exempt you from the challenges of running that business—especially when more than half of startup failures are attributed to conflicts amongst co-founders. While trust and familiarity can be high in duopreneurships, it’s easy to get tangled in overlapping roles and uncertainty around who is in charge of what.
When starting Of A Kind, Clare and Erica sat down and made a spreadsheet defining their roles, such as who would own business development or marketing decisions. It proved to be a useful practice that helped them grow both as a team and individuals.
“It forced us to carve out what our roles were, even for parts of the business where we didn’t bring expertise initially,” says Erica, which pushed them to “eventually become the person who had that expertise.”
Vanessa and Kim also split up tasks when it comes to running Omsom. Kim leads all things brand, creative, and marketing, while Vanessa handles strategy, operations, and finance. “Our roles at Omsom [are] very much left brain vs. right brain,” says Kim. “We have our own areas in leading our team and brand and it helps create a healthy partnership as sisters.”
Make space for creativity
Making decisions, delegating tasks, and pulling all the other levers required to keep a business running can leave little room for what’s at the core of most entrepreneurial endeavors: creativity. Finding ways to innovate is challenging enough on your own, but for duopreneurs, thinking outside the box while staying on the same page as your partner can be especially tricky.
Staying connected and radically honest with each other is one way Vanessa and Kim make more space for their creative selves. “We have regular, daily sync-ups that allow us to be real and vulnerable with one another,” says Vanessa. “When you put everything on the table, it creates a lot of space for creative problem-solving and blue sky thinking.”
They also set aside time for what they call founder dates. On the agenda: hang out and not talk about work at all. “It allows us to remind one another of our humanity and wholeness as individuals outside of Omsom,” says Vanessa.
Claire and Erica share a similar understanding that taking breaks from work together can actually serve their own creativity and the overall health of their business. They dedicate Fridays to their own purely creative, individual work—like fiction writing (Erica) or painting and drawing (Claire). “We really have been wanting to get a little bit more into the creative things we enjoy doing that aren't just tied to our day-to-day jobs,” says Erica—though, “ultimately, it does fuel what you're doing in your day-to-day job, too.”
“When you put everything on the table, it creates a lot of space for creative problem-solving and blue sky thinking.”
Welcome tough conversations
When it comes to conflict, professional relationships are just like any other kind of relationship. Some friction is bound to happen. But avoiding the problem is more likely to lead to failure in companies than the problem itself, especially when you’re just starting out.
“Vanessa and I have long wanted to start a business together as sisters and best friends, but I’m not going to lie—it was really difficult in the beginning!” recalls Kim. Communication was key for both their relationship as partners and for the business. “We had to work through years of a slightly competitive spirit, unresolved issues, past traumas, and projecting of narratives,” she says.
When researching and talking to other women co-founders for their book Work Wife, Claire and Erica found avoiding conflict to be a common theme. “I think it can be very easy for two people to be on this track, feeling the same discontent, but neither wanting to say anything because they don't want to rock things,” says Erica. For their own partnership, they realized that learning how to fight helped them bring up and resolve small issues before they became larger ones.
“We're able to compartmentalize and know that at the end of the day we love each other and this little thing is not the thing,” says Erica. “The most important thing is transparency.”
Don’t shy away from your personal connection
For so long, business advice sang the same one-note tune: don’t mix the personal with the professional. But really knowing someone on a personal level and leaning into that initial connection can bring a nuanced harmony to a work relationship.
In Claire and Erica’s case, the built-in comfort that comes with years of friendship proved to be more of a booster to their professional partnership than a hindrance. “I think we both really valued having a sense of how the other person moved through the world before starting a business together,“ says Erica. “We had the context of each other's family relationships, and friendships, and love lives. We had the sense of what the other person valued and what were struggles for them.”
"The most important thing is transparency."
This kind of personal context can be a boon for psychological safety—a shared belief held by members of a team that their teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up. According to Amy Edmonson, who coined the term in 1999, it’s crucial to the wellbeing of professional teams. In fact, studies have found that teams with high psychological safety are 50% more productive and experience 76% less stress.
At Omsom, Kim and Vanessa’s relationship laid the foundation for exactly that kind of psychological cushion. They allow each other space to make mistakes, have bad days, and ultimately move through challenges together.
“I’m really lucky to have such a deep love, respect, and trust in Vanessa as my co-founder,” says Kim. “No matter how bad things get, I know that I never ever have to question her work or intent. We’re both just trying our best, and we give each other a lot of grace and patience through it all.”