How to Go Into Business With Your Bestie

Photo by JESSICA SCHMITT
Starting a company with a friend can be the best of both worlds—you're working with a partner you can trust and a confidante you can lean on. Here's how to safeguard your relationship from the trials of entrepreneurship.

When Ginger Johnson and Liz Pickett met in 2006, the two had immediate homegirl chemistry, bonding in particular over their shared love of beauty products.

During a conversation at brunch, Johnson and Pickett learned that they'd both had adverse reactions to the toxic ingredients in nail polish when they were teenagers. "We had that "aha" moment," says Johnson, 36, a Spelman-educated marketing expert who had previous stints at American Express and MTV. "I have eczema and Liz has sensitive skin, and we wanted our line to speak to our lifestyle: What you put into your body affects your skin and your nails." So the duo got serious about their passion.

After almost a year of product development, which included testing out formulas and finding manufacturers, Ginger + Liz Colour Collection launched in 2010. Since then, their vegan nail lacquer has been distributed in more than 1,000 locations nationwide and sales have increased by 60 percent every year for the past three years. Last year, their numbers tripled.

KNOW WHAT'S BEST FOR THE TEAM.

"You've got to check your ego at the door and do what's best for the project," says Pickett, 31, a former model and graduate of Wesleyan University. "Your way may not always be the best way."

BE FINANCIALLY PREPARED.

Like in marriages, money tops the list of reasons business partnerships fail. "We both made it a point to have enough money saved to support ourselves for six to nine months," Johnson says. "We knew not to expect a windfall and were ready to put in the work before reaping any financial benefits. That allowed us to focus 100 percent on growing our business without the distraction of financial pressure."

Seven years ago, Yukia Walker had an epiphany while shopping for a wedding gown. "When Yukia asked for a size 16 to try on, the bridal consultant laughed at her," recalls 34-year-old Yuneisia Harris, Walker's sister. In an inspired moment of clarity, Walker, 38, came up with the idea for Curvaceous Couture, a plus-size bridal boutique. "Every bride deserves to be treated with respect and kindness," says Walker.

With their parents as early investors, the sisters converted their father's basement man cave into their first boutique. Six months later, they turned a 5,000-square-foot retail space into a stylish bridal shop, its sales floor encircled with racks of gowns catering exclusively to voluptuous brides-to-be ranging from size 12 to 44.

Since launching the business in 2008, they've serviced more than 6,500 brides, and now star in their own reality show, TLC's Curvy Brides. "Having my sister as a business partner, someone I know who has my family's best interests in mind, that's important and that's what's best for me," Walker says. "I know she's going to make sure this doesn't fall to the ground."

GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING.

Protect the interests of both parties by legally structuring the partnership. "I don't believe my sister would ever fail me. But at the same time, it's business," says Harris, who had a previous career in pharmaceutical sales. "We structured it so we can't make major moves without each other. It's smart to hire business lawyers who have each member's back." Walker, a former government contractor, agrees, "We see so many families fight over money and nothingness. Our agreement is there and there's no insult or issue."

PUSH THROUGH THE HARD STUFF.

When Walker seemed disconnected from her sister and the business, Harris felt abandoned, having to handle much of the decision making alone. The shift stemmed from an undiagnosed thyroid illness that was exacerbating Walker's diabetes. Once her health problems were corrected, however, there was still the work of repairing their relationship. "I think there was some bitterness for a while and some loss of trust," says Walker. "Our parents helped mediate as we talked and worked through everything." During or after a crisis, enlist the help of a business therapist or counselor to fortify the relationship and to create action steps for continued success. ?
Back in 1991, CNBC colleagues Renée Warren and Kirsten Hill wanted to go on vacation together, but they couldn't afford the trip. Over lunch one day, they decided to turn a profit by throwing an after-work party for young professionals. "We were like, "This is a nice restaurant. Why don't we go eat in here and see if we can raise money to go on vacation?"" remembers Hill, 50. The event was a success, and when they came back from sunny Aruba and Curaçao, they had a list of requests from folks interested in having them coordinate other events like it.

More than 20 years after its founding, Noelle-Elaine Media, Inc. (a mash-up of their middle names), specializes in event management and show production. Warren and Hill have launched events for BET and the National Urban League, and produced video segments for their former employer, CNBC. They've defied economic recessions and shifting trends, and have done so with their friendship intact, even documenting their business adventures in a book: You Buy the Peanut Butter, I'll Get the Bread: The Absolutely True Adventures of Best Friends in Business (Plume).

MAKE TIME TO BE WHO YOU WERE BEFORE THE BUSINESS.

Be deliberate about nurturing the relationship as much as you invest in the partnership. "When we started, Kirsten and I were talking about the business a lot because it was our baby. But we had to separate our friendship sometimes, so I would call her and say, "I want to speak to Kirsten my friend,"" Warren says. "Imagine being married and having a baby at home. When you go out to dinner, you have to go, "Okay, we're not going to talk about the baby tonight.""

LET HARDSHIP GROW YOU, NOT TEAR YOU APART.

"We had a really big tax scare that could have taken us over the edge. We were able to find a banker who believed in us and secured a line of credit and a loan that we used to pay the IRS. We paid the loan back with monthly deductions in less than five years," Hill recalls. It was a shared responsibility from beginning to end. "We got into that situation by minding our client's work but not our own store. I'm convinced we're much better off financially because of that crisis. Renée had to do a lot of the heavy lifting with the IRS, while I did the backstory, writing letters, finding proof of past payments. We learned from it and now make better decisions professionally and personally, but at no time did we think, Let's call it a day. We fought to survive."

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now!

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