I’ve written before about how my wife, Julie Farkas, has been the most important partner in my career, not to mention my family. But in addition to Julie, I’ve been fortunate to have three wonderful business partners and friends who have been critical to the success of each enterprise: Barry Nalebuff at Honest Tea, Ethan Brown at Beyond Meat and now Spike Mendelsohn at Eat the Change. Here are some thoughts on why it makes sense to have a partner when starting a business, what makes a great partner, and how to find one.
First, why have a partner?
Building a company is tough– there’s tons of work to do and no matter how capable you think you are, almost every task comes out better when there is more than one brain, set of eyes and hands to help carry the load – sometimes that means pitching a retailer, speaking with investors, traveling to a conference, or tasting samples at a production run. And whenever possible, it’s great to share the load - the general code is that if both co-founders are in the same meeting, one of us isn’t getting much work done.
It’s lonely – even when you have a great team around you, there are certain conversations – usually the tough, existential ones -that you can only have with a partner. How do we keep an upbeat attitude while we’re bleeding chips? Do we sell, and if so, to whom? It’s tough to have those kinds of discussions with members of the team because they can easily morph into worries about job security. During the first five years of Honest Tea, Barry and I would have a phone call almost every evening (ideally not at dinner time) – sometimes we would talk through a strategic challenge, sometimes he’d give me a pat on the back and other times a kick in the pants. My main takeaway from those calls was that I wasn’t in it by myself.
A partner gives you a better shot at having life balance - Since Ethan had two children in middle school during the hyper-growth years of Beyond Meat and mine had already graduated from college, I was able to take on some of the international travel work, which enabled him to be present at more family dinners, not to mention volleyball and basketball games.
Better ideas can emerge when two people are losing sleep over a problem. While launching Eat the Change we were trying to understand how to dehydrate and flavor mushrooms for our jerky. After spending time on the phone seeking advice from farmers and scientists, I might wrap it up for the day, but Spike would then work hours in the kitchen, often late into the night when inspiration strikes.
Keys to a successful partnership:
Alignment on long-term goals – The weekend before I handed in my resignation at Calvert Funds to launch Honest Tea, I took the train up to New Haven to spend a day with Barry across his kitchen table. We talked about the business, but even more importantly, we talked about what we wanted out of life and the role that we hoped Honest Tea would play in it. As a result of that day-long conversation, we spared each other hours of wondering how the other would respond, and our partnership, as well as our friendship never wavered. Of course, we had moments of disagreement, but they were usually around petty things like label language, which my wife Julie usually settled by telling us to keep it real.
Clarity of roles – It is essential to have clarity about who does what and share that understanding with the team. Teams need to understand who is driving the bus, and who is helping with directions. At Honest Tea Barry was Chair and I was TeaEO. At Beyond Ethan was CEO and I was Executive Chair. Although I was in the office for several days a month, I made a point of never having a permanent desk. Now at Eat the Change, Spike is our Executive Chef, and I’m our CEO, though my official title is Chief Change Agent (I’ve never been one for traditional titles).
(Seth Goldman, Ethan Brown, and other key team members at the Beyond Meat IPO.)
Complementary skill sets – Though it’s great when partners are on the same wavelength, it’s even better when they bring different skills and ways of thinking to the opportunity. Spike is a classically trained chef, and my cooking “specialty” is peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches with banana slices in them. Spike’s creativity in the kitchen gives our products a “chef-crafted” quality, which is something I could never credibly claim to bring to our brand.
Shared stake in success – It is important each partner feels a meaningful sense of ownership in the business and its success. There are inevitably going to be challenging moments and you never want to create a scenario where a partner might feel like the load, and the upside, is not fairly distributed. The most common vehicle for creating a mutual sense of ownership is equity.
Constant communication – Every start-up enterprise goes through frequent changes – sometimes multiple iterations even in a single week. Ethan and I had scheduled calls every other day, and Spike and I are in touch every day. Barry would call in every night (often during dinner). It might feel like over-communicating, but each time you discuss an issue, you get the chance to reprocess it in a different way.
How to find a great partner?
Great partners can be found anywhere. I met Barry in the classroom where he was my professor. I met Ethan after I read an article about the company and emailed Beyond Meat with an offer to help out. I met Spike at a conference on diet and health.
So how do you recognize that someone could be the right fit? For me, I want to see evidence of original or creative thinking – Barry had literally written a strategy book entitled “Why Not?” which challenged many conventions of daily life, (including how to peel a banana!) When I read Ethan’s article about transforming the grocery meat case into a protein case, I immediately connected with his vision. Spike’s advocacy work in food policy and culinary talents, along with his enjoyment of surfing in the Potomac helped me recognize that he would be a fun and creative person to work with
So, the next time you’re in the classroom, at an incubator, chatroom, or even in Clubhouse, listen to what you’re hearing. Also listen carefully to who you are hearing. Who demonstrates a willingness to challenge conventional thinking and to act on their beliefs? That person could be the missing piece that makes your entrepreneurial puzzle complete.