The secrets of a great creative business partnership

On the face of it, the only business lessons from Valentine’s Day are for florists, card makers – and maybe the new breed of food business doing dinner and cocktails for home delivery. But Valentine’s is really about one of the secret sauces of so many great businesses: a strong partnership, usually built on mutual respect and complementary skills, which can often be the difference between a business failing or thriving.

Kate Hamilton (left) and Emily Ames

Kate Hamilton and Emily Ames founded copywriting and branding agency Sonder & Tell in September 2017 after meeting while studying in Barcelona, and worked together on independent travel magazine Suitcase. Building a community of content creators, with an emphasis on sharp storytelling, they have worked with brands like Airbnb, Bumble and the Lick paint brand.

Kate says: ‘When I met Em in Barcelona, we were instantly friends. We see the world in the same way, and have an understanding of each other despite being quite different. Em’s more of an extrovert, who can very quickly verbalise what she’s thinking, but I’m more of a thinker and a writer, who needs time to get my thoughts together. Working at Suitcase, we found that we were good colleagues as well as friends.

‘With Sonder & Tell, we were both involved with every part of the business from the start, though maybe with Em more on the concept side, and me doing more of the copywriting and implementation of projects. As the team’s grown [to four], Em’s done a bit more of the management and creative direction, while I’ve done more on new business and creative sign-offs. Lockdown has changed things, too, with much more time using Slack and Miro, an online whiteboard that we’ve found really useful.

‘We make decisions quickly because we’re intuitive and know what each other is thinking, but one problem with being such good friends is holding each other fully accountable. We recently hired a business coach, Mitali Chopra, and having a ‘fake boss’ has made such a big difference, because she’s not afraid to call us out if we’ve not done something. And we’ve tried to make more time to be just friends, and not talk about work. We actually have it scheduled in our diaries now.’

Breezy (left) and Coco Dotson

Super-stylish twins Corianna and Brianna Dotson, aka Coco and Breezy, founded their eponymous eyewear brand in New York City in 2009, having worn DIY-adorned sunglasses through high school in Minnesota as a defence against bullies. Their sunglasses and optical glasses have since been worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Prince, while they also make music and DJ together, and own a guesthouse, The Lorca, a series of renovated lodges in The Catskills where the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca once holidayed. With their own aspirational podcast and 160k Instagram followers (they once had 50k MySpace followers), they are also prominent black voices, especially for the black LGBTQ movement.

Coco says: ‘When we grew up, we felt like outcasts, but we always had each other and we were never apart – even when we were working three jobs outside of high school after our dad had a stroke when we were 16, we did them together. But we are different, which is part of the reason we work as a business and creative partnership. Breezy is more spontaneous than me. She’ll take risks and make faster decisions, whereas if it was just me we’d sit on everything for too long.’

Breezy says: ‘Coco is a doer and an amazing analyser, who always sees the bigger picture. She calms me down, and stops me making rash decisions. When it comes to Coco And Breezy Eyewear, our roles mesh well. Coco does more of the marketing and business operations, whereas I’m more on the design development and wholesale side. Duane Baker, who we brought in as co-founder, is really important in our supply chain logistics and accounting, which allows us more space to be the brand.

‘Coco and I didn’t have a day apart until we were in our 20s, and there have been times we’ve needed space from each other and the brand – especially in the early days, when we were the founders, the models, everything. We have about one argument a year. But we always come back together, and we always lift each other up. Even when we had low self-esteem and were being bullied, we had each other. That’s like a superpower, and it’s a big part of what we’ve achieved.’

 

John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair (left) and Mills Miller

Mills Miller and Sinx Sinclair (Matt and John to their parents) founded the ustwo mobile design agency in Shoreditch in 2004, with their ‘fampany’ going on to create iconic mobile games including Monument Valley, and to create industry-leading work for clients from Lego to Deepmind and Joe Wicks.

Mills says: ‘Sinx and I have been best friends since school. We’re very different, but we just work somehow – maybe because our core values have always been aligned, and we’ve always had a very real respect for one another. He’s always been the steadier one, who’s kept an eye on the finances and the client relations, and allowed me to bring the flair – to be a sort of hype man, and to take risks. He knows exactly when to put the brakes on my crazy ideas, but also when to indulge them. He’s always been there for me on a personal level – giving me time off when I needed it after Monument Valley, but more importantly just supporting me and allowing me to be a person I didn’t even know I could be. He got my first job in design (at Shoreditch studio Big Animal), and he’s had my back ever since.’

Further learning on partnerships

  1. The Partners podcast, by Song Exploder creators Radiotopia, features business, creative and romantic partnerships that work, from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and son/musical partner Spencer to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna.
  2. This Inc. piece has some useful primers on finding the right partner for your business, starting with an example from the tech world in Bill Gates and Steve Balmer.
  3. This HubSpot blog is about some of the most successful creative partnerships ever – starting with some pop psychology about why ‘supergroups’ rarely work out, because complementary skills are key.
  4. Finally, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration may be two decades old but remains a classic – and was, aptly, co-written by late leadership studies pioneer Warren Bennis and writing partner Patricia Ward Biederman.

Happy Valentine’s, and here’s to your creative business feeling the love this year.