biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies 09: how to form successful biz partnerships

by Grace Bonney

today’s first biz ladies post is about a topic that most of us have considered at some point or another- taking on a business partner. today meg touborg, co-founder of design investors llc (the only investment firm dedicated to growing design-based businesses!), is sharing her excellent tips for growing your business with a business partner. not sure if you need a partner, or how to start the process? meg has you covered- from figuring out how to find help, how to divide work, and how to plan the partnership as a whole. it’s a great article and i hope you’ll all check it out- even if you’re just starting out, it’s great to have a guide like this at hand when you one day decide you need an extra pair of hands around the office. thanks so much to meg for her help with this piece!

CLICK HERE for the full post below the jump!

A Busy Designer’s Biz Half:: How to Form Successful Business Partnerships

As a designer of products, graphics or environments, you naturally have an endless supply of ideas and inspiration—and yet, you may be ignorant, intimidated or simply disinterested in the mechanics of how to grow your business. You may contemplate hiring a Biz Lady or Biz Gent as your partner. This feature will address some of the questions that may be on your mind and will provide my observations and experiences from the other side as a successful “Biz Lady” myself for creative people.

1. How do you know when it’s time to take on a partner?

Two completely different times may prompt this decision:

* When your business is stagnant, and you are unsure of what to do to invigorate it. Do you need new distribution for your products or services? Is your pricing preventing customers? Are your offerings too broad, too narrow? Are you running out of money each month? Has one of your competitors done something that’s working really well and hurting your biz?
* When your business is on fire, and you are exhausted from keeping up. Do you need a more sophisticated accounting system or order processing method? Are customer service standards vulnerable as volume increases? Do you want more time to design new products and services, or to travel and scout for ideas?

Tip: Determine the “why” of the role before you actually decide “what” or “who” or “how much.”

2. What should they do vs. what you do?

Once you have refined the objective of the new role in your company, decide what their goals and activities should be, and how they relate to yours. One of my dearest biz friends and a nationally known designer simplified this question into the statement: “Meg does all the things I don’t want to have to do!” Another Biz Friend in the design industry summarized his job as “Getting Sh*t Done.” These are commonly found divisions of labor between a senior creative founder and a business partner:


* Long-term strategy
* Creative concept development
* Overseeing with other designers and production to deliver on all aesthetic decisions and quality
* Ultimate decision of product or service assortment, brand graphics/logo
* Public spokesperson

Biz Lady or Gent:

* Sales
* Breadth, pricing and profitability of your assortment of products and services
* Time and action calendars for product launches
* Management reports and analyses
* Troubleshooting and negotiations when things go wrong
* People (“human resources”)
* Budget setting and tracking; oversight on finances
* Legal oversight: contracts, copyrights, etc.

Shared Responsibilities:

* Customer contacts and meetings
* Identification of new factories or suppliers
* Market trips and awareness of competitors in your space
* Hiring and firing decisions

Tip: Clarify up what you want to do, and what you want him or her to do to best avoid agonizing confusion later. However, these boundaries can be flexible, especially as the business grows and your relationship and achievements with each other expand! Just make sure you communicate when your expectations change!

3. How do you find someone?

Personal referrals are always best, especially for as straightforward as this outline is, the end decision is one of chemistry and gut reaction. So, start talking to your fellow designers and see if they have met anyone, or have engaged anyone, you find both impressive in credentials and compelling as a person. Explain your search and ask for referrals.

If your company is sizeable, your need is immediate and you simply don’t have the time to do the word-of-mouth, then hire an executive recruiter. Again, ask around for referrals and ensure that you meet and brief the recruiter and they “get” you and your company. Expect to pay anywhere from 15-30% of the first year’s salary to the recruiter. But in return, you will get a formal job description, position scope and a variety of candidates who meet your qualifications. Also, the recruiter will negotiate the compensations and benefits for you!

Tip: If you use a recruiter, then interview and assess the recruiter closely, as the point is to save you time and remove risk from the process.

4. Hiring Decision

Assuming you have done steps 1-3, you now have identified worthy candidate(s). To ensure long-term success, it is not just a matter of skills—it is compatible styles too. What else should you be doing and asking yourself?

* Pick someone you like, and don’t tell yourself “Love Will Grow.”

o You will spend a lot of time together—likely to be traveling on airplanes together, trade shows, late nights in the office sharing dinner from vending machines and water fountains— so make sure this is someone you can see yourself with under non-glamorous conditions!

o Check out their outside interests (books, art, fashion, kids, dogs, yoga, food) to keep you connected beyond the business.
o Do you communicate easily and with humor?
o Do you like how they dress and accessorize? Not a superficial question, this individual is a reflection of your firm and values, and needs to be visually simpatico, not identical, to you.

Have a trusted advisor meet them, too (lawyer, external colleague) who will know you and know what styles works well with you.

Listen to stories, not just resume items.

Check references from peers and subordinates, not just bosses.

TIP: Study how they react to your product range and acknowledge other people in your office. When I hired my first nanny, a friend gave me the tip to make sure the candidates reached for the baby and interacted with him throughout the interview. Same thing here: feel good that their interest and curiosity in your products, materials and services are real and instinctive!

5. Being Successful

* What your Biz Partner is likely to value:

o No drama
o Give clear and immediate feedback
o Tangible achievements
o Making plans and sticking with them
o Explanations

* Show your work

o Explain why you made the choices you did. “It’s pretty” doesn’t cut it. Challenge yourself to describe scale proportion, color, mood and other attributes.

* Genuinely listen even when in violent disagreement

o Question aggressively
o Try to respond to the points directly, not emotionally


Meg combines her love of design, fashion and culture into her career as “the business side of creative people and entrepreneurs.” Her roles have spanned from product development, to sales, to operations and marketing and licensing for premium brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach, kate spade and Waterowrks. She has 3 children and enjoys involvement in the public schools. In 2007 she became an entrepreneur herself and, with her business partner, founded Design Investors LLC in Westport, CT.


Design Investors LLC was established with a singular objective: to support the growth and profitability of the design industry’s most promising product, business service, and media companies. The firm partners with founders and management teams of portfolio companies to infuse creativity with capital, and reinforce business plans with an extensive resource network and many years of relevant management experience. Appreciating the unique vision and opportunities available to each investment, Design Investors works side-by-side with companies to maximize value through building market leadership positions. www.designinvestors.com

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  • As I was driving in this morning to my graphic design job, I was dreaming of my own start-up. This is great information to help me see that starting is possible and it just takes the first step. Thanks for the great insight and tips!

  • Thank you Meg and Grace. This was a really good post. Have you considered a Biz Ladies topic on production partnerships and production resources for designers? This is something I am struggling with and would love to hear from someone who knows something about it. It would also be great to hear from other small biz ladies that have taken the leap from producing their own designs to a larger scale production method.

  • wow, I can tell this is going to be really useful to me in the future. Talk about a valuable blog post! I’ll be printing this out; I hope you don’t mind. =) Thank you!

  • fantastic, nuanced + real, meg’s advice is just spot on ! this topic has been on my mind for a while and it’s great to see it so well-presented; thanks, grace ! I wonder what a small business does when they can’t afford to pay a partner of this caliber – or where to look outside one’s immediate contact base ….

  • Fantastic advice! Thank you Grace+Meg! Just what I needed to read this morning as I prepare myself to enter into this next phase of my business. :)