How to Run a Business With a Partner

The co-owners of Birch Coffee talk frankly about what it's like working with a business partner.
cofounder, livecube
July 31, 2012

Having a business partner or co-founder can have its rewards and drawbacks. Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader, founders of Birch Coffee, the first green coffee shop in New York, have been business partners for years, and sat down with OPEN Forum to talk about their experience.

"I didn't expect him to jump in and help, but he sort of invited himself into it," Lyman says with a laugh. "It turned out to be the best business decision I ever made."

Though Lyman knows it's possible for people to run a successful business on their own, he can't imagine things differently. "There is so much that we do," he says. "Our business has turned into so much more; we have wholesale accounts, ice coffee jug accounts, a new store opening up on the Upper West Side soon. There are so many benefits to being able to work with someone. Sometimes I can't imagine having done everything without someone else."

When talking to Lyman and Schlader, it's easy to understand the dynamic between them; they often finish each other's sentences, sprinkling back-and-forth jokes into the conversation. Many qualities the pair possess have contributed to Birch Coffee's success.

"Having a business partner is like a marriage and the business is our child," Lyman says. "From the beginning, we had similar visions of how we wanted to have that child raised. At first, we didn't really know what each other's business ethic was like, but now we're more synchronized."

Here are some of the things they say about opening up a business with a partner:

Strengths and weaknesses. 

Working with a partner gives founders the time to focus more on their strengths and less on their weaknesses. At Birch, Lyman is better with the coffee and food menu and dealing with employees, whereas Schlader is more a business and handyman. Having each other makes it possible for the men to work on the aspects of the business that they enjoy the most.

"I'm a foodie, so when it comes to food and coffee, I have a specific standard and anything less than that doesn't leave our bar or kitchen," Lyman says. "When it comes to our strengths, we've been able to hone those things. Sure, I could make the excel spreadsheet and make the numbers work, but it would take longer and I would like it less."

Celebration. 

What good is a celebration without having someone to celebrate with? Having someone there when things go well is just as important as when things aren't doing so great.

"One of the best things about having a business partner is sharing the joy and triumph of the business," Schlader says. "When we accomplish something, we are happy to have each other to celebrate with."

"There's a lot of high-fiving that goes on around here," Lyman adds. "Each time makes me feel more challenged. A lot of times it's because I feel like I need to get up on Paul's level."

Work ethic.

"Work ethic has the potential to pulls partners apart," Schlader says. "We are both hard workers and care deeply about the business. Some people look at owning a business as a novelty versus the tremendous amount of blood and tears that's needed to make the business successful."

"If one person's work ethic isn't up to the other's, it's something that you need to discuss," Lyman says. "Even if something is going to be an uncomfortable situation for us, we do it because we know the business comes first."

Comfortability. 

Lyman and Schlader admit it took many years for them to feel completely comfortable discussing business matters with one another, but both agree that they put egos aside to do what's best for the business.

"In the beginning, I didn't feel comfortable talking about some necessary things," Lyman says. "One of the things I struggled with in the beginning was having to let people go. I will never be fully comfortable doing it, but I've gotten more used to it. I know that I have to do it because it is in the best interest of business and our relationship. Same goes for dealing with any uncomfortable business issue."

On communication. 

Both men agree that communication and honesty is at the forefront of running a business with someone else. They've seen other partnerships disintegrate over issues that could have been solved by properly communicating and telling the truth to their partner.

"Communication is absolutely essential," Lyman says. "In fact, communication is one of the founding principles at Birch Coffee. We wanted to create something that fosters creativity and interaction. We have analog weekend here, where we don't allow laptops because we want people to sit downstairs and communicate with each other and meet new people. We want to give people a place to come to get out of their own lives."

On second opinions. 

Working with a partner provides an invaluable second opinion, which is something the Birch founders experience over and over again.

"We're a sustainable business," Schlader says. "And when we were opening I insisted on using Hudson Valley Fresh milk. It was the best milk out there and I wanted it for our store. But Jeremy was the one that said to me, 'If we use that milk, we'll be closing our doors.' It was pretty expensive milk. It would have practically shut down the business, so we decided not to. Eventually, we were able to afford it, and I was so excited to call Hudson Valley and place that order."

Do you have a business partner? What practices do you have in place to keep the partnership strong?

Photo credit: Birch Coffee