7 Secrets of the Successful Business Partnership

It can be a marriage made in heaven . . . or you know where. How to thrive, not just survive

Photograph by Getty Images/Vetta
A scary glimpse into the future of communication

Leslie Smolan and Ken Carbone have been business partners for 35 years, longer than either of them has been married. They’ve weathered ups and downs in the economy and their relationship. Their New York-based branding and design firm, Carbone-Smolan, has done work for Morgan Stanley, the Chicago Symphony, Mandarin Oriental and the Louvre. Their book, Dialog, on how to make a great design partnership, comes out in September. Here’s their story of a successful partnership.

1. Opposites Attract

Their partnership ticks because they have completely different skills. “Ken’s the artist,” Smolan says. “He loves the big ideas. I’m all about the details. He loves image. I love content. I come from a family of entrepreneurs [her brother Rick launched the famous series of Day in the Life photo books, and her brother Sandy is a film and TV director]. Ken says we’d have gone bankrupt if not for me.”

Having complementary abilities doubles the expertise of a small business.

2. Divide and Conquer

The partners seldom co-lead a project, preferring to each run their own. But they use one another as built-in consultants. “Ken was born with a crayon in his hand. I consult him on anything visual,” Smolan says. “I’m the strategic thinker who likes the organization of long, complicated projects.”

3. Communicate

There’s a partners meeting every Monday, focusing on new business and who’s doing what, followed by an operations lunch with the entire staff where they share ideas: best practices, how a client presentation worked, demonstration of a new device. In addition, Carbone and Smolan have an off-site management meeting once a month. They live in the same Hudson River town and sometimes drive to work together to catch up.

4. Don’t Fear a Fight

Decades ago, the partners battled over whether to invest in what were, at the time, extremely expensive computers. Smolan argued that the investment would pay dividends in their perfectionist office where a proposal would be retyped seven times, and she won.

Like the couple that never goes to bed angry, the pair has argued and cajoled over many issues but always remained respectful friends. Their heartfelt advice: Don’t be afraid to fight and disagree.

5. Take Breaks

When they’d been working together two decades, Smolan announced that she needed a sabbatical, an everyday occurrence in universities across the land but unheard of in a small business partnership. “I needed a break to widen my perspective on the world without the agenda of projects and clients,” she says. Smolan wanted a year, but she negotiated down to seven months off, which she took in 1999-2000. In the summer of 2001, Carbone began a seven-month sabbatical.

They both left the office cold turkey. No phone calls, no communication at all. It was a tremendous act of faith to leave the business in a partner’s hands, but they believed in each other and it worked out. The business softened in the economic downturn after 9/11, but Smolan rode it out and when Carbone returned early in 2002, he had the energy to help lead them forward again.

Having a partner away yielded another advantage: the opportunity for other designers to step up to the plate and run projects.

Being commander in chief was a refreshing change. “It was great for each of us not to have to negotiate every decision with some. Just say ‘my way’ for a while,” Smolan says.

6. Get Help

The one do-over they’d like to claim is building a group of advisors at the start. “We made everything up ourselves,” Smolan says. Her wish list: “An incredible lawyer who could do contracts and also give advice on organizing and growing the business, and an outside PR. If you build a team of experts who are on your side, things will run smoothly. Luckily, we never made lethal mistakes.”

7. Share the Power

Both 60 now, the partners are looking to the future, creating a new generation of leadership for the firm. They’ve awarded a partnership to a designer who joined Carbone-Smolan as an intern and was promoted to designer, senior designer and now partner. Their philosophy is to grow their own rather than recruit, and they’ve set up a structure to groom new partners. “We teach them, they teach us, particularly when it comes to technology,” Smolan says.

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