If you’re dreaming of starting a business with a friend, how do you ensure that it’s a success while still keeping your friendship on track? Stylist spoke to supper club founders and BBFs (best business friends) Laura Jackson and Alice Levine.
We’ve all been there: at dinner, a bottle of wine deep, conversation turns to that business idea we know would make us millions. Or you find yourself rhapsodising about your friend’s new T-shirt which she made herself. “I could build you a website,” you offer. “We could quit our jobs and focus on it full-time…” Before you know it, you’re drawing up a business plan on a napkin and emailing your boss about going part-time.
And actually, it might not be the worst idea you’ve ever had. Although the stats remain skewed in favour of men (in 2016 only 2.7% of all capital raised in the UK went to a female CEO) there are an increasing number of initiatives aimed at helping women start a business. Launched in November last year by two friends, AllBright is a funding and support platform which focuses exclusively on female founders. As co-founder Debbie Wosskow explains, “Women are a massively untapped asset class. On average they get 35% better returns than men, so investors are keen.”
But before you start hatching a plan, Jonathan Berman, partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya, advises having some serious conversations: “First ensure that your interests are completely aligned.” Think money (from how much each person is willing to invest to what contingency amount both of you have available), your key responsibilities, and the minimum commitment period that each of you is willing to stick it out when the profits aren’t necessarily rolling in.
“All of this should be contractually agreed but be sure you go to a law firm that specialises in shareholders agreements.” Divvying up control of the business could work in myriad ways and hinges on what each of you brings to the table. “If it’s not 50/50, because one of you is putting in cash and the other expertise, it might be useful to have a third party who understands your industry who can advise about how much that expertise is worth.”
Once that’s all ironed out you can start to use your relationship to your advantage. “At some point you’ll have to seek investment,” says Anna Sofat, founder of Addidi, a financial services provider specialising in advice for female-led businesses. “The pitches are incredibly in-depth and time-consuming. It is easier for entrepreneurs who are able to spread the burden onto someone they can trust. Having two co-founders – one who can talk about the numbers, say, and the other about the creative – can work very well.”
Wosskow agrees, but advises choosing your partner carefully: “You need to have different but complementary skill sets and a shared sense of humour. I co-founded AllBright with my friend Anna Jones. We are very different – with different strengths – but we’re also mates. At the end of the week she’s still the person I want to have a drink with.”
Laura Jackson and Alice Levine started their eponymous London supper club on a whim in 2013. Four years later, they have catered for major brands like Samsung and Adidas, their first cookbook Jackson & Levine: Round To Ours (£25, Quadrille) is published this week, and they’re launching a capsule collection of table and kitchen linen with Habitat in June. And they’ve done it all while holding down day jobs in TV and radio. Here’s what they’ve learnt along the way…
Passion is more important than a business plan
Alice: We met when our mutual friend [Radio 1 host] Gemma Cairney asked us to help at a charity jumble sale. We got on immediately. Back then, we didn’t have as much going on in our respective careers – we were cash poor, but had a lot of time on our hands. We were both really passionate about food and new restaurants and after a few months of cooking for each other and constantly emailing with restaurant links, we realised how much we loved writing about food.
We wanted to do it professionally in some capacity, focusing on reviews of cheaper eateries, but neither of us had any authority in that industry. That’s why we decided to start the supper club. Initially, it didn’t feel like a business, it felt more like an outlet, a way of exerting some creative influence on our lives – I think we felt like our careers were out of our control. We threw ourselves into it because it felt exciting. And that’s ultimately what brought us our first commercial client. About two years after we started, we were approached by Miss Selfridge to cater an event for them. One of their team had been to our supper club and had an amazing time.
Laura: People buy into you as much as they buy into your product. Brands like our personalities as much as the food. Often they don’t even want us to cook, they just want us to be front of house, chatting at the table. There’s a valuable lesson in that: starting something, be that a business, or a passion project, requires you to throw yourself into it 100%. When we started there was absolutely no plan. We just wanted some sort of escapism from careers that we had absolutely no control over. It was only when we got the book deal that we realised, “God, our name is our business, this is a business.”
Team up with a friend who complements your skills and personality
A: I’m usually the ‘no’ woman to Laura’s ‘yes’ woman, but that works well. Her enthusiasm is infectious. I’m a lot more cautious than Laura. I wouldn’t have done this on my own. Laura’s a driving force; we have a good dynamic because we bring those different qualities. Having said that, we’re both ‘all hands on deck’. Now that we have full-time jobs [Laura is a TV presenter and Alice is a Radio 1 DJ and member of the My Dad Wrote a Porno team] it’s hard to make time but you have to. We try to spend Fridays together at Laura’s kitchen table, going through emails, devising recipes and planning for any future supper clubs. The rest of the week we might call each other, work out where the other is going to be and then catch a tube 45 minutes in the wrong direction just so that we can meet in the middle and spend half an hour together.
L: On the flipside, Alice really reins me in when it’s necessary. I’ll include 20 exclamation marks on an email then get a WhatsApp saying, “Can you please not talk to the client with 20 exclamation marks?” I now run all emails through her first.
In terms of our work ethic, we both put a huge amount of energy into making this work, despite our conflicting schedules. Alice works at the weekend, and obviously she’s got Porno; for me, Take Me Out’s on at the moment, we’ve got the book, we’ve got separate projects, so managing our diaries is sometimes the most stressful part. Jackson & Levine is just one part of both of our lives and we’re sensitive to the other person’s commitments. But we inevitably end up working seven days a week. Alice will send me emails at 4am about a new restaurant and I’m like, “Go to bed!” And I recently spent six hours trying to find a specific set of candlesticks.
Be savvy with cash, but time is your biggest investment
A: We initially invested around £100 each to cover costs like tableware, but we kept everything as budget as possible. We wanted a white linen table cloth so we bought fabric from a shop and made our own. It wasn’t even real linen, it was ‘flinen’ – faux linen. With the food, we knew roughly how many £25 tickets we would need to sell to cover costs; it meant that if people dropped out at the last minute, which a few did in the early days, we’d be calling our friends and offering them a spot for a price. That’s how Laura’s boyfriend Jon ended up paying £25 to eat dinner in his own house.
L: I wanted to get more kitchen experience but knew I couldn’t afford a professional course. Instead I did week-long work experience placements at restaurants that I loved like Lyle’s and Moro. I emailed them saying, “Hi, I really like eating here, could I come and chop some veg?” I used my holiday days to do it but the experience of being in a professional kitchen was invaluable. I would have rather have been on a beach, but if you’re always finding reasons not to do the thing you’re passionate about – like you don’t have the time, money or skills – you’re never going to do it.
Invest in your working relationships
A: Even though we’ve taken quite a slapdash approach to our business – we’ve never had a business plan or a long-term goal in mind – we’ve been lucky to come into contact with people who we’ve thought, ‘We’re not just working with you on this project, we want to be long-term collaborators’. It’s important to work with people who are like-minded. By that I don’t just mean that they’re aiming for a similar goal but that their ethos is the same. Our florist, Worm London, will go above and beyond to help us when we need it because we’ve built such a good relationship with them – at the last supper club they were ironing tablecloths and sweeping up.
We’ve certainly had times when we’ve fallen out terribly. We needed a big blow out to clear the air
L: It’s genuine relationship-building, not relationship-building because you want something out of it, necessarily. It’s finding brands and people that you respect and bringing them along with you. We started working with Habitat for our first supper club because we didn’t have enough cutlery – now we have a collaboration with them. Since then everything’s been very organic; brands have approached us, we haven’t had to market ourselves because we already had public profiles. We didn’t have a clear idea of our ‘brand’ until we’d already worked with a few commercial clients. We then saw it was necessary to start defining what we stood for, which is basically the fun, intimate vibe.
Treat your partnership like a marriage
A: A business partnership is like a romantic relationship. We bicker from time to time: the other day, we did three supper clubs so it was quite a lot of pressure. Laura’s very particular and very vocal about how you fold a napkin so I was folding the napkins and asked, “Is this OK?” She said, “Yeah, yeah, looks really good.” And I thought, wait a beat… then she piped up: “Can I just say, that if you do it from left to right…” I wanted to throttle her. There were seven minutes before people were due to arrive. With those moments I think, ‘Bite your tongue, Alice Levine.
L: But we also know where the boundaries are. We’ve certainly had times when we’ve fallen out terribly. Recently it was about how I was becoming overwhelmed with the various pressures of having a job, writing the book and doing the supper clubs. [At the time] Alice and I were like ships passing in the night and we weren’t on the same wavelength. It took a jolt to get us back. Like in a romantic relationship, we needed a big blow-out to clear the air. And like in a romantic relationship, we’ve both realised the value in saying, “I’m sorry I did this, I shouldn’t have.” Being honest and admitting, “Actually I was a bit of a dick.” Part of working together and being friends is that we’ve always talked through everything.
Main image: Chris Floyd
Additional images: Rex Features