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In the 2000s, Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo were typical best friends at the University of Chicago. They talked about school, their social lives, gossip and extracurricular activities.
Fast forward to today, and not only are the two still best friends, they’re also business partners.
In 2010, Mazur and Cerulo launched Of a Kind, a storytelling-meets-shopping business. They also co-authored a book called “Work Wife,” which details successful relationships between friends and colleagues.
In hindsight, Cerulo said there were signs the two would work well together
“We'd run extracurriculars in college together,” Cerulo said during an interview with Know Your Value’s millennial contributor Daniela Pierre-Bravo. “We saw how hard the other was willing to work, and I was seeing how on top of it she was.”
The two women combined their talents to launch Of A Kind as an outlet for limited edition fashion pieces (which was Mazur’s specialty). The company would be enhanced by editorial content and stories about the artists (which was Cerulo’s specialty). The business started in their New York apartments in what Mazur called a “slumber party” atmosphere.
“That was not gonna work,” Mazur said. “We learned how to draw boundaries while staying human.”
The party days may be over, but through the years and many evolutions of the business — which included broadening Of a Kind’s merchandise beyond limited editions and expanding into home decor — Mazur and Cerulo have remained successful business partners and friends.
The two shared their top tips for running a successful business with your “work wife” — which, they note, can be a man too.
1. Have the same work ethic.
Having the same work ethic is crucial for a business partnership to work, according to Mazur.
“When it comes to partnerships, it’s not enough just to get along,” said Mazur. “You have to have the same work ethic. You have to be on the same page in terms of what hard work looks like, how much is not enough and how much is too much.”
The pair knew they had a similar work ethic when they worked on the Of a Kind business plan together.
“Writing a business plan was a productive exercise for us to get on the same page,” Cerulo said. “... Neither of us wanted to be entrepreneurs but we had a sense that we wanted ownership over something and to build something from the ground up.”
2. Talk openly about the problems.
Cerulo and Mazur said that they try to be completely open about problems they have with each other, even if they can’t be resolved right away.
“We’ll say ‘I feel my toes are getting stepped on a little bit,’ or ‘you're doing all the fun stuff and I’m doing all the menial stuff,’ and we do try to keep an open dialogue about that,” said Mazur.
Mazur and Cerulo took their interpersonal problem-solving a step further: they see a management coach every week.
“He talks to me for 20 minutes, he talks to Claire for 20 minutes, then together for 20 minutes,” Cerulo said. “It’s a lot like couples counseling. It helps us put a pin in these business issues where previously we’d say ‘we have to solve this now,’ now we put a pin in it and save it for the session.”
3. Different strengths makes for a better business.
While they have similar work ethics, Mazur and Cerulo have very different strengths and personalities. They say their differences only improve their business.
“Women want to find someone to work with and be friends with who are the same. We are socially conditioned to behave that way. When women express dissimilarities, that can create points of tension in our relationship,” said Cerulo. “But you have to find someone in a business relationship who is lifting you up and who you lift up.”
Mazur added: “You have different competencies. You can't be good at everything, and I think having those different perspectives and strengths is part of what makes you better as a team than on your own.”
4. Rethink work-life balance.
While everybody has their own boundaries, the concept of a work-life balance has changed in the past few years. Mazur and Cerulo argue that personal and emotional components need to have a safe place in the office.
“[Work-life balance] is a nice idea, but we live in a really different world than we used to,” Mazur said. “You can be Facebook friends with your boss. It feels a little futile...if work is going to infiltrate our personal life, our personal life is going to have to infiltrate our work. You can have real friendships at the office and you can have people who acknowledge that you’re more than your work.”
Pierre-Bravo asked the pair if they thought expressing emotion at work was a sign of weakness.
“It's a sign of realness,” Cerulo argued. “Just being able to acknowledge that we are all humans who have other things going on, it benefits everyone.”
5. Find innovative solutions.
There is no right way to do things, according to Mazur and Cerulo, so you have to adapt and be innovative when issues come up with your work wife.
For example, when Mazur went on maternity leave, she didn’t want to be completely shielded from work and feel left behind. So, Cerulo would go to her house twice a week, and offer either to fill her in about work, or to hold Mazur’s baby while she took a shower — whichever Mazur wanted in the moment.
“I wasn’t sitting there thinking ‘oh, Claire’s just not here, she’s on leave’ - it gave me a real lens into Claire’s life,” said Cerul..” A lot of people would not be comfortable going to their co-workers house … I think it’s important for people to figure out how to do it their own way.”