How to craft a partnership

New stuff from old stuff: Foundry co-owners Shelly Piper and Natalie Hood specialize in products made from recycled materials. photo courtesy of Mountain BizWorks

In the middle of the night, Shelly Piper woke up with a thought: We could sell stuff made out of other stuff. It was a solution to aconundrum that had been rolling around in her head for a while. Piper had been thinking it would be fun to have a store, but she was interested in approaching it from a sustainable angle that used fewer resources.

The next day, she shared the idea with her friend, Natalie Hood. “I told her I thought it was a great idea,” says Hood, “and that I’d love to be part of it if she wanted some help.”

This was the beginning of the partnership that became Foundry, a shop on Charlotte Street that sells upcycled accessories, gifts and art made from scrap materials.

Piper and Hood met back in 1999 when they both worked at a frame and art gallery in Orlando, Fla. For a decade after that, they kept in touch throughout moves and life changes — exchanging emails, discussing craft projects and becoming more attuned to each other’s aesthetic preferences. Their mutual love of craft and a similar sense of style made it easy to imagine working together on a creative endeavor — and the fact that they had already been co-workers meant they understood each other’s work sensibilities.

Once Hood and Piper decided to open a store, they had to make the partnership official. “We had an attorney draw up the partnership documents for the state,” says Piper. “During that process, the lawyer asked us a lot of questions we hadn’t thought about, like what happens if we dissolve the company? It’s kind of like making a will — you have to think about certain scenarios you’d never considered before. But it’s really helpful. I would say if you can’t get through that process, you should really step back and reconsider the partnership.”

The next step was to upfit their space and gain some more business skills. So in 2010 they approached Mountain BizWorks for a loan and some marketing classes. "One of the most helpful aspects of the class was the interaction with other business owners,” says Hood. “We got an outside perspective on our own ideas, plus learned how to successfully talk about our business to others."

After that, each of their roles naturally settled into place. Piper, whose specialty is remembering details and keeping everything running smoothly, does all of the marketing and bill-paying. She also works with the artists on contracts, payments and special orders. Hood’s forte is a great eye for design, so she takes charge of the store displays, ad layout and space maintenance. The 4-foot tall owl made of plastic bags currently residing in the front window is her handiwork.

While they appreciate each other’s skills, they are also aware of their weaknesses. One thing both Piper and Hood find irksome is the amount of time it can take to get things done. “Decision-making can be a challenge,” says Piper. “It seems to take us a long time, even about little things. But it’s because we’re trying to make the right decisions.”

Hood chimes in. “If there’s an opinion to be had, we share it. Even if it’s about the kind of paperclips we order. There’s nothing we don’t talk about.”

So far, they haven’t run into any major impasses. “We’ve been exceptionally fortunate,” says Hood. “We’ve tended to see eye-to-eye on major decisions.” When they do need a tiebreaker, they write up a list of pros and cons, or ask a third party for an outside perspective.

Their advice for other folks considering a business partnership? “It’s all about communication and knowing when to compromise,” says Hood. “You can expect it to be a lot like a marriage.”

Piper adds that before you become partners with someone, you should spend as much time as possible with them to make sure it’s a good fit. “It’s like that saying: ‘You don’t really know a person until you’ve traveled with them.’ Make sure you know how they work before you go down this path together.”

Foundry is located at 92 Charlotte Street in Asheville; learn more at www.digfoundry.com. Meet some of their local accessory designers at a wine and dessert reception on Friday, Dec. 7, from 6-9 p.m. Details at http://digfoundry.blogspot.com.

To learn about small business loans and upcoming classes at Mountain BizWorks, visit www.mountainbizworks.org or call 253-2834.

Mountain BizWorks supports small businesses in Western North Carolina through lending, consulting and training. For more information, visit mountainbizworks.org.

Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.

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