More than half of American marriages end in divorce. We can only imagine that the stats are similar for new businesses, where partners often spend more time together than with their spouses.
What, then, can you do to make sure your partnership odds are better than those forged at the altar?
Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan of the design firm CarboneSmolan, one of the few unmarried male-female creative teams in the industry, have slogged through all the ups and downs of a 35-year partnership—the good years and the lean ones, clients won and lost, big fights, long nights, and tectonic changes in their industry—and emerged still happily finishing each others’ sentences.
They recently celebrated more than three decades in the business together with a new book, “Dialog,” that chronicles that felicitous run, during which they’ve created award-winning work for clients ranging from Morgan Stanley to the Louvre, Dansk to the San Francisco Airport.
During that time, they’ve hammered out a handful of principles for keeping your creative partnership alive and healthy. No surprise that these rules would make as much sense at home as they do in the office.
“In the early years, there were loud disagreements,” Smolan confesses. “We’re both passionate and strong-willed, and happy to stand up for ideas we think are right.” Eventually, she says, the two realized that their debate, while occasionally disconcerting, inevitably led to a better result. “We had an epiphany: We generally had the same goal, just two different paths for getting there.”
While they refuse to compromise just to keep the peace, they generally agree that whoever cares the most generally wins. “When you trust the other person aesthetically, you let go,” says Smolan.
Still, they have strict rules about keeping conflict in its rightful place. “Creative friction in front of a client is bad,” Carbone says. “It gives them an opening. And we try not to fight in front of employees. It’s like, 'Whoa, there go Mom and Dad fighting again!'” Plus, like any long-standing couple they have one inviolable rule: Don’t go to sleep mad.
“We recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Carbone says. “In the beginning there was much more territorial feuding—over finances, office space, etc.—but now I know what I don’t know, and what Leslie does better than I do.”
The result, the two say, is a neat division of labor. Smolan handles the finances, Carbone the firm’s marketing. Smolan likes to push clients toward the far reaches of their horizon for innovation; Carbone makes sure that what they propose is within the CEO’s comfort zone.
They understand each other well enough to know which clients will respond best to which partner. “By the time we hit the ground in the elevator, we know who will be the primary lead on the business,” Smolan says.
“We’re champions of the 'We’” Carbone says. “I never say, ‘I did this logo.’ It’s part of the fabric of the partnership."
This is not to say that the division of labor is always 50/50. But nobody’s calculating who brought in the most business, or who’s working harder.
“Sometimes Leslie’s side of the business is much more profitable than mine,” Carbone says. “She never says, ‘What did you do this year?’”
“We all have ups and downs,” Smolan says. “And we have different ways of contributing. It’s never about the money.”
The biggest trick of a good partnership, both say, is to pick somebody of enormous talent and stick with him or her.
“To this day, I think Ken is the best designer I know,” Smolan says. “Ken’s a great draftsman, so the first thing I do when we have visitors is bring them to Ken’s office to show off his drawing and journals. Nothing makes me happier than to talk about this other person as my other half.”
For his part, Carbone makes sure that clients don’t ignore the woman in the room. “If someone is paying too much attention to me, and the project is better for Leslie, I make sure she’s the shining star.”
Happily, their spouses also get along. “Somehow, the four of us are like The Honeymooners,” Smolan says. “There’s never an edge of jealousy or envy.”
After 35 years of success, you’d think you could finally coast a little. Bad idea, both in a partnership and in a marriage, the two say.
Framed above a doorway in their office is a sign that Carbone found in a fortune cookie: “The road to success is always under construction.” It is, they say, their firm’s mantra. “If you stay the same, you’ll die,” Carbone says. “Granted it’s exhausting, but staying off balance builds different muscles.”
The two have recently added a younger partner, Paul Pierson, who brings the firm a fresher perspective on technology and speed. “Right now, a good 70-75% of our business is Web-focused,” Carbone says. “It wasn’t that way as recently as 18 months ago. If we don’t recognize this business five years from now, it will be our greatest success,” he says. “With a mature business, staying off balance is critical."
“Either that, or we’re just masochistic, “ Smolan chimes in.