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Starting a business with your partner

Kira O'Sullivan
19 May 2020
6 minute read

Going into business with someone takes a huge leap of faith, whatever the pre-existing relationship. We caught up with one couple, Viktorija and James Isaac - who have taken that leap - to find out about their business story so far, the ups and downs they've faced together as business partners and a little of their wisdom.

Firstly, tell us a little about your company, M10c.

M10c is a London-based software design and development agency, specialising in web and mobile apps. We have been established since 2018 and focus on helping startups and small businesses launch and grow successful cutting-edge tech products.

We don’t limit ourselves to a single sector, with our clients and their products spanning all kinds of industries – from a platform for managing short-term rental portfolios, to a touring app used by many of the UK’s top DJs, to a freelancing job board for the film and TV industry.

Business partners James and Viktorija

And right back to the beginning. How did you meet?

We met at a book club organised by a mutual friend. The book at this particular meeting was “Doing Good Better” by William McAskill - an interesting look at the effective altruism movement, which aims to quantify how you can have the greatest positive impact on other people, based on evidence and reasoning.

What were you doing, workwise, before starting M10c?

Viktorjia: After studying computer science at university, I moved to Amsterdam - and then to London a few years after. In the 11 years before starting M10c, I worked as a web developer at startups, agencies and corporations, which gave me experience with lots of different technologies and ways of working.

James: I also studied computer science, but took a slightly different route. Straight from university, I joined a seed-stage startup as the tech lead. It was an incredible experience, and I learned a huge amount being a central part of the journey as the company grew from the founder’s basement, to a large operating business with its own offices and dozens of employees. Today, the company’s product Pollen recently closed a $60M funding round. After moving on from that, I jumped back and forth between working on my own projects, freelancing, and joining other early stage startups.

What inspired you to start your own business?

Viktorija: I think both of us have always been passionate about startups and entrepreneurship and had wanted to work on something together, but it was tricky being able to find the time to do this when I had a full-time job. We decided to take the leap when an opportunity from a potential first client came up between jobs and decided to dive in head first and launch our own agency.

James: Ultimately, I noticed patterns in building MVPs (minimum viable products) for many startups. These days, I think most startups are not limited by their tech capacity, but more by challenges in other areas like finding product-market fit, and marketing. I felt restricted by being tied to a single company and limited in what I could focus on with regards to engineering in companies that were facing non-tech problems. This is what fueled the idea of launching an agency and scaling up what I could offer.

What are the biggest challenges you faced when starting M10c?

  1. Starting a business together definitely takes the relationship to another level, as it involves putting even more trust in each other, and committing to spending a lot more time together!
  2. It’s difficult to make the leap, as you lose the security of each partner having independent employment. For us, we had to wait until the timing felt just right.
  3. It was hard to start hiring – it was tempting to keep things “safe” by not extending things beyond the two of us, but we knew that would limit our potential for growth.

How do you find working for yourselves different?

The culture and sense of responsibility feels quite different to working for someone else, or within a large company. Some things are less stressful - like, for example, there’s no need to think about trying to gain that next promotion, or company politics. On the other hand, you feel responsible for everything, which can be quite psychologically draining.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced, working together?

Viktorija: It can be difficult separating work and free time. Even though we try to create structure to separate the two, in busy times this line can get blurry. It’s easy to end up discussing work outside of work hours, and end up working overtime - and sometimes clients work over weekends and will expect you to be flexible about that kind of thing too. Plus business finances directly impact home finances, which can be stressful.

James: As well as the “ups” being mutual, the “downs” are too. So if things aren’t going well, it can be quite stressful as there’s less of a separation between “work life” and “home life” to help take your mind off things. If one of us is stressed because of work, it’s likely the other will be too! So in a way it magnifies all the emotions.

What are the best things about building a business together?

Viktorija: Creating a more sustainable lifestyle for both of us. We’re able to make our own lifestyle and office culture decisions, and prioritise health, family and long term goals - because ultimately our well-being is more important to each other than short term achievement.

In the past, when I worked for startups, I sometimes felt that the pressures of running a startup came at the expense of employees - the company often had to come first. For example, if anyone had issues at home, or encountered health problems it could really put their career in jeopardy.

James: The “ups” are mutual and it feels great to be able to share successes. We can work on our own terms, so it gives huge flexibility in being able to focus on what we find a priority. For example, work-life balance is very important for both of us, so we’re able to make sure it’s reflected in our company’s cultures “from the top”, starting with our own lifestyles.

I also think there’s less risk than with starting a business with someone you don’t know as well. We already know how each other acts under different circumstances, so there’s less room for surprise. Launching a business with someone is a huge commitment, and co-founder fallouts are pretty common, so I think it makes sense to mitigate that risk by launching a business with someone you know extremely well.

Another benefit is the cost. You can start off working together straight from home, saving all the effort and costs associated with commuting and office space. We turned our spare bedroom into a home office, which provided a nice separation between our “work” and “living” spaces.

And finally, a piece of advice that you’d give to any couple starting a business together.

Viktorija: Take it easy and be patient. It can be quite challenging in the beginning, psychologically, but you will learn to accept, trust and work together better. These lessons will help with your long term goals, whether those are related to your business or family life.

James: Make sure your eggs aren’t all in one basket. You don’t want to have too much hinging on the success of your business, otherwise it will create huge stress and put pressure on your relationship if things don’t go as well as you were hoping. I’d definitely recommend having realistic plans to fall back on, so you can be prepared for any outcome.

For example, we have a plan for what we’d work on if we had a period of up to a few months with no new clients. So far, this has never happened, and we’ve always been busy with new work coming in, but the fact we’re prepared for that eventuality removes any potential anxiety around it.

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