Zibby Owens: Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur are the coauthors of Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses. They met at the University of Chicago in 2002 and founded Of a Kind in 2010. They have become known for discovering the next big things and launched a wildly popular weekly newsletter, 10 Things, and “A Few Things,” the podcast. They’ve been called the most influential people in New York fashion right now by Fashionista, InStyle’s Best of the Web, and Forbes 30 Under 30.
Welcome to Erica and Claire to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Interviewee: Thank you so much. We’re so excited to be here.
Zibby: That's so nice. I have a work wife team. I'm the third wheel in this little marriage today.
Interviewee: We’re happy to have you.
Zibby: Thank you, bringing me in. Work Wife, your book, tell listeners what it’s about and what inspired you to write it please.
Erica Cerulo: The book is about the power of female friendship to build successful businesses, to drive successful businesses. We wrote it because this is what we've experienced in working together. We've been working together almost nine years now. Over the years, our proudest career accomplishment has been the partnership we've built and the way that it’s survived all of the highs and lows. There have been so many highs and so many lows of building a business together, an ecommerce site called Of a Kind. When we started looking around, we were like, there's so many other people who have also taken this path, both in starting their own companies or organizations or working within larger organizations. We wanted to shed light on that. You don't really hear the story of women partnering that much. The classic tale is women are catty. They don't work well together. That's not what we had experienced or what we were seeing in the world around us.
Claire Mazur: We were really interested in exploring what about our own partnership had made the business that we built stronger. How had our partnership and our friendship informed the way we worked together and the business we had built as a result? We didn't want to write a book that was just about the two of us. We didn't think that there was enough there. We set about interviewing other work wives with the intention of exploring, how do other people do this? We knew for sure that there wasn't just one way. What are the commonalities? What are the differences? Also really wanting to celebrate this thing that we saw happening around us, which was all of these really strong female partnerships that were leading to really successful, impactful, profitable businesses.
Zibby: I love how you started off with pictures of all the work wife teams. That’s so nice. Nobody does that in books anymore. Why not?
Erica: We really liked the idea of putting a face with the name. You want to see these people. You want to see them sitting together on a couch or something. Even just to have that little amount of context makes a different. It’s a face. It’s a person.
Claire: Erica comes from editorial background. Our business is a retail business with a really strong editorial angle. She has always been able to help me and everybody in our business understand that when you can put a face with a story, it makes such a big difference. That was an important part of the book for us.
Zibby: For sure. That's awesome. How did you pick all those people? How did you find the work wife teams and the right balance and everything?
Erica: It was hard. It was definitely a puzzle. We wanted to represent a broad range of women across industries, across geographics, across demographics in different parts of the country, people who had a big age gap between them, people who had different life experiences. We wanted to make sure that this wasn't just women in their twenties and thirties in New York and LA. There are plenty of those examples. That's exciting. That's part of the world that we certainly came up in, for sure, starting a business in our mid-twenties in New York. It’s been going on so much longer than that. It speaks to so many more people than that. It would be selling it short if we weren’t representing more broadly.
Zibby: Maybe you already do this, but you should have a work wives Facebook group for all the partners, all the teams.
Interviewee: That's a good idea.
Interviewee: We really should.
Zibby: You could get tips for collaboration. You have so many great tips in your book.
Claire: We learned so much from the women that we interviewed for the book. There were so many examples of times we were interviewing a duo and they would explain how they did something and we were like, why aren't we doing it that way? The most impactful one that we talk about a lot was we interviewed the founders of Food 52, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. In starting the business, Merrill had had two children over the course of the years. They had to figure out how to navigate her maternity leave during that. When we were interviewing them, neither of us had kids. I got pregnant shortly thereafter.
We took the way that they handled Merrill’s maternity leave and made it our own. I don't think we would've done that otherwise. The crux of it is that Amanda had written Merrill an email every week telling her everything she needed to know about what was going on at the office and nothing she didn't. It sounds really simple and not that big of a deal. When you think about the way most women are left to their own devices on maternity leave and left to come back to the office totally blind to what's been going on the last however many weeks, it makes a huge difference to be kept in the loop. So many women talk about struggles coming back to the office after being out and trouble getting up to speed.
Erica: That on-ramping issue.
Claire: We were so excited about this idea of, right, why wouldn't you do something to keep your work wife in the loop while she’s gone? Erica, when I was gone, actually came to my house once a week -- no, twice a week. I'm forgetting already. She came to my house twice a week. We would run through everything we needed to talk about. If it was a rough day, she would help hold the baby or whatever it was. It made a huge difference for me. She knew how anxious I was about the idea of being out of the office for so long. It’s our baby too. I was nervous about that. It made a huge difference. We were so grateful to Amanda and Merrill for being so open with us about what that had looked like for them.
Zibby: Didn't Amanda have a major breakdown or something that caused this whole thing?
Erica: She did. It was really hard on Amanda when Merrill was out. That context was really helpful for me. I don't want to have kids. I knew that this was an experience that I would be at the office alone for the first time. Having run this business together like we have, just being able to go and see Claire and have context around what her life was like, that was even huge for me. It didn't feel like we were diverging. It didn't feel like she was doing this other thing that I didn't have visibility into. Even just having that was core. In so many of these sessions that we had, these interview sessions with the work wives we interviewed, at the end of them people would be like, “That felt like a therapy session.” I do think that a lot of the women that we talked to, and ourselves as well, we hadn’t taken the time to necessarily sit down and talk about the processes that were so core to making this relationship work or even what the relationship means in your life. Business partner’s not really enough. Friend is definitely not enough. Owning how important it is to you feels like kind of a leap in a way.
Claire: It’s funny. In a lot of our other relationships, including marriages, you come up with these systems. Here's how we’re going to approach this thing together. Here's how we’re going to handle finances. Here’s how we’re going to do this. In some ways, a lot of that gets dropped when you're starting a business with a friend because you're like, we’re friends. We know how to do this thing. We’ll make it up as we go along. One of the things the book really highlighted for us was that all of these things benefit from you getting together and deciding, here's how we’re going to approach this. Here's how we’re going to approach co-managing. Here's how we’re going to approach finances. Here's how we’re going to approach fundraising. Here's how we’re going to approach your maternity leave. Taking the time to agree on it and come up with it --
Erica: -- and systematize.
Claire: Yeah, systematize is huge. That was something we learned for ourselves through the book writing process.
Zibby: How much of a successful work wife relationship do you think is attributable to choosing the right partner to begin with versus making it work with someone based on how great you are at systematizing everything that comes after? Is it both?
Erica: Not to draw out the marriage comparison too strongly, but you have to have the right partner. You have to have someone that you know you can build this world with. Then you also have to work at it. You also have to find the time to talk about the hard things, the stuff that you really don't want to deal with, the logistics, the nonsense that will undermine the foundation of the relationship if you don't. You have to make time to not talk about those things and to just bond and be together. When the business is booming and things are going really well and we’re both really busy, it’s harder, actually, to find the time for the latter, to just be friends and to shoot the shit and to talk to each other. That's when we know we have to really spend the time checking in so that we’re not two separate trains going in our own directions.
Zibby: Do you find dividing responsibilities to be -- I would feel like the biggest area of conflict would be control and who's doing what and delegating and all of that. If you're both in charge, how do you manage that?
Erica: It can be confusing.
Claire: It’s funny that you identified that so easily. A lot of people assume that in a partnership that the conflict comes from someone not doing enough. You're right that at least in our relationship, and I think in a lot of other work wife relationships, it tends to be the opposite where everybody wants to do everything. That can be a bit of a female characteristic when it comes to work environments. One of the things we talk about right up front in the book is that one of the most important things we've done in our work wife relationship was sit down with a spreadsheet and put each of our names at the top of a column. Then on the rows, write down all of the responsibilities involved in the business and each of us own one or put an X by who owns what responsibility. We've returned to that over the years so many times. Of course, now there's employees who have also taken over some of those responsibilities. We also come back to it all of time and still step on each other’s toes and get in little arguments.
Claire: Yeah, tiffs about it. It’s challenging, especially because we’re also both creative people. It’s not like I'm the technical cofounder and I just do all of the website stuff and Erica does all of the creative stuff. There's overlap in our proficiencies. That can make it challenging.
Zibby: There's a new book out by a woman named Eve Rodsky -- I don't know if you've heard of it -- called Fair Play.
Erica: We are really excited to read this book. We read the Fast Company article about it a couple years ago.
Zibby: It’s funny because it’s very similar. She devises a whole system based on management theory, management systems. That would be very valuable for people who are not just married. They even have cards you pick as opposed to a spreadsheet.
Claire: It’s funny because we say all the time that we have taken so many of our learnings from our own relationships and applied them to our marriages. I can see how that would work. We’re really excited about that book.
Erica: If dishes is on a card, or whatever, I think there's a similarity to a lot of the things that we've had to dole out over the years. It’s not that either of us is particularly predisposed to being good at this thing or has a special competency that lends them to this realm. It’s just that these things need to be done. There are two of us. We have to divide things into two piles. Claire manages customer service because that's who manager customer service. Having to file those things and know that that's how it works is effective and productive for us. I don't think about it.
Zibby: It seems like communication and clear lines of responsibility and authority are so key to anything working. Yet in my home I don't do that at all. [laughs] Why do I not do that? I don't have that system in place here.
Claire: Absolutely. In the early day of our working relationship, we didn't do it because it was that same idea of, we’re just friends, we don't need to, same as you're like, this is just my house. I don't need to put in these systems, but everybody benefits.
Erica: It feels too cumbersome. It feels too heavy.
Zibby: It'll take time.
Interviewee: Right, exactly.
Zibby: Ultimately like all these things, if you put in the time, then it pays off.
Interviewee: Right, a hundred percent.
Zibby: Tell me about Of a Kind and how you founded it. Now I'm obsessed with the emails, as if I needed another thing to tempt me.
Erica: Good. You're welcome. Another inbox.
Zibby: No, I mean the things to buy, not the email. Tell me about starting it.
Claire: We started Of a Kind almost ten years ago. We came up with the idea in January of 2010. I was working in the art world. Erica was working in magazines. I was really excited about the changes that were taking place online in the art world. All of these avenues were opening up for young artists to sell their work online and also for people who wouldn't necessarily be able to purchase artwork, to buy it online. I was interested in how that could potentially translate into something like fashion. Erica and I got to talking about that. It was a roundabout way. I was actually applying to a job at a company called 20x200 that sells art prints from emerging artists online. Erica was helping me with my cover letter. It was the relationship we had where we would go to each other with these work challenges or questions for advice.
In thinking about what 20x200 was doing, I was like, is there this opportunity to do this in the realm of fashion? Erica, who was working in magazines at the time, said, “Yes. It’s really important to incorporate storytelling in some way. If we’re going to be selling the pieces of these young fashion designers who no one’s ever heard of, we have to give them a reason to care.” Also at that point, having worked in magazines for -- you had been there five years. You really saw the future of editorial and ecommerce. You understood the power of storytelling to sell products.
We started in 2010 with just selling limited-edition pieces from fashion designers online, some apparel, mostly accessories. Over the years, that's grown to include home products, kid’s products, beauty products. Now it’s no longer just limited edition. We buy from the regular collections of designers and makers and still do the limited-edition pieces. The storytelling that we do has expanded to be not just about the designers whose pieces we sell. We do a ton of lifestyle content. We have our own podcast called “A Few Things” where we talk about all of our favorite discoveries. We have a newsletter called 10 Things that goes out every Monday that has a very cultish following. It’s really just ten things that we've discovered that week, whether it’s a recipe, a book, a beauty product. We’re coming up shortly on the nine-year anniversary of the business. It’s exciting.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What next? You have all of these things going. It’s like a popcorn machine. Everything is popping. You've got so much going on. Do you have any vision or goals that you haven't achieved or you're dreaming of?
Erica: There are always things that pop up. We don't know exactly what the next things are going to be. One of the things we've learned about ourselves over the years is that we have to have new creative pursuits to keep us both engaged. The book is a strong representation of how that plays out. The book was optioned, which is really exciting. Who knows what will happen with that. That was one of our dreams in writing the book. We think that being able to see this on a screen and being able to see a female professional and friendship relationship play out in that way would be new and something we haven't, as a culture, seen that much of.
Zibby: I would love to watch that. It sounds really good. I'm going to be following that. Anything you learned that you think can help other people about having good relationships? Let's pretend it’s not even just at work. Let's say just between friends or not systematized, any great overall...?
Claire: One of the more interesting things in the book was realizing that so many of the work wives we talked to either don't fight or were not willing to own up to the fact that they fought. That hit home with us because for a really long time, we never had disagreements. We didn't talk about the fact that we didn't have disagreements. We just didn't do it. We started seeing a management coach about five years into the business. He immediately zeroed in on it as a major issue for us.
Zibby: You need to fight.
Claire: He said, “You need to learn how to have disagreements. You need to have a fight.” He was right. Obviously, it wasn't as if we never got on each other’s nerves or never disagreed.
Erica: We spend more time together than we do with anyone else in our lives. Of course we drive each other crazy sometimes.
Claire: Of course we disagreed about things. We were bottling it up and figuring we don't have the time in the day for a fight. God forbid we have a fight and it turns into something big. We have to keep running the business.
Erica: Or a meeting to pop into. Then what?
Claire: Right. We were both really scared of what it would look like. We started practicing with pretty low-stakes things. It has been the single biggest thing that has improved our relationship, is this ability and comfort level with having disagreements. We talk about it a lot in the book. What we found is there are various findings via research that say that women just don't fight women, are judged more harshly for when they fight with each other than if it’s a man and woman fighting, or a man and a man fighting. That's one reason women don't do it. The other reason is that women tend to bond over sameness. If you say, “I like this band,” and I say, “Oh, my gosh. Me too,” that can be the basis of us forming a friendship.
Erica: As opposed to me like, “Ew.” [laughs]
Claire: Then the inverse means that if you say, “I like this band,” and I say, “I don't like this band,” then that's somehow seen as me saying, “I don't like you.” We all want to agree. We all want to keep things moving along smoothly. As we know, fighting is part of a healthy relationship. Our tips for that are starting with low-stakes thing, asking somebody, “You want to go for a walk? Do you want to go for a drive?” Bringing up challenging conversations is so much easier if you don't have to look people in the eye. Another thing is ending meetings or conversations with the line, “How are you feeling about everything?” It’s such an open-ended question that gives somebody the opportunity, if they aren't feeling great, to say that. Maybe they’ll send it back to you and that’ll give you the opportunity to bring up the thing you've been wanting to say. That was one of the more impactful things for us in the book.
Erica: Related to those tips, for me at least, owning up to the fact that if I'm feeling something strongly enough, that's reason enough to surface it. I have this natural inclination to say, well, it’s not a real problem. This is a thing I'm feeling. It’s something that's bothering me. I'm making too big of a deal about it. I'm overdramatizing it. Recognizing that if it’s upsetting me that much, then it is probably affecting our relationship or affecting the way that we operate in a day-to-day way. It’s worth surfacing it and saying, “This is a feeling I've been having, so that you're aware that this is affecting me in that way,” even if that's not the intention, even if there's nothing you can do about it, but “Here's where we are.”
Zibby: Did you have to use some of these tools when writing this book?
Erica: Yeah, totally.
Claire: It’s funny because the thing we always say in the book is we went into it having been working together for seven or eight years at that point. We knew really well how to work together. Despite the fact that we had all of these ideas for how one does a successful working relationship, at no point did we sit down and say, “How should we write this book together?” We just dove right in. In retrospect, we looked back and we were like, why didn't we sit down and say, “Here's how this is going to go. Let's make sure we’re both okay with this”? That, again, begat another lesson. When we’re starting new things that we've never done before, let's actually take the time to sit down and say, “How are we going to approach this?” Spoiler, writing a book is nothing like starting a business. They're both really hard.
Erica: They have that in common.
Claire: You're sacrificing a lot of sleep. Beyond that, they're totally different processes. What we should've done is sat down and said, “Here's how we’re doing it.”
Zibby: Sometimes, though, you have to experiment a little.
Interviewee: Of course.
Zibby: How did you end up doing it?
Erica: We did all the interviews together. We put together outlines together. Then I would write the first draft of chapters. I would kick it to Claire. Claire would edit them and then send them back to me. We would go back and forth editing them until we were happy with the way that they were.
Claire: Spent a lot of time in Google Drive and didn't spend a ton of time together in the actual writing process, which was probably helpful and nice too just because it requires so many long hours. Being able to do that on your own schedule and in your own way --
Erica: -- We were also marathon training during this time, which was a whole other thing.
Claire: I was training for the marathon.
Erica: I don't even know where our time together would've been at that moment.
Zibby: Wow. Is there anything you feel like you don't have time to do given all the stuff you're doing? Is there anything you miss? Anything you've had to cut out of your lives? I'm just wondering.
Claire: I miss being creative. You probably do too.
Claire: We both got into this business because we like being creative. We were excited about writing stories and running photoshoots and picking out clothes and thinking creatively about problems. When you start a business, that ends up being a really small percentage of your time.
Erica: Like twenty percent.
Claire: I'm desperate to go take an art class or something like that to reinvigorate that part of me.
Erica: Same. For me, I've struggled to even figure out what those creative outlets are at this point, what I'm even interested in. It feels like a long time since I've done any of those things. Where would I even go?
Zibby: Maybe you guys need to hire a new CEO. Just throw in the [indiscernible/crosstalk]. Maybe you've reached the point where you can be chief creative officers or something. Just saying. Having survived the book writing process, do you have any advice to someone about to undertake it, or who wants to write a book, or who wants to write a book with someone else?
Claire: You really loved that outline that someone else wrote.
Erica: I should find it. I can't think of it off the top of my head. There is an outline. I’ll send you the link for it. Basically, it helps you think about structure and tracking things. Honestly, with all of these, we had each chapter in different Google Docs. There were different versions of different chapters as things get edited. Being able to keep tabs on where each of these things were -- this document’s with Claire; this is with our editor -- where everything lives, and what the word count is of each of those components was super helpful to feel like if I look at this, I can kind of see a status report.
Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for coming on the show and sharing all your advice. Now I feel like I've got to get myself a work wife.
Interviewee: You seem like you're doing okay on your own.
Zibby: You seem like you're having a lot of fun.
Interviewee: It is fun. Thank you so much.
Zibby: Thank you.
Interviewee: Thanks, Zibby.