Business

In the Company of Friends

What’s it like working with your BFF? The founders of three KC-based businesses give us the scoop.

Story by Lindsey Corey and Kelsey Cipolla

Bonnie Kelly and Teresa Walsh, Silpada Designs

When you hear people talking about forging life-changing friendships in first grade, it’s usually the students speaking, not their parents. But that’s not the case for Silpada Designs co-founders Bonnie Kelly and Teresa Walsh, stay-at-home moms who met when they were homeroom mothers for their daughters’ elementary school class.

Thanks to their shared love of family, fashion and fun, the two became fast friends, and it wasn’t long before they decided to take that bond and turn it into the foundation for a business. The pair tested the waters with a few ideas before their passion for jewelry led them to create pieces and sell them at parties.

Once guests started asking about opportunities to sell their merchandise, Kelly and Walsh knew they were on to something. The duo took its small business to the next level, and the now world-renowned company was born, specializing in sterling silver jewelry with collections that offer everything from elegant basics to bolder statement pieces, and allowing for other fashion lovers to get in on the fun by hosting their own parties or becoming sales representatives.

Walsh says they never expected the company to take off the way it has, but the success of Silpada is a testament to the talent and strong bond of the women who created it. And while going into business with a friend certainly has its risks, Kelly and Walsh say they’ve never had so much as a fight during their more than 20 years as business partners.

“It sounds really, really trite because over the years people have said to us, “OK, tell me about the time you really got mad,’ and we swear it really hasn’t happened,” Walsh explains. “If we ran into any struggles, all it did was bring us closer together because we put our heads together and figured out what we needed to do to make it better.”

Although their road to success has been smooth, the pair admits that going into a business with a friend can be tricky. Key to their relationship in and out of the office during the early days was making sure they were on the same page when it came to how much work they were willing to put into the company, feeling truly passionate about what they were doing and adopting a philosophy of forgiveness.

“We had the attitude that if someone made a mistake, it wasn’t because we were slacking or not doing our job, it was just because we made a mistake,” Walsh says.

“We didn’t hold grudges. We just learned from our mistakes and moved forward.”

Both friends also realized the importance of putting their egos on the shelf to make sure their company was the best it could be.

“We were willing to work hard and wear all kinds of different hats to make things work,” Kelly says. “The key is that we all worked really, really hard to make it happen. I feel so lucky that with Teresa and I, it just worked. You hear so many people say, ‘Don’t go into business with a friend,’ and we had so many naysayers.”

But building a hugely popular business (Silpada has more than 30,000 representatives in the U.S. and Canada and more than 3 million customers) doesn’t require the co-founders to be all business all the time.

“First and foremost, we’re friends,” Walsh says.

These days, the pair still finds time to take shopping trips, grab meals and embark on vacations together outside of the office. But perhaps one of the greatest and most unexpected benefits of their friendship is that both their bond and business have passed onto their daughters, Kelsey Perry and Ryane Delka, who now serve as co-presidents and inspired the company’s new K&R collection of super-chic and versatile fashion jewelry.

Equally impressive? The impact their company has had on other women, who have been able to support themselves and their families by selling Silpada jewelry to their own friends, proof that company’s motto, “Find Yourself In It,” resonates with real women.

“When women support other women,” Walsh says, “everything is possible.”

See the Silpada collection online at silpada.com.

 

Melanie Bolin, Lina Dickinson, Stephanie Lawrence, Mer-Sea & Co.

Mixing business with pleasure has been a recipe for success for Melanie Bolin, Lina Dickinson and Stephanie Lawrence, longtime friends and co-owners of Mer-Sea & Co.  This trio of landlocked moms each have longings for and ties to the ocean, so they developed a wholesale product line to help consumers capture that coastal feeling at home.

Once the preschoolers who brought them together became teenagers, the stay-at-home moms found themselves searching for more, Dickinson says.

Photo by David Allison.

“We were all in that phase of ‘what’s next’ and wanted to fill that void, but not just go back to work,” she says. “It needed to be something creative, fun and flexible, so we put our heads together because three is better than one.”

After a dozen years out of the working world, joining forces with friends appealed to Bolin.

“Starting your own company has a lot of hurdles, so doing it with two friends made it much more palatable,” she says. “In many ways it’s easier because there’s an understanding of what’s going on in each other’s lives. We don’t work traditional hours, but we get a lot done, even if it’s after 10 at night.”

When they sold their first soy candles last September, each member of the Mer-Sea team shared the necessary tasks.

Photo by David Allison.

“In the beginning, we all had to do everything from stamp licking to talking to business owners,” Dickinson says. “But after a while, it started naturally falling into place because of what we’re each good at.”

Bolin says they’ve found a “true balance.” She calls Dickinson the “stem winder” who got the founders together and keeps them “charging ahead” while she woos new wholesalers. And Lawrence brings creativity and design skills to the Mer-Sea brand as Bolin is on the lookout for new products—like their new line of travel wraps—and strategizing the company’s next steps.

“It’s important to partner with people who complement you and challenge you and will propel you to the next level,” Bolin says. “We all have different backgrounds and strengths, plus a lot of respect for each other’s role, creativity and gut instinct.”

Building the business has deepened their decade-long friendships, Lawrence says.

“We know we can count on each other on a different level now,” she says. “It’s almost like having sisters.”

Visit merseaco.com for a list of KC area retailers carrying their bath salt blends, vacation-inspired candles and other high-end gifts.

 

Maggie Shannon and Christina Sullivan, Faire

When your best friend is also your business partner, it can feel like another marriage, Maggie Shannon says. She and Christina Sullivan have a joint account and long-term plans. When one of the Faire owners is overwhelmed, her partner steps up. There’s constant contact, tough decisions and sometimes wine but always laughter.

“I needed someone I could depend on to have my best interests at heart,” says Shannon, who took her idea for an eco-friendly children’s apparel rental company to Sullivan a couple years ago. “If I’m going to put all this energy and creativity and passion into something, I’d rather do it alongside a friend. It’s so much more rewarding to be in this with someone I’ve known for a long time. We really care about each other, and in the end, that drives a better product.”

Photo by Ryan McElwain, R. Patrick Images.

While students at the University of Missouri, Sullivan and Shannon had worked together on projects like Cinderella’s Closet, collecting and distributing gently used prom dresses to students. Shannon’s first impression of Sullivan was she was part Energizer bunny, part edgy, stylish model. Sullivan recalls Shannon looking like she stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, and she was immediately drawn to her wit and gumption.

“We know each other’s strengths and weakness and, as corny as it sounds, push each other to be the best versions of ourselves,” Shannon says. “And we genuinely like and respect each other. If we didn’t, this wouldn’t be possible.”

Shannon, who has a marketing and merchandising background, said it was “all about finding the right person” to fulfill her goal of creating a responsible clothing company. She knew Sullivan shared her strong work ethic and value, plus her partner is “magic when it comes to production,” Shannon says.

Photo by Ryan McElwain, R. Patrick Images.

Together they researched and expanded Shannon’s vision, searched for eco-friendly, timeless fabrics and designed special occasion fashions for infants and toddlers to be sewn by Sullivan. A year and a raucous-yet-darling photo shoot later, the duo launched Faire’s first line in October, and a second was recently released.

“The coolest thing about running a company with your friend is you get to make the rules,” Sullivan says.

To rent guilt-free garments for your little one’s next flower girl or ring bearer gig or family photo shoot, visit faire-apparel.com. Rentals range for $35-45 for 10 days, and two sizes will be shipped to you to ensure fit.