Partnering Up

I’ve recently been hooked onto the podcast Startup by Gimlet Media, which was recommended to me by Drew Cogbill (thanks Drew!) Startup chronicles the super-meta journey of a CEO, Alex Blumberg, starting his own podcast company. He starts out alone, but the whole world is telling him to find a partner to work with. There’s a great moment in that episode where he finally agrees terms with a co-founder, and they are just connecting on how happy they are to have found each other.

That little snippet really resonated with me, and for the longest time I did not know why. I’m usually more interested in the other parts of the company-building process: product development, customer acquisition etc. Co-founder matching? Not really something I’ve thought about alot.

Then I realize: I’m going through the same phase of partner-matching myself.

Here’s an interesting thing that happened in a class I’m in now. In Entrepreneurial Design at SVA, we’re challenged to launch a product within a semester and raise money for it. We’re allowed to do solo projects: in fact, most people began the class thinking they would work alone.

Five weeks in, I look around and notice a pattern: pairs have been forming. Ruth and Elushika are working on a project to facilitate diverse opinions. David and Saba are looking to capture hi-def video of the world’s vanishing attractions (!!! take my money!!!). Keith and Uijun were working separately, but they’ve now come together to help people with tiny kitchens. I took that same route: I started off really wanting to do a kickass solo project, before teaming up with David to bring together designers for autism (you can read more about our project here.) It just doesn’t feel as good going it alone anymore.

This is David Mahmarian. I’m working on a project with him. This is funny because his face could by default become the thumbnail avatar for this post because it’s the first picture within this post, and I’ve already done that once here.

This marks a fundamental shift in the way I’ve operated. In the past, I used to be really possessive about my projects. It’d be hard for me to surrender control. I would delegate work, instead of delegating control. If you’d told me that I would voluntarily give up a solo project to team up with a classmate on his passion project (in a field I’m relatively new to), I’d have LOLed at you. However, I’m now totally at ease with pairing up with a partner. It feels like it makes sense. And it is in no small part due to my training everyday in the collaborative design process. I’m delighted with this development.

Why Does Group Work Feel So Good?

When I’m stuck, there’s another brain hard at work thinking of solutions.

Work sessions are fun with company.

The workload can be divided: I don’t have to be everywhere doing everything.

I can tap on the experience and skills my partner has that I lack.

I don’t have to be “always on” socially: sometimes it’s great to have someone else drive conversations with others.

It’s great to have someone correct me when I’m wrong about something.

Too Large A Group Sucks Too

At the same time, I’ve never really had a great experience working in large groups. What tends to happen is that one or two people end up doing most of the work. Coordinating meetings becomes a nightmare: you’re always faced with the decision to either find a time that works for everyone, or move ahead with a smaller group and leaving others out of the loop. And making decisions as a group often results in groupthink.

This is especially true in design. When it comes to actual design production work, alot of it is a one-player activity. Take visual design: while a group could agree upon a color scheme or some general motifs and elements, much of the sitting and putting layouts together is a solitary activity. The recent press around Uber’s new logo is a good example: a single designer was in charge of creating multiple concepts of background patterns, while another took charge of animating the different geometric shapes. Or take video editing: having several people work on different parts of a video might result in a disjointed feeling of fragments thrown together. In a large group, there’s always that one person that needs to take charge and go through everything to keep it consistent.

For me, the optimal core group size is a pair. Ideally, it’s a pair that represents a good balance of backgrounds, skill sets, and points of view. The pair has to have compatible working styles: maybe both sides are night owls, or maybe both prefer to work within a silent environment.

I have no qualms that David and I fit that mould for our Design for Autism project!