“I truly feel like that was a big hurdle for us. It was something we should’ve addressed in the beginning, and we could’ve alleviated some of these awkward conversations,” reflected Stacey Doherty, co-founder of Prodoh, a South Carolina-based children’s apparel company. She was talking about her and her co-founder, who happens to be a best friend, defining roles and responsibilities. She then added, “Setting goals for the company is a really huge one, too, that we should’ve done years ago.”
Of course, Doherty is talking about a strategic plan, which, from our conversations with young entrepreneurs and seasoned vets, is something that is neglected early on more than you might expect. It’s simply not often on the radar when a startup involves one founder, or a couple of buddies, or a small team where everyone is wearing many hats and everything is pretty fluid. It may not seem necessary or there isn’t the time for it. Such was the case with Prodoh, which originated with the Doherty’s husband and her best friend’s husband – fishing and hunting buddies – who decided to start a company that made outdoor apparel for kids when they couldn’t find a fishing shirt for a Doherty youngster.
Now, more than six years into the business, with a full line of clothing and a distribution stretching across the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, Doherty will tell you a strategic plan is not only indispensable but should be done right out of the gate. It can alleviate a lot of unnecessary stress by putting everyone on the same page. How Prodoh transitioned to a full on business also offers lessons on how to reduce risk, financial concerns, and therefore stress.
“It really started just as kind of a side gig,” Doherty explained. “Then it kind of took off and the boys were like, Okay, you and Mel need to come run this company.” At the time Doherty had one young child and was pregnant with number two, while her partner was a schoolteacher, children on the way soon. Meanwhile, the husbands kept their jobs, which kept the risk and stress level relatively comfortable. Costs were manageable too, namely because they were running it out of the attic in Mel’s house. (Our Note: see our interview with Weiss, also a young mother who co-founded a company with her husband, only they both quit their jobs. She found the risk and stress brutal, and despite success would never have done it had she known.)
Personalities Shape Roles
You hear about how best friends, and in this case wives and husbands, when they become business partners, it essentially redefines the parameters of their friendship, and it’s necessary to recalibrate that relationship. So we asked Doherty about this and whether they had any frank conversations right away to lay the groundwork.
“We did not right upfront,” she answered. “We probably should have. We did have to have those conversations down the road, especially when we were finding more success. The conversations were easy once they were had. I think it was just a thought of having to have the conversation was probably more fearful than the conversation itself.” In their defense, sitting next to each other in the attic made it easy to run the business. However, because they were both “wearing different hats,” Doherty noted, “sometimes we were both doing the same thing, so we’d have to check in with each other and say, ‘Oh did you call this person back, who called this person back?’ There weren’t really defined roles.”
Through this fluid, somewhat boundary-less time, their complimentary personalities helped shape responsibilities. “Mel always says you’re more social, you don’t mind putting your face out there, which is why I do all the customer service. And she’s like, I do not want to talk on the phone, I don’t want to see the people. She would rather be behind-the-scenes. I recognize that.” Doherty also acknowledges that Mel is exceptionally “organized and will always keep us on top of things,” whereas she is “lacking” in that area. “We both play up to our strengths and weaknesses. That’s what you should do.”
Jump In and Say Your Piece
But then came the growth, which in turn further blurred the lines. The workload and responsibilities were not always evenly distributed between the two of them. Great friends or not, starting such conversations is not easy so we asked Doherty about it. “It took one person really feeling like they were doing more work, I would say, and the other one not really realizing how much that person was doing. It just came out as an honest discussion and because we were both friends, I guess it was just like any other conversation but you don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings. You just got to jump in and say your piece. All the while we explained, please don’t take this personally. This is just business-related. I didn’t want her and she didn’t want me to feel like either of us was personally attacking the other. We try to separate the two even more when we’re working just so it doesn’t get personal and there are hurt feelings. We do keep it more business now than personal at work.”
It was also time for a formal strategic plan with these roles and responsibilities – sales, customer, service, design, financial reporting and so forth – clearly laid out. About three years ago, not long after moving out of Mel’s attic into an office, the two couples locked themselves away in a back room. “We took an entire Saturday,” Doherty relayed, “all four of us locked in a room for eight hours and did strategic planning. You know, we always kind of knew what our mission statement was but we have never sat down and defined it. We came up with our mission statement, our goals; we came up with short-term goals, five-year goals, ten-year goals. We truly broke it down and defined it and made sure we were all on the same page.
“We answered what Prodoh means to you, how you feel about it. We still do that. We still have written down on our original papers what our goals were way back then. We can pull them out and look at them. We can change them. It’s really important to keep you on track at what you’re reaching for. And just two weeks ago we had a meeting with other moms in our community and asked them those same questions. To get a good feel for what other people think, we asked them how does it feel when their kids wear Prodoh? Why do they buy Prodoh?”
The Meeting Agenda Holds You Accountable
Every month the co-founders hold a meeting to evaluate where they are, where they are going, and to make adjustments. We asked if these meetings help keep everyone held accountable? “They do, yes,” answered Doherty. “The way that we design our agenda is that each person is going to speak on whatever it is that they are handling. So we have one person is going to provide an update on financials. One person, me, is going to talk all about the sales whether it be wholesale or retail or e-commerce. Mel is going to talk all about design and anything that has to do with our manufacturer. So we break it down so everyone has to speak on their own behalf and give an update to the group. Then if the group has questions, they are directed to that person, and they’re responsible for answering. So this keeps everybody in line as to what they should be doing. We have a ‘to do’ column. Mel is supposed to do this, Stacy is supposed to do this, and here’s the date they need to do it by. We both know what our roles are. We both know if one of us is falling behind. As long as we can catch back up and get it done, we stay off each other’s toes. Everyone’s on the same page and everybody knows what is expected of them. It helps prevent those awkward conversations.”
One conversation yet to be had is distribution of equity and getting something definitive on paper, including whether equity should be set aside for outside team members. “Right now in everybody’s mind it’s simply a 50-50 split between families,” Doherty said. “We have never borrowed any money, never taken out loans, everything that we’ve ever put in, we’ve put in equally from both families. If the company needs $50,000 to do XYZ, each family is going to have to put 25 in. If any monies are taken out at the end of the year, the same amount was taken out for each family.”
How to Hold onto Important Values
It seemed that perhaps the best-of-friends relationship had evolved into more of a business relationship, so we asked if the couples still socialize outside of work, do they set aside time to go have some fun? “We still go to dinner,” Doherty answered, “and a lot of times our dinners might turn to business talk but it’s more lighthearted.” They go out together for their birthdays, have wine nights, and the husbands still hunt and fish together. Both families are also busy with kids, which changes the dynamic too. This raised another question: namely, work-life balance.
“This is kind of funny and I know people think this is unconventional, but this is what we do: Our workday ends at 2:30.” Why 2:30? That’s when the kids get out of school. Simply put, Doherty explained, “It’s been very important to us to be able to pick up our kids from school.” No doubt there are plenty of entrepreneurs who would find that kind of funny. Truth be told, their workday really doesn’t end at 2:30. If there’s Prodoh work still to be done, the kids will come back to the office, where there’s a room set up for them with bean bags, toys, and a TV. At home, once the kids go to bed around 8p.m., Doherty will work, until midnight sometimes, entering sales data, dealing with emails, or talking with Mel. “It’s been really important to us to still be able to keep up with our kids. We’re still both very PTA involved at our kids’ school. Yesterday was Field Day and I did not go to work but for one hour. I try to be as present as I can in my kids lives, because, after all, that’s why we started what we’re doing, it’s really for our kids. It’s trying to have the same balance that we had before Prodoh. I know that’s probably unrealistic and probably going to change. I think as we grow there are going to be times we’ll be at the office rocking and rolling until 6 p.m. or later. And we get that. But it’s nice that for now we’re still in this bubble.”
We’ve heard about work, personal relationships, and the kids, which left us wondering if Doherty ever had time to herself to unwind and recharge the batteries. “Absolutely I feel stretched thin,” she admitted. “I devote a lot of time to my kids and work and there’s very little time for anything for me. And there’s very little time for me and my husband.” If Doherty has a spare 20 or 30 minutes, it’s reading or a run to the store. “A lot of my personal time is going to be in the form of reading quietly, quiet, as long as it’s quiet,” she said. “Every week I try to do something that isn’t work related, even if it’s just running to Target for 30 minutes, with no agenda, not like grocery shopping, it’s just something that I can do where it’s just me doing something mindless. That’s always a good thing.”