Perfect partnerships for enterprise forged in the classroom

In an intense study atmosphere, you might just bump into the right people to make your business dreams come alive, says Helena Pozniak

Helena Pozniak
Monday 01 July 2013 12:07
(left to right) Mendeley’s Paul Föckler, Dr Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt
(left to right) Mendeley’s Paul Föckler, Dr Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt

Businesses have spent millions on trying to work out which personalities work well together – without reaching firm conclusions. Some argue that it's about the right mix of skills, others say it's about behaviour styles. Business schools, universities – even schools – can tend to foster the most productive partnerships, because, as one entrepreneur put it – you're not watching your back or trying to second-guess ulterior motives in the classroom.

"Business school is a pretty intense experience," says Michael Kent, who founded two businesses with a partner he met at Insead 10 years ago, the latest being the digital money transfer platform Azimo . "You're under immense pressure. It's a good way to see how people really function, more so than in a professional context, where you don't really get under somebody's skin."

When an idea sparks between students, it's time for universities to step back, says Chris Dalton, leader of personal development at Henley Business School. "The key ingredient is the quality of the facilitation or teaching. The rest is probably already in the room and a school can only kill it off."

Advice from the many entrepreneurial centres at universities is this: don't overthink an idea – get out into the market and get feedback. Don't underestimate how much work it is to start a company. Be as choosy with your business partner as you would be in a relationship – you need to share values and a sense of humour.

"We're of a similar kind of temperament," says Kent, while describing his business partner. "You look for people who'll work to the same level as you, and who still like going out on a Saturday night. You take the measure of people all the time."

'With a start-up you need to be compatible'

Richard Oki and Seun Debiyi met at Havering Sixth Form College in Romford. They're in the process of launching the Skills Market , which enables professionals to host classes linked to self-development. They are currently in their second year, Oki at Birmingham City University and Debiyi at Nottingham Trent University.

Richard Oki

I came up with the idea, but as soon as we put our minds together it started to expand and we saw the bigger picture. We've spoken in the past about setting up on our own. I never thought we'd go into business together, but I knew this would be right – we've put some of our own money into it. We've known each other for four years – he's someone I believe in and in business that's very important. With a start-up you need to be compatible, you need to talk a lot. We bounce off each other.

I'm more involved with the business side. Seun's skills are mainly in creativity and "go to market" ideas. He has a background in drama – he expresses that in business with ideas I'd never have thought of. My strengths lie in business planning and ensuring we meet our targets.

It's lucky we know each other outside of a commercial setting – trust is one of the most important things about a joint venture with a friend. You trust they will put in as much work as you do. We don't agree on everything, but we talk it over. We never have major arguments.

My course (BA in economics and finance) directly relates to our business – it's helped with areas such as forecasting finances or knowing about different share options, as we're looking for investment. But I've definitely learned more outside of the classroom.

Setting up a business as students has been the best decision of our lives so far. We don't have full-time jobs adding pressure, no kids to feed or a mortgage. This has allowed us to act responsibly, take our time to learn more about tech start-ups.

Seun Debiyi

It's a lot about compatibility. We talk to each other very naturally every day – on Skype or by phone or text – it never gets boring, because we're friends. I can call him at any time.

I'm more the creative person. I think how we approach customers and how we represent ourselves. Richard's very good at setting targets and goals. I'll come up with random ideas and say "let's do this tomorrow", and he's the structured one who says "OK but what about getting to this stage?" That's how it works. It wouldn't if we had the same approach. We try not to let our emotions get in the way and approach things from a logical standpoint.

'I'm into the ideas side – she's more of a doer'

Paméla Chin Foo and Anne-Reine Lapeyre met on an MBA at HEC Paris in 2011. They went on to set up Dyovino, a Fairtrade company that distributes and sells wine.

Paméla Chin Foo

One of the good things about Anne is that she walks the talk. I'm not someone who can do this – I'm more of an ideas person – she's very much a doer. She's very smart – she can understand an idea and can carry it out. I never went into business school thinking I'd become an entrepreneur. I've worked as an e-commerce consultant for Accenture for nine years. I met many smart people there, but they were all ideas people. In consulting, you can only suggest things.

Business school is fantastic – it's an environment that creates trust – you can talk easily about projects in a way you can't in the commercial world. There's a personal connection it creates that you wouldn't get in business – you don't have to be suspicious.

During time we've worked together we've not had a single argument – but that doesn't mean we don't disagree. We really complement each other. She likes me because I can articulate things. She'll send me bullet points, I'll create the presentation.

Anne-Reine Lapeyre

Paméla is very special, smart, and impressive. After business school we'd meet up whenever she was in Paris. I was so flattered she had faith in me to invest in this project. We have a very particular dynamic – I wouldn't dream of having done this with anyone else.

I'd previously considered starting this project with another MBA colleague, but we decided not to because we were too similar – an MBA teaches you these things. In group work on an MBA you have no choice but to leverage each other's strengths – it takes time to learn what you're good at or not – this is one of the most important things you come away with. I'm not good at details – I don't like them – and I'm not patient, but I'm learning.

I kept turning to Paméla – she's extremely talented at giving advice without being condescending, and also extremely creative. We complement each other. An MBA changed so much for me – and I'm glad I met people like her.

'It's like a marriage – our relationship is based on trust'

Dr Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt met at business school WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Koblenz in 2000-2004. They went on to found research collaboration platform Mendeley in 2008 with a technical partner Paul Föckler.

Dr Victor Henning

While at school I'd worked as a talent scout for Sony, and back then my ambition was to own a record label. When I contacted music industry executives, they all suggested getting a business education. I met Jan on the course and we became friends – neither of us wanted to go into banking or consulting, so it drew us together.

We worked on a number of projects together at business school. We also ran the entrepreneurship club, so we'd always discussed business ideas. Later, Jan and I found we were both facing the same challenges in our PhDs – managing information and collaborating efficiently with others. That's how we came up with Mendeley.

I like to spend my time "doing" – coming up with ideas and translating them into products – the conceptual high-level stuff. I don't enjoy day-to-day operational business – the nitty gritty. Jan's much stronger at that.

When we're not travelling or meeting people, we still sit next to each other in the office – it's easy to pull him over and say "What do you think about this?' We're very informal and familiar with each other's style of thinking – we've known each other for 13 years. We've had plenty of fights from very early on, but we don't harbour grudges. We go out, have a drink and move on.

Business school is a high-pressure environment. We'd be there from 9am-9pm, then we'd go and have dinner and work until midnight to finish an assignment. We share a certain gallows humour – that's useful in a start-up when you are constantly under pressure. It helps if you can laugh about the same thing.

Jan Reichelt

I'd mostly worked for myself during university, and after business school I decided to do a PhD in information management. I kept in touch with Victor. Business school had been tough – a busy schedule. We'd both faced the same challenges in research and kept in touch discussing it. As a research student in Germany you have time on the side to kick-off ideas. In 2008, we decided to go full-time.

I mostly enjoy building a business – creating the infrastructure to turn an idea into a reality. Finding the funding, setting up a legal framework, hiring people, setting their objectives.

We do have structured founders' meetings once a week – and we interact daily. It's like a marriage – we know what the other person's doing, and how they interact – that's how it's supposed to be.

Our close friendship makes us who we are. Once you go to market, you encounter different clients and different opinions – this can unintentionally pull you apart. But we've known each other such a long time and our relationship is based on so much trust that nothing could interfere with that. Some investors don't like that, but others believe it's what's made us successful. Our relationship is the core of our company – the most stable thing.

We share ambition and values – but humour is the most important element. If you saw us outside you wouldn't guess we were friends. We worked hard in the start-up phase, but neither of us wants to work 18-hour days.

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