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Collaboration Is the New "Black": Tips for Your Next Collaboration

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When Andrea Cohen, Founder and Lead designer of the UK-based professional women's clothing line No. 35 was approached to contribute some pieces for use on CBS' hit TV show, The Good Wife, the opportunity was one she couldn't pass up. While a misunderstanding almost derailed the opportunity, it eventually led to a collaboration with The Good Wife costume designer, Dan Lawson, called "35.DL."

As the 35.DL line has recently launched, Andrea talks about why collaboration is important for small business owners and entrepreneurs and how to collaborate effectively.

Persistence in a Misunderstanding

Cohen said that she was originally approached because her No. 35 line matched the aesthetic that The Good Wife costume designer, Dan Lawson, used in the show. But when Cohen sent pieces for use, they were immediately returned. This happened to be a misunderstanding, but Cohen didn't know that. But, as she said, "As a small business owner, my job is to stay determined and not give up, so on my next trip to the United States I wrote to Dan's agent to set up a meeting". After that initial meeting, the two designers got along famously and Dan took a few pieces for the show. A few months later, at the suggestion of Dan's agent, Linda Kearns of The Matchbook Company, the two started on a collaboration.

Evaluating the "Fit"

For fashion designers, fit is everything. The same is true in business. Cohen and Lawson evaluated the pros and cons. On the positive side, the collaboration was an opportunity for the designers to expand their reach and to be exposed to different markets. Cohen said, "The US professional woman needs a strong intelligent wardrobe as much as anyone else and the market is much larger than in the UK." No.35 got access to the brand cache of working with a noted costume designer in his home market of the US, while Lawson got access to Cohen's business organization.

On the cons side, even with a strong organization in place, Cohen was worried that being a small company, a collaboration would put too much pressure on No.35's systems and manpower as they would have to produce two collections simultaneously with the same team.

The positives won in the end. Cohen said, "As primarily a business woman, I am fully aware of our capabilities and saw a great opportunity that I was not going to miss." The resulting 35.DL line is "A chic professional wardrobe that communicates confidence and simple elegance." The line differentiates from No.35 as it has Dan Lawson's signature feminine details without losing structure and strong tailoring. Number 35 and 35.DL complement each other perfectly.

The Right Timing

Cohen suggests that had the collaboration been suggested earlier in her business lifecycle, it couldn't be done. "A business has to be ready to start a collaboration," explains Cohen.

She says:

Systems and processes behind the scenes need to be efficient and ready for growth. For example, we needed to ensure that we had the right manufacturers in place that could maintain quality and increase production levels. We also needed to ensure that our core business and clients would still be serviced without any detriment to our customer service levels.

I also think the business has to be relatively stable financially as there is a financial commitment when starting a collaboration. Manpower is also very important to ensure the commitment can be fulfilled in the future. These elements can only come with time and experience, so starting a collaboration too early can actually be detrimental to a young growing business. There also has to be a really good reason for collaborating and that may take time to establish.

Tips for Collaborating

Cohen and Lawson set their collaboration up for success by being clear about what both parties wanted from the collaboration. They also said that open and honest communication was tantamount. The two book regular meetings, often at off-hours that accommodate their New York to London time difference.

Cohen explained,

Working in 2 different countries with very limited spare time due to both Dan and my hectic schedules, it is and was imperative that we structure our working relationship clearly and professionally and use our time as efficiently as possible. As Dan has always worked on the exterior side of design (finished garments) it was a learning curve for him as to the process but we tried to make it clear and easy for him. We had to change elements like finding new pattern cutters just for 35.DL and we worked with new manufacturers that could provide small and flexible production runs of high quality. We use technology every day. Design and fitting was -- and is -- all done over Skype.

In addition to the above, Cohen also says that to collaborate effectively, you should:

Ensure that both partners have the same goals and expectations. Once working together, you need to manage and understand each other's expectations to ensure everyone stays on the same page.

Have a similar work ethic. Both partners need to put as much into the partnership as possible in order for it to be successful.

Listen to each other. Hearing and understanding what the other person is saying is a skill that most businesses don't see as vital, but it's one of the most important predictors of a successful partnership

Complement each other. Having two people with the same skills doesn't create incremental value in the partnership, although it's still important to have a same set of base values, and in our case, a similar style and aesthetic.

Have fun. Working with another individual or company has to add value to your working life, not just financially. And if you love your work and your collaborator is doing it purely for financial reasons, the partnership won't work. Dan and I both believe women have major problems finding stunning simple clothes and our aim is to fill a gap in the market to help those women. That's our primary focus and it's a blast.

To find out more information on 35.DL, visit http://www.35dl.net/. You can follow Andrea Cohen and No.35 on Twitter @No35coUK and Dan Lawson @Goodwifefashion.