It's time to ditch the mean girl myth, because by now we know that women aren't just better together—they are unstoppable. Get empowered by these female power couples when we profile sisters, friends, co-founders and collaborators. Because you know what they say: behind every successful woman, there's another woman.
Today, we chat with Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga, the founders of Ovenly, an award-winning bakery based in New York City. (Those awesome treats at your favorite coffee shop? Yeah, those are probably Ovenly's.) Read on for how they decided to go into business together, how they balance their partnership and friendship, and how they've conquered challenges together along the way.
Where are you from?
Erin: Riverside, Illinois
Agatha: New Briton, Connecticut
What brought you two together?
We met in a food-focused book club in 2009 at Erin's house. Almost all of the members of the club, except for us, were food professionals—chefs, wellness coaches, food writers—and Erin started a conversation about a company sprouting out of it. Agatha hung around and, after everyone left, told Erin she'd been wanting to start a business too, and we decided to meet up to talk more. One week later, we agreed to be business partners (much before we were friends) over coffee and pastries at Colson Patisserie in Park Slope.
At what point did you decide to build a business together? What did that process look like?
For a year, we tossed around ideas, researched, and tested recipes. Finally, we landed on starting a packaged bar-snack company because we thought it was a great idea (we were wrong). Our very first client, Heather, owned a bar that doubled as a coffee shop in the morning and, after selling her on the snacks, she asked if we had any desire to make her breakfast pastries, too. Since we had nothing better going on, we said, “Yes!" That was in June 2010. By November 2010 Erin had to quit her day job and by March 2011 Agatha had to quit hers—turns out people wanted delicious baked goods, not savory bar snacks.
What advice could you give on working closely with a friend and balancing a personal and professional relationship?
The two of us started as partners, and not as friends. The close friendship grew over time. We wish we could say there's a special sauce in identifying the right person for business relationships, but there simply is not. That said, the best advice we can give is to be honest, to be empathetic, to set mutual expectations, and only to partner with someone whose ambition and work ethic is equal to your own (and you have to be ambitious and a hard-worker to start a company!). Also, be ready to compromise and collaborate—both almost always produce the best company results.
What are the biggest challenges of being your own boss and how does your partner-in-crime help you?
The biggest challenge is that you are always on. When you are your own boss there is never a moment that you are not working. You wake up and go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work. The best part of having a partner (when it is the right partner) is that the other person knows exactly what you are going through, what kind of stress your encountering, and has your same interests in mind. That kind of support is invaluable, especially in the start-up phase. Both of us don't think we could have ever done this business without each other.
How do you divide up the work between the two of you, and how have your roles changed over time?
When we first started, we both did everything and ended up butting heads; we had the same roles, yet they were undefined. In 2012-ish, we looked at each other and said, "Let's take the ego stuff out of this and decide what we are doing based on each of our strengths." Erin now is the CEO and oversees finances, fundraising, marketing, and retail expansion. Agatha is the COO and handles operations, wholesale expansion, job partnerships with social-service organizations, and governmental regulation. We both work on staff wellness and social impact issues as well as vision, values, mission, and relationship cultivation.
What about your partner inspires you?
Honestly, we are both inspired by each other's ambition and focus. Somehow, when one of us is in a slow mode or a down mode, the other person is not. It makes us both work harder.
How do you motivate each other?
We each have our moments, so when one of us is down, we try to raise the other person up.
What do you love doing together?
We love traveling and eating together. We joke often that we've spent more time together in aggregate hours than we have with any other person in our lives—it's been 9 years of 12-16 hour days with each other, but we still love to travel together and we still hang out often.
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from the other?
Erin (from Agatha): To stop being so OCD about everything and don't send angry emails to vendors at 4am.
Agatha (from Erin): Everything is negotiable. Everything.
What is your process when approaching your creative work?
We like to start with our vision, mission, values, and brand book. With those guides as our framework, we work backward. So, for example, when we are deciding on a new store, we ask questions like, How can Ovenly become a part of the community beyond selling pastries? What design details can we use to speak to the visual brand? How can we represent our values in our signage? Etc.
When do you feel the most empowered?
We feel empowered when our team is empowered! When people are satisfied doing their work and when they have the tools they need to succeed because that gives us the room, freedom, and confidence to grow the company.