From Best Friends to Business Buddies

19 Oct 2011

You’ve shared laughter, tears and terrible haircuts, but what happens when your best friend becomes your work colleague? We grilled three sets of friends to find out...

Meher and Riddhima

Best friends since childhood, Meher Mirchandani, 30, and Riddhima Whabi, 30, shared a dream – they wanted to play dress-up forever. Today, they create clothes that are worn by women worldwide through their own fashion label, Meher & Riddhima.

When did you both first meet?
We met in the third grade of school when Riddhima moved to Dubai from India.
Riddhima: We were inseparable from the start.

Did you both always want to be fashion designers?
Yes, absolutely, but for different reasons.
Meher: We were always interested in dressing up dolls and doing very girly things, but it wasn’t until college that we thought it could be anything more.

When did you join forces?
: It was when we graduated from college.
Riddhima: I think it was actually in seventh grade!

When did you set up your business?
It was 2002. So this is the ninth year.

Did anyone warn you about going into business with your best friend?
No, but they were probably thinking it!

Did you worry it might break up your friendship?
We didn’t really give it much thought. We just went with the fl ow and with what seemed natural.
Meher: We were used to doing group projects together in college, so we knew we got on just as well in a business environment and it felt right.

What does each of you bring to the business?
Initially we did everything together, but we’ve learned over the years who is better at doing what. So Riddhima is creative director and I sort out the business side of things.
Riddhima: Meher is very good at seeing the big picture. She works on strategy and our goals and where we want to be in five years’ time.
Meher: While Riddhima handles the creative side, so the collections, the colours and the fabrics.
Riddhima: When you start out, you only think about the creative side, but the business side is equally as important. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t understand the business behind it.

What has been the biggest hurdle so far?
It takes time to set up a business, so you need a lot of patience.
Riddhima: We were one of the first fashion designers to originate from Dubai, there wasn’t much happening here at the time; no local magazines supporting the regional talent and not many fashion stores.

How did you feel when you first saw your clothes on sale in a store?
We’ve seen our growth happen gradually over the years and the response has been amazing. We’ve managed to build a loyal set of customers, which is important when you first start out.
Meher: The boutiques in Dubai are really supportive. Mumbai Se was one of the first stores to stock our garments and we’ve grown with them.

Have you hired more staff since you started out?
Yes, absolutely. We now have a team of 55 people in Jebel Ali freezone, which is where our studio is based.

Do you sell online yet?
We’re working on that. We have a website, which we’ve had since day one, but we’re keen to branch out in that direction.

What’s been the highlight so far?
Well, we’ve dressed the singer Beverley Knight a few times as well as Tinsel Korey who plays Emily Young in the Twilight films.

Did you know in advance that they were going to wear your clothes?
No, so it was a nice surprise.
Meher: It shows our clothes are very versatile as many different people wear them.

Have you ever argued over work?
That’s never really happened to us. It helps that Riddhima lives between here and India so she’s away a lot. We’re also both married, so we don’t feel like we’re in each other’s pockets all the time.
Riddhima: We have our own space, which is important.

Do you talk shop when you see each other?
We do, but we enjoy that.
Meher: It’s essential to our life and it’s fun.

Any tips for other friends collaborating together?
You have to share a vision and be completely dedicated to it.
Riddhima: I actually think it helps if you’re friends to begin with as you understand each other and therefore can understand each other’s decisions and what the other wants to achieve.

Do you think it helps to be friends in business?
I think it does. If I spend the whole day doing business, I don’t have time to meet friends, but this way we get to see each other much more than if we didn’t work together.

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Caroline and Goga

Goga Ashkenazi , 31, is known for being a good friend of Prince Andrew’s, while Caroline Stanbury, 34, was one of London’s most active ‘It’ girls. But with the launch of, the two friends are proving there’s much more to the pair than good connections.

Why are you launching gift-library in Dubai?
While Caroline founded the company a while back, when I joined in June last year we wanted to expand the company internationally. We’ve had a growing number of Dubai clients and this is a very important region for luxury items so we’re lucky to be able to launch here.

How did you both initially meet?
We actually met for the fi rst time about 10 years ago, but we didn’t strike up a friendship until fi ve years later. We bumped into each other on a plane coming back from Milan Fashion Week and we were sat next to each other so we just started chatting.
Goga: Since then we haven’t stopped talking!

How did goga get involved in
Caroline was always talking about her business and she would ask for my opinion on things so I gradually got more involved. Actually, the truth is we were spending so much time together we had to come up with a legitimate reason for it!

What did you like about the idea of
I thought it was a great concept as it’s the one place you can go to for unique, luxury gifts that are also affordable.

Caroline, what do you think Goga brings to the business?
She has the same fl air as I do and we both have a passion for fashion.
Goga: You love shopping a lot more than I do!
Caroline: Goga was one of my biggest clients already so she knew how the business worked.
Goga: But I also bring the business mind.

Have you had any disagreements?
No, but I’m sure there’s one to come.
Goga: Don’t say that, you’ll jinx it!
Caroline: I think when two women set up a company, people want to see fi ghting but it hasn’t happened yet.
Goga: We both have the interests of the company at heart, so through knowing that, we always manage to come to some sort of compromise.

So, no creative differences?
Not really. If one of us doesn’t like an idea we’ll talk it through. It’s like a relationship. I always think that it’s as if Goga and I dated for a while to see if we could make it work and then got married last year when she offi cially joined the company. [Laughs.]
Goga: That’s true actually, her husband is always saying Caroline spends more time with me than with him.

Do you ever get tired of each other?
We haven’t yet.
Goga: But I also travel a lot and I have other interests.
Caroline: I’m not her only focus; if I was it might get annoying.

So, Goga, when you say you bring the business aspect to things, what do you mean?
Well Caroline is very girly; she loves to shop, but I believe in the future of this business. And because it’s so different to my other work interests [she’s CEO of an oil company], I get to really let loose and enjoy it.
Caroline: Goga is in such a man’s world all the time that when she does this, it’s pure fun for her.
Goga: But I also look at the business model; I look at the numbers and view it all from a business perspective.

What’s been the highlight so far?
December last year was an amazing month for the business – the sales fi gures at the end of it were brilliant.
Caroline: The sales were good, but packing all the gifts was not fun.

Do you know who your main clientele is?
We have lots of glamourous clients but it is confi dential.
Goga: I was just about to blurt out a couple of names! [Laughs.]

But we heard JK Rowling was a fan?
Yes she is. Simon Cowell also uses us.

Does it help that you move in the right social circles?
It does and it doesn’t. I started this a long time ago before I had anything in my hands and, because I had grown up in London with a tag of being a bit of an ‘It’ girl and because every ‘It’ girl has come up with some kind of mad scheme, I was tarnished with the same brush.

Why do you think it works for you two?
I think it’s because this is not Goga’s only business. If she was sat next to me every day, we’d probably have killed each other by now.

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Anna and Kelly

What started as a beautiful friendship for Anna Butcher, 35, and Kelly Wallace, 26, bloomed into something more when they took their mutual love of the camera and turned it into a business called Ugly Duckling Photography.

When did you both first meet?
We met here in Dubai about five years ago through mutual friends. I actually fell in love with her little boy first and then I got to know Anna.

Were you both amateur photographers?
It was a hobby for both of us. I did fi lm photography at college and I picked up digital photography about three years ago.

Who came up with the idea of launching a business together?
I would say it was Kelly. We were doing photography courses with each other with Gulf Photo Plus and it so happened that Kelly wasn’t very happy in her job at the time, were you?
Kelly: No I was in recruitment and I didn’t like it.
Anna: I probably would’ve kept it as a hobby if it weren’t for Kelly.

When was ugly duckling officially launched?
We got our trading licence in March last year.

How has your first year been?
It’s been crazy.
Anna: I keep pinching myself; I honestly can’t believe how well it’s gone.
Kelly: We hired our fi rst full-time employee in March this year.

Do you share the admin and boring paperwork?
Pretty much. Both our numbers are on the website so we’ll always share the calls and book appointments between us.

What do you think each other’s strengths are?
I would say that Kelly is the more outgoing and business development person. So she’s very good at pitching to clients. She always gets up and does presentations at fairs, whereas I know I’d be a nervous wreck if I had to do that. I’m not really sure what my strength is! [Laughs.]
Kelly: We’ve got three core strengths in our business; weddings, events and family shoots and Anna is defi nitely the best at the family ones. It helps that she’s got children so she can be creative with them in a way that I can’t. She’s softer.

Have you argued over where you both see the business going?
Not really. If there is something, we negotiate. Sometimes I’ll say to Anna that I think we should do such and such, and she’ll be a bit unsure but will say let’s try it. It’s about trust and knowing you both want the business to succeed.

Any creative differences?
: It happens sometimes, especially when it comes to the photos as it’s very subjective, but you learn to not take it personally. If Kelly tells me she’s not so keen on a shot, I accept it and we carry on.

Do you think being friends has helped or hindered the business?
Helped defi nitely. I think you have to be friends to be in business together as you spend so much time with each other. It would be strange if we weren’t so close.

Has it changed your friendship?
It’s probably made it better if anything. In the sense that because I’m with Kelly all the time, I’ve gotten to know her so much better now.
Kelly: Anna’s number one on my speed dial. [Laughs.]
Anna: But we also have our separate group of friends, so at the weekends we don’t always hang out together. As I’m a bit older, I’ve got other mums for friends whereas Kelly hangs out with a younger set.

Have you ever annoyed each other?
Not really. I might’ve been a bit erratic when I got pregnant again, but Kelly dealt with it very well.
Kelly: You just got a bit scatty, that’s all.

What advice have you got for friends looking to set up a business together?
You’ve both got to be committed to the business 100 per cent. I know that Kelly works 110 per cent and I hope she knows I do as well even though at the moment I’m having to take a step back from the physical side of it.
Kelly: But it works. I did a mammoth wedding shoot the other day but it will be Kelly that oversees and manages the editing part, so it’s about compromise.

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