When Partnerships Work

When Partnerships Work

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Placing second in a business plan competition convinced David Weber and Kenny Lao that they had a viable business idea. Six years and 70 employees later, they’re going strong.

At Rickshaw Dumpling Bar’s second, soon-to-open location in New York City, boxes are being unloaded, equipment is being cleaned, and new workers are being trained. A woman downstairs is already beginning to make dumplings in anticipation of the first-day rush. And outside, co-founders Kenny Lao and David Weber are whispering to one another with more than a little nervous energy. “Most of what we know from our first store is transferrable, but then there are a bunch of little nuances you have to get right, and we’re going through and making lots of checklists to get those details in order before we open,” Weber says.

The business has just arranged for new financing, it is pursuing two high-profile concession opportunities, and it now operates four food trucks. The weather is turning warmer, which means those trucks are primed to bring in bags of cash in the weeks to come—assuming they are all roadworthy. The partners find themselves running and biking all over the city trying to keep up with their suddenly booming company.

It’s a crazy time.

But it wasn’t always this way. Weber and Lao (who is, I should disclose, a friend of mine) met in 2002 when they were both students at theStern School of Business. They joined forces to enter the Rickshaw concept in a business plan competition in 2004. (They placed second behind a scrap-booking company that was never heard from again, as far as they know.) After signing up the celebrated chef Anita Lo to help design the menu, the partners opened their first store in 2005. Under the slogan “Nice dumplings,” they created a fast-casual menu of chicken and Thai basil dumplings, edamame, and savory soup.

From the start, theirs was a partnership based on mutual respect with a little bit of bickering thrown in. A tattered piece of yellow paper from those salad days, now laminated, outlines the division of duties. Weber focused on finance, bookkeeping, employee training, and real estate. Lao came up with marketing promotions, cultivated investors, and hired employees. “I feel like my job is making sure we make money, and Kenny’s job is making sure we make magic for the customer—the things that drive the personality of the brand,” Weber says.

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