Marshmallow Insurance and Other Sibling Co-Founders Talk ‘Twindom’
- Insider spoke to five sets of twin cofounders to find out what makes them tick.
- The twins, from companies like Marshmallow and Doughboys, say they play to their dual strengths.
- Some like to market their “twindom,” but others fear it looks like a gimmick.
Working in a family business is pretty common: In the US, family businesses generate half the country’s gross national product.
Starting a business with your partner or sibling can be both rewarding and stressful, but what about a business run by one of the closest and rarest family pairings: twins?
It’s something special, said London-based Oliver Kent-Braham, who started the insurance unicorn Marshmallow with his twin, Alexander, and their friend David Goaté. It started in the café of a gym and now has a billion-dollar valuation.
“As long as you have the twin there, it’s like, well, you know, if he’s all right, I’m all right,” Oliver told Insider. “Everything that he finds interesting, I find interesting.”
Insider spoke with twin cofounders in the retail, wholesale, cosmetics, and insurance sectors to find out how they work together, how they use the “twin effect” in marketing, and what the future holds for their businesses.
A balancing act
Nicole Nichols, 37, was born a few minutes before her sister Nichelle. Since then, she said, she has taken the “big sister” role in their relationship.
At the Guilty Grape, the lifestyle and wine company they cofounded in Dallas, that involves taking the lead on the operations, campaigns, and sourcing of wine, while Nicole deals with the back end, working on spreadsheets and focusing on their bottom line.
The twins, who live together and often say the same thing at the same time, believe that their respective strengths balance each other out.
“I’m very visual,” Nichelle said. “I need to see a map and plan, so when I think she wants to be too risky I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, pull it back a little bit.'” Nicole instantly replied: “When she’s like, literally trying to be so safe, I’m like, ‘Let’s go, we can figure it out!'”
It’s a similar formula for 22-year-old twins Luke and Owen Buckmaster, who began selling pizza bases to businesses through their UK-based company, Doughboys, in early 2020 and made $400,000 in their first year. Luke runs sales and marketing, while Owen is operations and finance-focused.
“We can observe each others’ strengths and weaknesses and we can fit into where we both want to manage the company,” Owen said.
Torsten Pieper, an academic at UNC Charlotte, told Insider that twins having distinct roles in a business can be beneficial.
“You might be tempted not to challenge your twin sibling, and you might be tolerating actions and decisions that you think are wrong, so having a system or a personal process in place that checks that or corrects that can be helpful,” Pieper said.
A close bond
Oliver, the cofounder of Marshmallow, took on interview duties without his brother when he spoke with Insider, but it’s rare for the pair to be separated. “I think that in my life it’ll probably be, genuinely, 2 or 3% of the days I’ve been alive that I haven’t seen Alexander,” Oliver said.
The twins played doubles tennis for Great Britain in their teens, and Oliver admitted there was often friction: “There’s so many arguments on the doubles court when you’re 14.”
Now, Oliver lives a 10-minute walk away from Alexander and his girlfriend.
Their closeness helps them succeed as part of the small fraction of businesses run by co-CEOs. But being joined at the hip isn’t the only way to grow a successful business together.
Luke and Owen were initially reluctant to pair up in a business setting, worried it might affect their bond. The twins both left school at 16, citing a dislike of authority, and they had different jobs before deciding to work together.
Forty-year-old Feven and Helena Yohannes’ Los Angeles-based 2•4•1 Cosmetics took off in 2020 when it was included on Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things list.
They were born in a Sudanese refugee camp after their parents fled Eritrea.
Their father encouraged them to forge their own identities from an early age. “As twins growing up, they constantly compare you,” Helena said, with Feven adding that their dad thought that treatment of twins was “kind of unhealthy.”
Of the twins Insider spoke to, they seem to have spent the most time apart, having attended separate colleges — though they did rack up a $300 phone bill in their first month apart.
Helena said she runs the more “boring” side of 2•4•1 Cosmetics, while Feven tends to have her “head in the clouds,” but it’s a combination they said works.
Feven and Helena live with their respective partners but work together at Helena’s house.
Deirdre and Helen O’Neill, 37-year-old twins from Cork, Ireland, run Hertility Health, an at-home hormone- and fertility-testing group. Starting the business followed years of working separately in an attempt to forge their own identities, though they were happy to swap places in school to help each other skip class.
“We have spent our lives looking the same and being kind of lumped into the twins category that we fought unnecessarily hard to be individuals,” Deidre said. That included dressing differently and taking separate career paths.
Deirdre became an M&A lawyer, while Helen’s interest in being a twin led her into genetics.
Their unique experiences proved a winning combination for their genetics business.
Helen said that having her twin with her when they were pitching for funding felt like a comforting blanket: “I could just focus on what I’m good at, and Deirdre to focus on everything that she was fluent in, which is venture capital.”
Marketing ‘the twindom of it all’
Naturally, twins are memorable, given that only 1.6 million twin pairs are born around the world annually, according to the journal Human Reproduction.
They prompt a double take that can inevitably be applied to marketing.
Research from the Institute for Family Business showed companies that promote themselves as family-run can gain greater trust and are better placed to attract talent.
Phillip Phan, a business professor at Johns Hopkins University, has researched family businesses for years and told Insider that even in businesses where twins don’t intentionally use their bond in marketing, it naturally comes through.
“And the brand value attached to that is the family value,” Phan said. “It’s sort of an extreme version of a family enterprise.”
Phan said family businesses inherently care about their communities, because their identity is often attached to the community where they work.
The Nichols sisters said the best marketing comes from jointly appearing at events such as wine fairs, where people often instinctively gravitate toward them.
“We call it the Twin Effect. People are very enamored, I guess, with the ‘twindom’ of it all,” Nichelle said.
Looking so similar can also have its downsides. Nichelle joked that she would find herself picking up conversations someone had started with Nicole at events, and vice versa.
And for companies less reliant on the personality of their founders, being twins can also be a frustrating burden. Luke and Owen said that some investors and clients may view twins as “nontraditional” founders, so may be less likely to trust them.
Helen from Hertility was even told by one investor that they didn’t invest in siblings.
Oliver said twindom wasn’t very effective in marketing insurance, and he and Alexander try to steer away from being pigeonholed as “Black founders” or twins.
Feven and Helena added: “It’s important that people kind of see us as individuals, and not like as a weird freak show.”
Sooner or later, all business partners face tensions. Phan said conflict between twins could be more devastating to the business than the average sibling partnership, given their codependency.
“Because they’re also emotionally and cognitively tied, much more so than just regular members of the family, I think decisions that impact the families of twins may cause a greater degree of emotional variance,” Phan said. “So if there is conflict, the conflict is likely to be a lot more severe.”
On the other hand, the emotional ties between twins mean “there is on average less likely to be conflict,” he said.
Owen Buckmaster said any tension between he and his brother is brief. “When we have arguments or fall out, it never lasts long whatsoever.
“But I think that can generally last a long time and drag on with partners who aren’t twins.”
Things can get trickier if a third party is brought into the equation. Some twins remark that prospective partners will try to eye areas of disagreement to force compromise between them, which UNC Charlotte’s Pieper said is a common problem for sibling cofounders.
“We were in business before with a third person, and the synergy wasn’t 100% there, and I feel with my sister we move faster together,” Helena said. “We can have disagreements, and once we decide on something we do execute very quickly.”
As long as we’re together, that’s great
All the twins said their businesses have changed the nature of their relationships.
“I’d say our conversations are more mundane, like 70% of what we talk about is work, but the closeness hasn’t changed,” Marshmallow’s Oliver said.
They all told Insider they feel lucky to be venturing toward success with their other half.
“I’m so, so blessed to be on this journey with my sister,” Helena said. “I feel like I was born with the best business partner.”
Pieper said that whether it’s “planting trees” or “selling ice in the Arctic circle,” twins working together can be very successful.
Helen from Hertility added: “I think I feel closer to Deirdre than I ever have, building something together that we both care about so much.
“I actually wonder what we would have done — how our relationship as twins would have survived — if one of us was on this path alone, because being a founder is a very lonely journey.”