Business Partnership: 3 Important Questions

When you’re in a small business, it can be a challenge to fly solo. I’ve been blessed with some great business partners — as well as some near misses.

A business partnership is more than a silver bullet: it is a relationship. A complementary skillset and chemistry help. Successful partners also have compatible goals and values.

As a corollary to the slowly developing Business Plan 101 series, here are three questions to consider in relation to business partnership:

  1. What are your financial goals?
  2. What are your personal goals?
  3. How do you behave, and make decisions, under stress?

What are your financial goals? A business partnership is a joint investment, and requires jointly planned goals.

Whether you’re investing in startup costs, technology upgrades, or unexpected expenses (like broken water heaters), you’ll be funding your investment from the company’s income, or out of your pocket. Either way, the boss gets paid last.

Do you and your partner have enough money in the bank, or other income, to live when you need to plow resources into the company?

If you’ve got other income, great. Understand how you’ll split your time between generating income for living expenses and working in your business.

If it’s okay for a partner give less than 100% of her time to the business, factor that into your plan. (I’m not a fan of this set-up; if you’re working like this and it works for you, please drop me a line or comment on this post.)

One of my early business partnerships involved a great personal relationship (it still is!) and complementary skillsets. We had different short term financial goals.

I was willing, and felt able, to make less money for a couple of years while we built the business. My partner had higher living expenses, and more financial commitments.

“Do what you love, the money will follow,” is magical thinking.

(The excellent book with this title does not advocate magical thinking. Unfortunately, author Marsha Sinetar’s buzz-worthy title has become a rosy lens through which some view entrepreneurship. But that is a topic for another day.)

Money is the core energy source for a business. (For yogis out there in the audience, it is prana.)

Business owners get paid when the company generates more money than it uses.

Doing what you love is a business when it generates more income than expenses, over a reasonable period of time. Agreeing on this timeframe is good support to a partnership.

Our business partnership was making money. But it didn’t fly because our company wasn’t going to make enough money, soon enough, to meet both of our needs. To meet basic financial needs, my partner needed to do something completely different. It would have been wise for us to discuss our timelines up front.

(And there are other financial factors: you’ll have a better shot at business credit if all partners have solid credit records.)

How about your personal goals? How would each partner describe her ideal work day? It is worth the time to have this discussion, and notice how the core activities of your business will be supported by your preferred activities and objectives.

A partner at one consulting client lived 5 hours away (by plane). The business plan called for her to work remotely, spending a week on site every 6 weeks or so. Another partner didn’t love managing the daily business operations.

Hiring a general manager didn’t fill the gap between what the partners wanted to do themselves, and what it took to run the business. The dissonance was resolved when the long-distance partner moved across the country to actively manage the business.

Are you willing to change your own goals to fill potential gaps?

A sub-point to the first two questions: what is your time horizon? If you’re 25, and your partner is 45, you’re both in luck. You’ll have the benefit of an extra 20 years of experience. Your partner will benefit from your energy and viewpoint. (Penelope Trunk has been blogging on this topic.)

If your 10 year plan involves happily continuing to build the business, while your partner sees herself lying on the beach, you’ll need to build these goals into your business plan. Having this topic out on the table is more important than how you’ll reconcile these goals. (There are always options.)

If your 45 year old partner isn’t already set up to save for retirement, she needs to get busy. (And really, so do you.)

Your business can provide you and your staff with utilities like health insurance and retirement accounts, as long as you agree on these possibilities as priorities.

Have you observed how you both manage stress? Under extreme stress, I become judgmental and seek to create structure. I become hyper-sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others, and make emotional, and not analytical, decisions.

(And for believers in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I’ve scored differently when tested at times of different sorts of life stress. See Valeria Maltoni’s recent post on the MBTI for one take on this tool.)

So I know myself. And I’ve watched myself and others exhibit “uncharacteristic” behavior during stressful business periods.

Who can’t get along at Canyon Ranch? Small business is more like a NOLS course, or Outward Bound: toilets overflow, suppliers deliver late, customers need care and feeding…the world changes in ways that you didn’t account for in your business plan.

Years ago, the gentleman who made my coffee at Starbucks was let go. He said, “My father always taught me, it is not what happens to you. It is how you react to it.”

Exactly. I almost have a “wilderness camping” test in mind for my own future. Can a prospective business partner and I choose a stressful (but safe) situation to allow us to check out our stress reactions with one another?

(And by the way, this entire post assumes that you like and respect your business partner. If you don’t, what are you thinking?)

One bonus question: why are you each seeking partnership?

Jerry McGuire was an icon for a certain kind of late 1990s entrepreneur (I think that Dan Pink is the guy who made this connection). But it wasn’t because Jerry was looking for someone to complete him.

You need to bring your sense of your own abundant possibility, and your own complete-ness, to any sort of partnership.

In partnership, you’re seeking alignment, not perfection. When you and your partner aren’t in synch, you’ll want to figure out how to manage the disparities.

Remember, it is a relationship.

Blogger and NY Times Columnist Marci Alboher’s recent column “Like Marriage, Business Takes Work” suggests that coaches (and even therapists) can help partners to work together optimally: this article is recommended reading.

And this is just my opinion, based on my experience. What questions or actions contribute to a successful business partnership?

(and the beautiful wedding cake is from Flickr photographer gsleap76)

3 thoughts on “Business Partnership: 3 Important Questions

  1. I work at, so I’ve had an opportunity to look at a lot of business partnerships.This is great advice that you offer and I think that aligned financial goals are perhaps the single most important element to consider when choosing a business partner.

  2. As a business partnership specialist I agree that these are all points to consider. And to Mike, financial goals are important but integrity and honesty amongst partners maybe even more so.

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