The first person I ever talked to who told me I was crazy for getting a partner was an attorney. He looked at me like I was about to drink a vial of cancer. Given that he was near retirement, I tried to take him as serious as possible, but I honestly didn’t have enough practical experience to know how to actually do it. I’ve learned since.
What I’m going to do here is give you at least what I consider to be the vitals on this decision, and hopefully some mechanisms to measure how well things are going. I’ve been had by the best, nearly lost everything due to folks simply breaking down, and enjoyed fantastic partners who never cease to amaze me in the darkest times.
Try to answer “why” you need a partner
There are two types of people in this world, entertainers, and the entertained. The latter need not apply to the world of corporate partnerships. The answer that should leap out at you when asking yourself this key question is “I need to duplicate myself.” When starting a company, you should be able to complete all relevant jobs solo. This is obviously a statement applied to small businesses, but even in a large start-up, each job that is entrusted to a single employee is a direct increase in the risk to failure should they get hit by a bus.
If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know that starting even the smallest business is going to require a massive investment in time and probably money. Therefore, you need to ensure that whoever you invite to this party is 1000% dedicated for the long haul. There are many estimates circling the web and good old boy clubs about how long a business should be attempted until you quit. Some say 18 months, others say 36 months. I’m going to tell you a better answer, continue for as long as you gain a little bit every day (without lying to yourself), and for as long as you can enjoy the journey. If you start losing money, going bankrupt, or hurting those around you, it’s time to bail or try something completely different.
Assess your partner candidates
What does this mean? This means get real very quick. There is no place for “personal information” in a partnership. If you had a twin sister or brother, you should know your partners life BETTER. You need to know if they’re happy. If they like their marriage. If they have a history of finishing what they start. How long are their average projects? How do they handle failure? What’s the toughest thing in life they’ve ever endured? You must get into their business, and into their home life. If that’s too scary for you, then stay solo, or stay out of anything but hobbies that earn you money on the side. Running a business is for grown ups who are in it to win it. You may indeed be invited to a business without this psychological colonoscopy, but then you are probably dealing with folks who believe they already know this about you, or at minimum have an ejection seat already strapped to your back.
Also remember that people change over time. Any flaw in their character will only get bigger and more dangerous for your company. If they drink a little, they’ll be drinking a lot more after a year has gone by. If they’re complaining about their wife, divorce may be immanent. If they complain about being tired, they’re going to bail when the going gets rough. I can’t stress it enough, your partners need to have centered lives, and being in peek physical and mental condition prior to entering a new business.
Determine what your partner wants from the venture, then protect yourself
Everyone is different, and this means the world when it comes to success and earning money. Some folks want to build an empire to last a lifetime or to pass it to their children. Others want to make one large sum of money and cash out. You need to know this information before signing a partnership agreement. If you can, embed this information inside your contract or bylaws. You can make up whatever you want, so be creative and comprehensive. Have clean exit strategies defined early. People unknowingly lie when things are starting out. They’ll get frustrated when things don’t go right, and want a big settlement with zero dollars in the bank; the old “if I can’t have it, neither can you” treatment.
My advice is to avoid the debate. Have all the options predefined to your liking, lay them on the table and make them an offer with the resolve to withdraw the offer should they get finicky. You don’t want folks who are difficult as partners.
Make sure they can not only see the vision, but feel it, and expand on it
Every ship needs a captain, but sometimes it’s nice to have partners who can think for themselves. Upon explaining your business model to a potential partner, look for a person who immediately “gets it.” You want folks who drool over your idea, and who immediately want in. Let’s face it, you’re going to get tired from time to time, and you can always benefit from someone who knows how to complete a task in your absence, or when you’re gone, or when you’re making bad decisions due to fatigue. Once you have a great partner, you have a true blessing in your midst.
Attempt if you can to triangulate the venture. Meaning, find partners that deliberately see things from a different perspective than you do. One is good, but two opposing views is great. Your meetings will be brimming with great ideas that you’ll have to work to organize and implement, but the overall vision will be pushed forward if you do it right, and each partner will possess the genetic ability to stimulate the rest of the employees as well as the other partners.
Overall partners can be great additions to a business model. Those who take it lightly pay dearly. Those who handle the concept with great caution sleep at night with a smile on their face. Be the one who smiles.