Over the course of my career, I have forged several successful partnerships. My most successful partnership of all time is with my wife Janice, of course. But the truth is that while I love and embrace the independence and freedom that being an entrepreneur brings, I have always relied on partners to take my game to the next level.
Do I enjoy running decisions by my partner? No, not particularly. But I know that when two or more parties bring different yet equally valuable skills to the table, amazing things happen.
When I first struck out on my own, I teamed up with Russell Hicks, whom I had met working at Worlds of Wonder. Russell was an incredibly talented illustrator. I would come up with ideas and Russell would bring them to life visually. We had common goals and were equal partners.
All of my partnerships have been like that, actually. I founded a guitar pick company with my boyhood friend Rob Stephani because he had experience in the music industry and my strengths were design and marketing. I’m proud to say that my current partnership with inventRight co-founder Andrew Krauss has endured for nearly 14 years now. Like any other relationship, we have our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we trust each other.
Finding the right partner to work with can be a challenge. What are you really getting yourself into? How can you be sure? It’s all a bit nerve-wracking. Avoid making a commitment to the wrong person using these seven strategies.
1. Do your homework.
Google the person you’re thinking about working with as well as their associates. I know people who won’t go to a restaurant before consulting Yelp these days. So dig around.
Does anything you uncover give you pause? When you do your research, remember to focus on the big picture. No one is perfect. If you have a presence on the Internet, someone has said something nasty about you at one point or another. It’s more about the context of the claim. Are there specifics? Does it have to do with integrity?
2. Set ground rules up front.
Who is responsible for what? You need to spell out your responsibilities clearly -- and frankly, it’s best if your talents do not overlap. If reaching an agreement is difficult early on, you might as well run for the hills now. Working together is not going to get any easier. In fact, I can almost guarantee that it will only get more difficult as time goes on. In that way, your professional relationships are like any other.
How are you supposed to genuinely commit to someone when your very foundation is rocky? Your desire to make it work doesn’t have that much bearing. Walking away from an opportunity you’re excited about can be difficult. But it’s easier to do sooner than later.
3. Establish mutually-agreed-upon big-picture objectives before you commit to working together.
Your partner doesn’t have to share your long-term goals. You can be in it for different reasons. What I believe is much more important is having the same philosophy towards business and even more so, life.
How are you going to run your company? How are you going to treat your customers and your employees? What principles do you abide by? These aren’t really questions you can put to someone point blank, although doing so isn’t a bad idea. I prefer to observe how the person treats other people. Does he or she have long-term relationships with other people? What about communities and organizations? If so, that’s a good sign.
If your potential partner has a tendency to burn bridges, that does not bode well for your future together. Having a difference of opinion is one thing, fearing that you might be betrayed is another. So become a student of history. Talk to his or her former colleagues.
4. Assign your future partner a simple task early on.
Does he or she complete it in a timely manner? Was it up to your standards? Are you pleased with the result? Does he or she make excuses? Use this opportunity to determine whether your temperaments match up.
5. Respect that good partnerships develop over time.
Be wary of anyone who tries to rush your decision-making process. In my experience, it’s best to discuss things over the phone before putting anything into writing. In fact, you will probably need to have several conversations to reach a mutual understanding.
6. Sign an operating agreement.
What are your obligations to one another? Get them in writing. No one likes to think about what will happen if things go south, but you need to know. Nelly Furtado spoke the truth when she sang, “All good things come to an end.”
7. If for whatever reason it doesn’t work out, be cordial.
You want to keep the door open for future business opportunities, don’t you? Be polite. In all likelihood, you will be hurt, annoyed or frustrated -- but that’s OK. Those feelings will pass. In time you will be grateful you dodged a bullet. Needlessly burning a bridge is always unwise. Our industries are smaller than we think!
Each of my partnerships has taught me something about myself. They've helped me get clearer about my strengths and weaknesses and what I'm looking for. In time, you too will be able to spot a red flag from a mile away.