How to Choose the Right Business Partner

Photo by  Kristine Lo

Photo by Kristine Lo

A lot of business partnerships are formed out of convenience or necessity - you have an idea, and you need someone to help you execute quickly, so you start working with your roommate, best friend, family member, or girlfriend/boyfriend because they're close by, willing to help you, and/or have the skill set or contacts you need.

Sometimes this works just great. Sometimes it's a hot mess and will ruin both your business and your personal life. Often it's somewhere in the middle. 

The reality is that there are a whole host of factors that many people don't think about when they are considering partnership. And good, healthy partnerships are hard work.

For the best chance of success in a business partnership, here are a few things to keep in mind when you're thinking about joining forces.

Aligned Goals

Does your partner have the same expectations of the business that you do? Are your mindsets the same? Or is one of you an aspiring empire-builder and the other a local small-business owner? (These are both great and legitimate positions, by the way - but very different goals that make for incompatible approaches to business.) 

Define your goals. And also define your terms; just because someone uses the same words you do (like "start-up" or "entrepreneur"), doesn't mean those words have the same meaning to them. 

Direct Communication

Can you and your partner be honest with each other and verbalize what you are thinking, feeling, and wanting? If not, can you accurately read each other's minds and just intuit what the other person wants and then do it without ever talking about it? You should be able to answer "yes" to one of these questions. Ideally the first one, because everyone is terrible at the second one. 

Many people have a hard time identifying how they're feeling and what they need. We all have defenses, which are a way for us to cope with things about ourselves that are too painful to face, so sometimes being honest with another person is impossible because we're not quite honest with ourselves. This is where therapy for entrepreneurs can be very helpful - especially if you're not therapy-inclined, learning about yourself and your defenses can help you be an authentic person and up your odds of getting what you need from others, in business and in life.

Defined Company Roles

Who does what in the company? How much of the company is yours/theirs? Define and delineate your roles and equity stakes in the business as clearly as you can. Put it on paper. Make sure you both agree about your respective responsibilities from the get-go, and that you can trust each other's decision-making so there's no time wasted with micro-managing. Talk to some attorneys and get all the legalities hammered out and formalized so everyone feels protected.

Clear Work-Life Boundaries

When are you working and when are you off the clock? Start-ups are crazy, yes, but everyone has the right to sleep, eat, and have some semblance of a life in which they are not working. The business has needs, but so do the humans running it, and it's a hard balance. Don't fall into the trap of being (or partnering with) someone that glorifies always grinding and hustling and never sleeping - that mentality is just a socially acceptable form of sloppy boundaries. 

You and your co-founder should discuss work-life boundaries in advance and on an ongoing basis to make sure your business is sustainable and healthy for the people involved in it. This includes the use of email and the phone as well as expectations regarding contact when people are working remotely or on vacation or if it’s just the weekend.

If you live with or have a personal relationship (dating/marriage/family/etc.) with your co-founder, set aside times of the day/week where you don't talk about work at all. Your personal relationship will die if you don't tend to it. (I’ll be writing about what to do if you’re coupled with your business partner in a future blog post soon, so sign up for the Run Walk Talk newsletter to be informed when that is posted.)

Personal Accountability

Can you and your co-founder be mad at each other in a productive and respectful way? Is your potential partner able to admit when they're wrong? Do they take responsibility for their own feelings and behavior or blame others? Here's where working with someone you know is actually an advantage, because you can think back on what you've seen from them to determine if they have enough capacity for self-regulation and humility to work well with others.

People behave very similarly in business as they do in the rest of their lives. We pretend we're different people when we go to work, but we're still carrying around all our vulnerabilities as professionals and some of us know better than others how to manage that in a healthy way.

So if you know a gifted and talented professional with an amazing skill set that you're considering partnering with, consider also how they behave with people - you’re going to want to pair up with someone who is kind, understanding, communicative, and open to feedback.

Putting it Together

Here are your takeaways: We bring our whole selves to our jobs and companies, so pick people who are aware of themselves and authentic. Pay attention to how people behave, prioritize open communication, and put in place clear roles and boundaries to keep everyone feeling safe and doing their best work. Working together to build a successful, thriving business can be an immense source of joy and satisfaction - I wish you thoughtfulness and consideration in choosing your business partner, and hope the tips here help you choose well!

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Sepideh Saremi, LCSW is a therapist and executive coach who specializes in working with entrepreneurs. She helps founders, executives, and business partners develop themselves so they can build the best companies possible. In addition to working via phone and video, she uses her trademarked Run Walk Talk method to help her clients achieve deep and lasting change. For a consultation, call her at 424-270-5427 or email her: sep@runwalktalk.com.