Pick Your Business Partner Like You Pick Your Spouse
“We compliment each other well” my wife told me during our drive home one day… “I’m good at getting things started while you tend to take your time to start”. Naturally I said “ok” in anticipation of a follow up. “… but you are great at finishing things while I tend to stop midway and sometimes not finish what I start”. So we agreed that we work very well as partners even though these differences in style sometimes cause frustrations between us.
I’m blessed to have found an amazing wife and haven been happily married since. I learned a lot about being and having a partner. That conversation with my wife made me realize that there are similarities in business and life partners.
Picking a business partner is one of the most important decisions an entrepreneur can make. The right partner can help your business leap forward wile the wrong one can kill your business, harm you personally, and just make you unhappy… and no one wants to be unhappy.
Actually some investors only work with startups that have at least two partners (e.g. Y-Combinator & Tech Stars don’t take solo founders) since it improves the chances of a startup’s success. Obviously they make sure the partners work well together and at least one of them takes a leadership role.
There are some great examples of business partners who succeeded together (e.g. Apple’s Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, Google’s Sergey Brin & Larry Page, and many others).
So that brings up a dilemma of how to pick the right partner. My advice is to pick your partner like you would pick your spouse.
Here Are Some Things to Look For:
1- Trust: This is obviously the most important thing to look for in a partner. You need someone who will be honest with you and all stakeholders (customers, employees, regulators, suppliers, shareholders, and the community). There are stories of dishonest partners stealing from the business, getting everyone into legal problems, and tarnishing the business’ name. A good test here is whether you would trust that person with a signed blank cheque.
2- Values: Your partner should share your values on life and business… or the important ones at least. For example, you might value integrity over everything, then you probably are better off not partnering with someone who values money over everything. If you haven’t done so yet, list the values that are most important to you and turn your radar on when considering partners.
3- Completes You: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Each person has an approach in doing business. Get a partner that compliments you so you have a more fire power as a team. You and your partner(s) can complement each other in different ways:
i- Technical: your partner’s technical skills should fill a function that is essential to your company’s success.
ii- Experience: your partner(s) can also have industry or market knowledge. They would understand how the industry works, know what customer want, and have connections with key people. That will help you fill in assumptions you would make alone.
iii- Style: you can focus on different parts of the business that leverages your strengths (e.g. one might manage people another might focus on developing new ideas).
4- Get Along: You will be spending a lot of time with your partner. You will go through thick and thin together. Pick someone you will get along with socially. Someone who you can be best friends with and let off some steam together when things get tough. Some of the best married couples and business partners I know are great friends. Getting along with your partner(s) will help you enjoy the process of building your business… the journey is more important than the destination. It’s not worth working with jerks.
5- Committed: Have no doubt about it, you will face difficult times. Pick a partner that will stand by you during these times:
i- Sticks through the tough times: tough times reveal a lot about a person so make sure you pay more attention to actions than to words. Look for a history of sticking through tough times. There is a nice saying that goes: “you can’t talk your way out of something you behaved yourself into“. Someone who quits on most things in life will probably quit on you when you most need him/her. Pick someone who rolls up their sleeves and leans into problems.
ii- Has skin in the game: Make sure the person is willing to risk something significant (money, time, etc) into the business. That way, s/he stands to lose and win with the business.
iii- Pulls own weight: Make sure s/he will put the effort and do his/her part. A successful entrepreneur I know started his business with his friend when they were young. The business flourished, but it was running on one engine only. The entrepreneur’s partner was not doing enough work. The entrepreneur was faced with the difficult decision of keeping the partnership because he feels his partner will not make it on his own.
6- Passion: Your partner should have the same spark of passion you have towards the business. His/her eyes should light up when it talking about work. It’s hard to quantify, but you know it when you see someone passionate about his/her business.
7- Adapts: Most businesses end up being very different from the entrepreneurs’ first idea. There will be a lot of adaptation and iteration based on what customers want, competitors do, the industry imposes, etc. Look for a partner that is capable and open to adapting and evolving. Ideally, s/he would be someone that:
i- Constantly learns and applies new ideas.
ii- Reflects and introspects on things to learn from experience and make changes to progress the business.
iii- Is willing to make changes, even if they are painful, to growth. Avoid a partner that wants to keep things as they are and refuses to adapt with the times.
8- Sanity Check: Most employees will go along with what you say, but a good partner will raise the red flag when you are off base. Look for someone that is willing to stick to his/her guns even if you will hate it and push back.
9- Pushes You: You might need a little push once in a while. You might your own momentum. Good partners feed off each other’s energy and charge each other in the process. Look for someone who will push you forward rather than drag you back (i.e. passive complainers will be more weight).
10- Appreciates You: One of the important things I learned from my wife is the need to appreciate your partner and her/his contribution. You might take it for granted that your partner is very capable and has done tremendous effort to accomplish something. It is important to take a moment to appreciate your partner and to express that to him/her frequently. Your partner should be someone that will do that towards you as well.
What about you? what has been your experience in picking partners? Share the good, bad, and the ugly.