There are many things to consider when choosing a business partner. Yet one factor above all makes success more likely. And without it, failure is practically guaranteed.
The Civil Wars
Have you heard of The Civil Wars? They were a musical duo who made a pretty big splash about five years ago: a #1 album, four Grammy Awards, an Americana Music Award … Time magazine, in 2011, even named them among the “Top Ten of Everything.”
But in 2012, only a week into an international concert tour, they canceled the remaining dates. They later made an official announcement that the duo was no more. Only one half has ever spoken publicly about why: “Internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.”
Note that well: While you can usually deal with internal discord in any partnership, overcoming differences of ambition is not so easy to overcome.
It’s probably better that they existed briefly than not at all. But the duo probably could have saved a lot of disappointment if they’d found out sooner what each other’s ambitions actually were.
Oh, So It’s Like a Marriage?
If you’ve read enough about “how to find the right business partner,” you have likely seen this line repeated over and over: “A business partnership is like a marriage.”
The people who say this haven’t taken into consideration that (a) not everyone has been married, so they don’t possess a subjective reality on marriage and (b) not everyone’s experience of marriage (whether their own or their parents’) was pleasant or ideal.
So, a more accurate statement would be “A successful business partnership is like a successful marriage.”
What makes a successful marriage? One very big factor is that both partners share a common goal—for instance, to raise a family. There could be other goals, such as social causes or just spending time together. And when the two have these things in common, it stands the best chance of being a strong and lasting union. But when the basic purposes are not aligned—Betty wants a home and family, but Bobby wants to hang out at the bar after work—it can lead to tears, screaming matches, kitchen appliances crashing through windows, and divorce.
It’s the old “irreconcilable differences in ambition.”
In a Word, the Key Factor Is …
So, the key factor in a successful partnership is mutual purpose. Some might also call it “values.” Others still might call it “vision.”
Purposes—aligned or not—are present in any partnership, whether the partners have stated it or are even aware of it. And their business will be an expression of the their purposes. Partners in a start-up who each have different purposes will experience confusion, frustration, and slow progress. With an aligned purpose, there will naturally be cooperation and more likelihood of success.
Having an aligned purposes means the other person works as hard as you do, and would make the same sacrifices for the business.
That doesn’t mean that there will never be a disagreement. But you can more easily resolve conflicts when they’re not based on “irreconcilable differences of ambition.”
A black and white example of this is a partnership in which one partner is intent on bringing about social or cultural change, and the other wants to make a billion dollars. Change takes time. How dedicated do you think the billion-dollar guy is going to be when it comes to overcoming the hurdles to creating change? (There are probably much faster ways to make a billion dollars.)
Purpose/value/vision may not be the first thing you discover about your potential business partner, but somewhere in the process of deciding whether or not to go all-in with someone, you will have to ascertain what their business purpose is.
Other Important Factors When Choosing a Business Partner
Although purpose is the bedrock of a successful partnership, there are other things to consider before you begin looking for a partner and while you’re seeking one:
1. Rather than assume that you need a partner, determine if you actually do and, if so, why?
Depending on the type of business you’re in, you might benefit by partnering with someone who has a complementary set of skills (e.g., strong in sales and marketing whereas you’re strong in customer service). But if you are capable of handling most of the larger or more important tasks, it doesn’t make sense to give over a share in your company to someone who is just going to handle “the small stuff.” There is an abundance of freelancers (via Upwork and similar platforms) that you can hire for reasonable rates to handle administration, copywriting, design, etc.
2. Take your time when looking; don’t make any rash decisions.
The ideal candidate for a business partnership would be someone you have plenty of experience with, such as a friend, family member, former co-worker, or an old classmate. With this kind of person, you’ll have an idea of how they deal with others and how they manage stress. Hopefully, it also means you enjoy their company, or at least can tolerate them, because you’ll most likely be spending a lot of time together.
If you’re considering a potential partner whom you don’t know well, get to know not only that individual but their family as well. Get a sense of what their obligations might be. If married, does their spouse support their business purposes?
3. Do a little detective work if necessary.
Talk is cheap. Facts speak. Ask yourself: Is your potential partner really who they present themselves to be? Can they hold up their end financially? Are they as well connected as they say they are?
You don’t want to be perceived as being overly suspicious, but you can still talk to former employees or partners of the person you’re considering partnering with. Find out what kind of boss or partner they were. You can even go so far as to do a formal background check, which will provide information on their finances, lawsuits, criminal convictions, etc.
4. Incorporate and put everything in writing.
Don’t enter into any business relationship on a handshake. Involve a lawyer and put everything in writing. This includes such things as what each person’s involvement in the company is, what their duties are, and how conflicts will be resolved. Although it’s impossible to predict every potential problem, a start-up lawyer can enlighten you and your partner on the more common issues you’re likely to encounter.
With everything in writing, should a problem ever escalate to the point where one of you wants out, the agreement will protect both parties, allowing action to be taken while limiting the amount of damage caused.
5. If your potential partner is not willing to put some or all of the business agreement in writing, you might want to consider finding a different partner.
The business you launch may be the most rewarding things you ever do. It may positively affect the lives of people you will never meet, and could even grow to outlive you. Although success is never assured, by choosing a suitable partner and getting everything squared away at the outset, you’ll be laying the groundwork for a successful partnership.