Building your Business Partnership for Better (Not Worse)

By Chuck

I have been consulting small businesses for over a decade working with owners as they start their businesses or have difficulty negotiating circumstances that are natural to all businesses as they grow and mature. I have found that all businesses that have a co-ownership situation can be successful if they treat their partner relationship as an integral part of the operations of the company. Just as capital, or product fit, or operational inefficiencies can doom a business to the 7 out of 10 statistical heap of failure, so too can partnership issues. Whether it is a disagreement over the division of equity, how to invest company assets, or the division of the responsibilities of each of the owners and all things in between, if there is not trust, respect and good communication that perfect job you were hoping to create with your business becomes a nightmare you lose sleep over and possibly your livelihood. This may make you feel powerless to correct, or even untangle and move on. 

It is true that a business partnership is similar to a marriage. Both are relatively easy to get into and both can be expensive, time consuming and emotionally painful to get out of. So I have found that many partnerships could avoid much of the pain in splitting up (if it is appropriate, necessary or desirable to end the partnership) by having a clear honest relationship, and good communication habits. Often I have seen it in one partner complaining that the another partner is not carrying his weight, is maybe overpaid, lacking commitment or is somehow causing an atmosphere of distrust by not communicating often enough or openly. This is when all sorts of assumptions creep in to create a negative story regarding one partner that may not be true at all. And at the same time the other partner has their own story that is building. It may be the busy and hectic schedule of running the business that never provides the appropriate time for an uncomfortable discussion or just the fear of conflict and uncertain result of a seemingly “small” issue. But those small issues become larger than life and eat away at the original camaraderie and trust that started the business in the first place. 

It has been said that you can never guarantee that you and your partner will get along tomorrow as well as you do today. You may get along great today, but tomorrow, whether it is an outside force that becomes a challenge to your business or an internal change that may challenge the survival of your company, it is important to be able to depend on your partner to rise and meet the challenges together. You need to trust your partner and yourself to perform and commit the time necessary to see through the challenges. So while there are no guarantees in life, you may be able to secure some insurance on at least the personal operations of your business by intentionally determining how you and your partner communicate, learn how to respect each other, and remain on the same page as to why and how you are running your business. I always consult my clients by reminding them that this business they have chosen to create should be their perfect job; and that means financially AND personally fulfilling at all the different levels that might entail. When co-owners are intentional about how they are going to run their business together they are not just thinking about the one-day-at-time, how do we survive till tomorrow approach to managing, they are laying the groundwork for how they will guide the business from inception to growth, stabilization and its maturity, and prepare possibly for a sale, transfer of management or retirement of the business. 

With this time and intention given to the partner relationship you are actually starting to shape the company culture. Company culture is the overarching timeless purpose and moral compass that guides your business and is not to be confused with day-to-day business practices. By working with your partners to create and dictate the company culture, you will have better success in ensuring this trickles down throughout your organization. If you don’t do it intentionally, it will be created anyway, and maybe not reflect the kind company you had in mind. 

The health of your business depend on so many variables. I propose that you give yourself every advantage by being intentional and conscious in working with your partner. This way you can realize new levels of success and handle conflict and change as it presents itself, which we know it will! Think of how carefully you cultivate your vendors, clients and affiliates and you may understand the critical importance of your partner relationship too.