Finding the Right Business Partner is Harder than Finding the Right Spouse
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On the blog Startup Professional Musings, author Martin Zwilling wrote about the dangers of a dysfunctional startup team. While reading I was it, it occured to me that (not shockingly) finding the right business partners is at least as hard as finding the right spouse — and, if that is the case, then how on earth does an entrepreneur stand a chance of accomplishing this? Especially in the cases that multiple partners are necessary for a business.
Zwilling references Patrick Lencioni’s popular book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” in identifying the killers to successful startup teams. (And, naturally, these could also count as the killers to any marriage.) The list is short, but covers a lot of ground:
- Absence of trust
- Fear of conflict
- Lack of commitment
- Avoidance of accountability
- Inattention to results
As I read through this list, I thought about all of the business partnerships I have seen in my life — both the successful and the disasterous — and considered how they originally formed, and which origins seemed best poised for success, versus the ones that seemed like a nightmare (from the outside, anyway).
The first category to which I was ever exposed (thanks to my parents), and the category into which I now fall, is one with very long odds: married couples as business partners. This one is probably the roughest for me to objectively assess (for obvious reasons), and is the one where I have actually seen the most disaster.
Of all the myriad of problems that are common in these types of business partnerships, the bottom line is that, no matter how hard annyone ever tries, separating out a married relationship from a business relationship when your spouse is your business partner is never entirely successful.
There are some magnificent horror stories about siblings as business partners. What I’ve experienced is actually that the siblings themselves are often capable of sorting out the necessary groundrules to work together, if they must. Where I’ve seen things become more complicated is if they are feeling pressure from mom and dad.
Most siblings will sort out their own roles and pecking orders as kids. And, often times, they’ll do this regardless of what their parents try to enforce. Whether they all end up as cliches (e.g. The Bossy Eldest, The Invisible Middle Child, The Baby, etc.) or not, the fact is that they are often going to find a way to sort things out. I have seen this dynamic work really well in business partnerships, because it gives them an unspoken language to use with each other. (On the other hand, this can be extremely difficult if there are other leaders on the team who are not part of the sibling team, because they are not part of the loop at all.)
I know several entrepreneurs who have historically relied on this method. Whether they used the Meyers-Briggs or the StrengthsFinder or some other assessment tool, their focus was on finding the combination of traits that they felt would be complimentary and necessary to make a business successful.
I have seen this go both ways. On one hand, this does help with some initial expectation setting, but in the end, there are still other factors at play. One person told me that when he met his future business partner, he took him out to get him drunk half a dozen times so that he could ‘meet the real man.’ Interesting (and slightly amusing) technique, even if the guy’s wife wasn’t wild about it.
This is one of the options that I often see people warn against, but which I have — on occassion — seen be extremely successful. I think the key is the nature of the friendship, and how long and close it really is. In the case of a long-time casual friendship, I have not seen as much success. Where I have seen it work a bit better, is a life-long friendship that is more like a sibling relationship than anything else.
What I have seen in those cases is a level of honesty that many other relationships tend to lack. When you’ve known someone since elementary school, odds are that (just like with your siblings), people know each other well enough to lose some of their fear of being honest — even sometimes to the point of being brutal. The bedrock of friendship can be strong enough that people have learned over the years how to handle conflict with each other.
This one can be a crap shoot. I’ve watched a number of people I know (including my father) attempt partnerships with people who appeared to be what a business needed — either in terms of skills, network or existing business — and then seen it blow up because the people couldn’t figure out how to work together.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen this be a strong opportunity for a clean slate. People who are dilligent can define the roles and expectations, figure out the right accountability structure, and lay out the groundrules right up front. No emotional baggage to get in the way. While I’ve seen this approach fail more than succeed, I have to admit that when I see it succeed, I’ve seen it be better than most of the alternatives.
This is the one I have seen be the most successful. Most of us are at least a little bit different at work than we are in our personal lives, and so people who know us from work and have worked with us before, know how we handle professional situations that are likely to come up in a business environment. They’ve already got a professional respect established, and often times they go into a partnership with a clear idea of whose strengths make sense to be applied to which part of the business.
Of course, the hard part is that if you are both working for someone else, then the pressures of business can be very different. Where I’ve seen this type of partnership experience the most strain is when the former colleagues came from a low-stress business environment into a startup without being prepared for the fact that the pressures were very different, and not all of them handled that difference very gracefully.
No doubt about it, finding the right combination of passion, skills, personality, temperament and communication skills is extremely difficult. And the more people you need to pull into the mix, the harder it gets. It’s not surprising that so many people advocate avoiding business partners wherever possible.
So, are there any other ways you know of to find potential business partners? And any particular feeling about which techniques work better than others?
Alora Chistiakoff is an entrepreneur, blogger, content strategist and project manager who has been developing online business and technology for startups for more than a decade. She co-owns The Indigo Heron Group, Inc., a content strategy firm in Austin, Texas.