3 Pillars of a Successful Business Partnership

July 17th, 2016

My first business venture was a partnership. Working with another person with similar dreams was the only way I was able to get started as a business owner. We coupled my general business skills and money, along with his expertise and time. We operated three units of a local pizza restaurant franchise throughout the 1990’s. I kept my day job, and my partner took care of the day-to-day operations of the business.

I’ve gone on to experience less rewarding partnerships, and fortunately, much more fruitful ones as well. I now understand more clearly why I prefer working in teams, and how I am typically more productive combining my skills and energy with my partners’. Starting with that first successful teaming, I have come to understand and appreciate that at the foundation of a strong business partnership are the three pillars of trust, respect and agreement.

1. Trust

Before there can be anything meaningful and lasting in a relationship, there must be a mutual level of trust. Trust, however, takes time to develop.

I have known David Begin, my current partner in various ventures, since 1991. We met when we both worked for a large software company, and have remained friends over the years. Our families have travelled together, and we have developed a close bond over time. When the opportunity first arose for us to partner on a business, we had already developed a deep trust at a personal level. This trust has been the basis of our business relationship. We rely on the fact, as good partners must, that we have each other’s interests in mind – we have each other’s backs in any situation. We try to consider what’s best for the other person, and what’s makes most sense for the business overall.

If you have the advantage of considering a partnership with someone with whom you have a long-term relationship, then trust should already be established. But what if you have recently met the person you are considering going into business with? How do you develop trust in a short period of time?

In my opinion and experience, it’s difficult if not impossible to rush the development of personal trust. There are, however, techniques we can use to accelerate the development of trust in a business environment. It requires careful and calculated observation, applied techniques, and lots of intuition.

In his book “The Trusted Advisor”, author David Maister explains that in business relationships you can quickly improve your “trust factor” by increasing credibility, reliability and intimacy while reducing self-orientation. The “trust factor” is a measure of trust, from the perspective of the other person with whom you are conducting business.

When it comes to measuring the evolving trust you have in a new partner, it’s applicable to consider those same factors. If the person is potentially trustworthy, they will likely demonstrate credibility (they tend to be accurate, complete, and don’t tend to exaggerate their knowledge), reliability (they follow through on their promises and are consistent in their actions and behavior), and intimacy (they are candid, genuine, and emotionally open). Low self-orientation (meaning that they are not always focused on themselves, they are good listeners, and don’t exhibit a need to always be right and win at all costs) is the other important clue to help you judge the character of your potential partners. It’s often most effective to watch for these indicators during the most casual of situations, like during a meal at a restaurant when the other person may reveal more of their true self.

Partnerships may not be a fit for people who do not like to seek advice from others, who do not prefer to share success or blame, and if they don’t see value in the opinions of others. As you are getting to know your potential partner, be sure to listen and observe carefully to identify these characteristics.

It’s also probably not a good idea to partner just for financial reasons. Overlooking a mismatch in personalities and vision in the short-term because that person has the money you need may eventually result in a negative relationship.

2. Respect

An effective business partnership also depends upon mutual respect. Ideally, your partners bring complimentary skills and abilities to the team. Combined with each partner’s perspective and experience, the group is considerably stronger and more effective than any one person could ever be by themselves. Team members must have a level of respect for each other, which fosters a positive and productive business environment.

Recognition and positive feedback are important for showing and feeling respect. We must take the time to recognize and appreciate the efforts and input that all partners bring to the collaboration. We all naturally want to be recognized and respected for our individual contributions, even if those contributions are never implemented. You demonstrate respect for your partner when you value or simply acknowledge their input, ideas and perspectives.

Of course, to gain respect, you must be worthy of being respected. Earning respect is in large part based on being a good person and partner (are you someone who looks for the best in others and who follows through on your promises and commitments to the team?) telling the truth and being transparent, and genuinely caring about your teammates. Respect the people you work with, and they should respect you in return.

3. Agreement

There can be complete trust and honest respect in a business relationship, but it can all come tumbling down with one seemingly simple misunderstanding. “I thought you were going to do this?” “No, I assumed that you would do that!”

During the honeymoon phase of the relationship, when we are caught up in the excitement of the new business, we may be quick to make assumptions and avoid difficult conversations. Dodging critical questions and assuming that things will always be great often leads to ruinous arguments later.

It’s critical that you clearly define upfront who will do what and how much time each partner will invest in the business. You also have to discuss and agree on many other points including the terms of a future buy-out – either because one of the partners wants out, or there is a death.

My business partner and I benefit from, and prefer, what we refer to as “active partnerships”. These are partnerships where all members are contributing fairly equally. It provides us the financial benefit of spreading the risk, but also sharing the burden and responsibility of building and growing our small businesses. It often makes sense to bring in investors, however, who are not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business.

Legal written partnership agreements are a must for any partnership. This typically includes an Operating Agreement and a Buy-Sell Agreement which is drafted by an attorney. The legal agreement defines all of the parameters and terms of the business, including who is the Managing Member, what capital is contributed by each member, and what happens when a member of the partnership wants to exit or can no longer perform their duties.

We recommend that you start with a Memo of Understanding. This is simply an outline that documents most of the terms of the partnership. Then you consult with an attorney to finalize the details and create the legal Operating Agreement. The key is to discuss and agree upfront on the terms of the partnership, and avoid the misunderstandings and resentment that can otherwise develop later.

There are many reasons why partnering may make best sense for your business venture, including funding (one partner or a “silent partner” provides the money for start-up), expertise (one partner has the expertise in the industry or business you are starting), and the desire to build a company with friends and family (although we always caution that you be careful when partnering with your friends and family as it may end badly). If you are like me, you may simply prefer, and be significantly more productive, when you combine your efforts with a partner. Regardless of the reasons, always consider the three pillars of trust, respect and agreement upon which successful business partnerships are usually based.