Business partnerships are great—when they work. Here are five reasons it might be time to split up with your business partner.
Picture an old-fashioned covered wagon. Now, imagine your job is to pull that wagon. The wagon carries all of the concerns and goals of your business; understandably, this is a pretty heavy wagon, so you consider finding someone to help you pull it. A partnership would be mutually advantageous: someone would join you, at no extra cost, and help you pull the wagon. It's more efficient, really. So you agree to a partner.
Now, weeks or maybe even months later, you look up to realize your partner is sitting in the wagon. You're the only one working.
This example is from Craig Jennings, a serial entrepreneur and business coach based out of Port Washington, New York. Jennings calls this "the first moment of disillusion," but moments like these can happen in partnerships all the time. One person believes the other is slacking, but the other might perceive it completely differently. Maybe your partner just needed a short rest. How this miscommunication is handled may predict the later success of the business partnership.
"The biggest horror show in the world is a partnership that doesn't work," Jennings says. "The whole business stops. The wagon stops. Everybody stops pulling and starts arguing."
Sometimes, if the partners can't adequately work out their problems, the partners may consider breaking up. There are some clear warning signs of a failing partnership; if these problems aren't addressed, you may want to consider finding a new business partner. Maybe even a new wagon, too.
1. You don't communicate when problems arise.
Communication: It's the cornerstone of every happy marriage, and the downfall for many failed partnerships. The fact is, problems are bound to arise with every new business venture, and proper communication at the earliest juncture is absolutely crucial to the ongoing success of the partnership.
B.J. and Jennifer Kocen, the happily-married owners of the Glave Kocen Art Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, consciously make communication their priority. "If someone so much as raises an eyebrow funny, the other one says, 'Hey, is everything OK?'" Jennifer says.
Especially in a new partnership, this constant checking-in is a straightforward way to provide consistency, so when even a small issue arises, both partners are aware.
"The reason we're successful is because even before we knew what the hell we were going to do, we wanted to build a strong foundation on our relationship, so that when conflict would come, instead of things festering for weeks, we'd have a solid way of dealing with conflict resolution," B.J. says.
Many times, partners can't solve the problems on their own. Third parties—therapists, counselors, social workers, anyone willing to listen and provide an objective advice—are typically helpful in teaching partners how to effectively communicate. They were happily married, but the Kocens still decided to see a counselor when they were first starting out. It proved to be a difference maker for their business.
"I think the biggest key is that [counseling] was a proactive decision," B.J. says. "We didn't wait for crap to hit the fan, we didn't wait until things were bad between us; it's always easier to discuss things that are bothering you when things are good. We don't let things fester, we don't sit on something that may be agitating; we just address it."
2. You don't trust each other with decision-making.
Partnerships have the potential to make better business decisions than sole proprietors, but every partnership decides matters differently. There's no perfect, proven way for business partners to make decisions, and moreover, it doesn't actually matter what system you choose to make decisions. Just make sure that from the start it is consistent and agreed upon by both partners. As Jennings puts it, "Every business has to decide how they decide."
Some partners make every decision together, but that can be a slow and tedious process. If one partner pushes for this system more than the other; however, it might be because the partner doesn't trust the other to make solo decisions.
"Some people are total control freaks," says Ira Rashap, an business consultant, entrepreneur, and business broker based out of Westwood, Massachusetts, who has successfully created and sold 11 different ventures. "They're going to have a hard time giving up some control and some of the decision-making process."
In other partnerships, each partner trusts that the other will make the correct decisions for the company.
"If you and I are partners, and you deal with a certain area, I have good faith in you that you're going to make a decision based on our best interest," Rashap says. "In a good partnership, the decision should usually be differed to the person who has the expertise in that part of the business."
The Kocens have implemented this particular strategy to run their art gallery. "The major decisions we make together, but we each have our own responsibilities in the gallery," says Jennifer. "I'm more of the financial end. He brings them in, I close them."
3. You're not on the same page.
In the early beginnings of every partnership, the partners typically convene to share their visions, hopes, and plans for the future of their company. In addition, it's also beneficial at this point that the partners decide on procedures for when specific obstacles come their way. Neglecting to lay out these details together can be costly to your relationship, as well as to your growing company.
"I think having long heartfelt discussions with your business partner about what it is you want is the best way to figure out what's going to happen [in the business]," Jennifer Kocen says. "Maybe you want to be doing this in five years but your partner wants to do it for 10 years. There's lots of these little questions you really need to get out and talk about. Just because you want something doesn't mean your partner does too."
Before going into business together, the Kocens did something most new business partners ought to do: They found a log cabin outside of Ashland, Virginia, and together, the couple essentially locked themselves in, allowing them to work out the kinks of their relationship for their future business.
"There was nowhere to hide in there," B.J. says. "We worked out our communication skills, we worked out how to be with each other... It was important to us. We realized that it was of utmost importance that whatever was going on in our personal life didn't get dragged into the office."
Jennings recognizes why most new partnerships fail to plan ahead like the Kocens did.
"The irony or the tragedy of this is that in the ecstasy of a new partnership, [writing disagreement resolution procedures] is the last stuff you want to get into," Jennings said. "It seems absurd; a year later, it seems critical."
Without agreed-upon procedures to help guide the partners through obstacles, it's easy and likely for the partners to be on different pages. If the partners are consistently on different pages, the business will suffer and potentially collapse.
4. Both your egos are too big.
Some partnerships are spectacular, because, as Jennings would indicate, two people pulling a wagon is much better than one. At this point in time, everything is very optimistic. The future looks bright.
"When you first start out, it's very idealistic: 'We're gonna do this, and we're gonna do that, and isn't it going to be great?' Just to be on the same page, having same goals, plans, ideas is wonderful," said Tonilee Adamson, who co-founded Media 4 Women Enterprises, Inc.—an organization based in New York City that helps women entrepreneurs promote their businesses—with her business partner, Bobbye Brooks. "But then as you start going down that path, you have to figure out if you're going to address issues the same ethically. You have to figure out so many things about the other person that suddenly, you're realizing that when they say 'partnership,' they really mean it."
Problems occur when one or both partners want the title of "head honcho," even though "honchos" cannot happily exist in an equal partnership. Experts say both partners need similar—if not equal—billing for the company to run smoothly.
"A lot of people ask "'Who wears the pants in the family?'" says Jennifer Kocen. "It alternates back and forth based on the decisions need to be made or whatever the issues are, but I never get the sense that one of us is striving to be a more important person than the other. Egos are left at the door, basically."
Egos are unnecessary distractions when you're starting a new business, but when you have a partner, they're borderline unacceptable.
"Whenever there are two partners, because it's one-on-one, each person has to be willing to put their ego aside," Brooks says. "You start getting into the details of 'Who's name goes first? Is it the last name in alphabetical order? Or is it the title? Who's going to be the CEO? Who's going to be the president?' In a business partner, no one wants to be the vice president. It took us probably a good two years to really work through a lot of those challenges."
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5. You lack clearly-defined roles.
Maybe you do all the work. Maybe you do none of the work. In any partnership, regardless of role or capacity, both partners need to feel that there's equity in some fashion. This is why most business coaches will suggest that you and your potential partner have similar desires and goals, but are complementary in skill and role.
"One of the things about a good partnership is you really can define the roles of each partner, and at certain times, one partner knows when to zip it," Rashap says. "In other words, I have an area of expertise, my partner has an area of expertise, and I think the person with the area of expertise should be in charge of making those decisions."
Sometimes, when partners can't clearly define their roles, tensions rise and disputes flare up more often.
"We had trouble with the business cards," Brooks says. "Do we call ourselves co-owners, or co-founders? We didn't like 'co-CEOs'... After about two years, our gifts and our strengths began to fully emerge: I have much more of a business background with a more sales and marketing bit, and Tonilee has much more of an operations background, so we were able to start allowing what we do best to come through."
While confusion over a title may seem trivial, a lack of clarity over roles may lead one partner to feel more incompetent than the other. This disparity may lead to jealousy and bad feelings between the partners.
"What ends up happening is, compared to the person with the stronger skill set, the person with the weaker skill set feels badly about themselves," Adamson says. "So instead of realizing you're bringing strength to complement, you start thinking of all the ways you fall short. We've seen a lot of women—and men—not being able to go through with their partnership because these things became a major distraction in their mind."