In an earlier article, I discussed at length the benefits of establishing effective channel partnerships for your scaling business. But what about finding the right internal partner before you even start?
Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Though we tend to think of business founders as eccentric geniuses with the courage to go it alone, the truth is that most trailblazing entrepreneurs split the workload with one or more partners, either before their companies launched, or at some point before they really took off.
Not all partnerships are created equal -- in fact, if the skills of each partner aren't complementary or even greatly disproportionate, the relationship can turn out to be a net negative, instead of the key to the company's success.
In my experience, there are a number of things that entrepreneurs can do to make sure that their partnerships are as compatible and productive as possible.
Finding the Right Skills Overlap
The most common way of thinking about partnerships is in simple opposites: the extroverted scatterbrain should do most of the talking to clients while the introverted control freak works in the lab. But a strong partnership is based on skill sets that are complementary, not divergent. After all, if you and your partner have completely different abilities and dispositions, you're not likely to be effective collaborators.
For instance, at my own company, I stay more focused on business deals and envisioning the future of our company, while my partner drives the products, marketing, and brand strategy. Our skills are complementary in this particular way, and we work well together because we have similar talents, areas of interest, and dispositions, making it easy for us to anticipate one another's decision making and actions.
Its wise for business partners or co-founders to possess many of the same skills and philosophies about running a company. That overlap will inform your shared vision of the company's future. And without that strong sense of common ground and mutual understanding, a partnership might be doomed from the start.
Know Your Role
A good partnership takes not only compatible talents, but the ability to recognize where one person's job description ends and the other's begins. There are all sorts of arbitrary hierarchies that come with business leadership, and if you or your collaborator starts letting those hierarchies injure your egos, you could lose sight of the ideal path forward for your company.
For example, a company's CEO is higher on the organizational chart than its Chief Technology Officer. If you're selling the latest smartphone technology, however, the task of designing and perfecting that technology might be even more essential than the job of the chief executive. So if a CTO is frustrated by his "subordinate" position and starts involving him or herself more on the business side, their attention is diverted from one of the company's top priorities towards a job that someone else is already doing, and one the CTO might not be as skilled at in the first place.
Collaboration takes putting the progress of your company above all else, and a partner who lets their pride get in the way could risk everything both of you have worked for. It's tough to gauge whether a potential partner's attitude and ambition is motivated by a vision for the business or by ego, but part of being a successful entrepreneur is having the intuition and the courage to make gut assessments of these qualities.
Relationships Are Hard Work
No matter how good the initial fit between partners is, co-founder relationships can be unpredictable, and the challenges and stresses of running a business can strain even the strongest unions. At the outset, you might size up a potential partner and decide that their attitude and ambition are in the right place. But the dream of working happily ever after with them will be challenged by the simple fact that people tend to change over time.
However trite it might seem, a good partnership is like a marriage: no matter how compatible the two parties were at first, it's sometimes impossible to reconcile them over the course of many years. When you're 30, for instance, you might marry someone who really is perfect for you -- you both love going out all night with friends or seeing bad movies together. But after a decade, what happens if you've started a company or formed a unique, life-long passion, and she's still trying to drag you to see Entourage?
You can't predict everything that might change in ten years, but you can do the hard work needed to keep the partnership close and productive. As in a marriage, it takes intelligent and often preemptive compromise to keep things running smoothly. There are sure to be some quirks or habits your partner possesses that you might not immediately understand or agree with, but it's better to anticipate and accept them than to needlessly pick at them -- provided they aren't harmful to the overall goals of the business.
I happen to think that the benefits of business partnerships vastly outweigh the risks, but that doesn't mean you should rush into the decision to go into business with others. Even if you've found a potential partner who's a well-known rockstar in their given department or field, you have to worry about the leadership dynamic above everything else. No matter how many assets your team has, if it doesn't work together well, your collective project will fall apart.