Mark Daoust is the founder and CEO of Quiet Light Brokerage. He helps entrepreneurs, solopreneurs and bootstrappers prepare their websites, identify potential buyers and negotiate the sale of their online businesses.
Entrepreneurs -- and people in general -- tend to band together when facing a challenge. From startup co-founders to joint ventures, it's human nature to find strength in numbers. Ironically, the best piece of advice I ever received completely contradicts this belief.
A former client of mine -- from a time when I was working as an account manager for a managed services company -- told me something simple but powerful: "Don't take on a partner if you can do something on your own."
This advice strikes at a central barrier that many entrepreneurs face: fear. It's scary to start something from scratch, acquire a company or go into business on your own. Many people compensate for this by taking on a partner -- not because the partner adds value to the business, but because he or she becomes a source of comfort. I've seen this a number of times in the Internet businesses we sell: one partner will seek an exit primarily because they are tired of being the only active partner. Upon self-reflection, however, they realize they've done most of the work for their business and really didn't need a partner in the first place.
In the startup space, having -- or not having -- a partner can make or break a company. It all depends on your situation, motivations and expectations. My client's advice prompted me to ask myself the following questions, and I'd encourage you to ask them of yourself before you go "partner hunting":
"What is my real motivation for bringing on a partner?"
Are you looking for a colleague, one who brings unique traits that complement your skill set, or simply a security blanket? Ask yourself if there are other ways to accomplish what they potentially bring on your own.
For example, maybe you're looking to bring in someone who's better at financial tasks than you. Even if you're reticent, you're probably fully capable of handling those issues with a quick refresher course, or by contracting out that work as the need arises. When I started Quiet Light Brokerage, I looked for a partner with past experience advising Internet business exits. Fortunately, I ultimately never agreed to a partnership, and I believe my business is better for it.
"Am I willing to get close with this person in the long haul?"
Bringing on a business partner is a lot like making any other type of commitment: you're in it for the long run. It takes a lot of work to maintain a good relationship, and you'll be spending many hours together putting in the time and effort it takes to build a reputable company.
If you decide to partner with someone, you have to make sure you are willing to get extremely close with that person, even when it's not pretty. In many of the exits I've advised, I've had to work with partners who were once friends, but now were not even on speaking terms. In these situations, both partners want one thing: to get rid of the business they were once passionate about.
"Will I still have the final word?"
Part of being a strong solo entrepreneur is having courage and conviction in your own voice. As such, you listen closely to feedback, but ultimately, you have the final say in key company decisions.
If you bring on a partner, you have to be willing to lose that sovereignty and share the decision-making role; otherwise, your colleague won't feel respected. Before you take on a partner, make sure you're willing to give up that control.
"Is it worth the cost?"
Taking on a partner isn't cheap, monetarily or otherwise. Not only does your business have to be significantly more successful in order for you to make a living, but there are also inevitable partner disagreements, the potential to begrudge a partner who isn't carrying his or her weight, and the real possibility of conflicting goals. It's no surprise that one of the top reasons people sell their businesses is because of partner disputes.
Out of all the businesses I've owned, I've only taken on a partner once. I've considered adding partners to my current business because of its size and how much I value my team. However, I always stop myself when I consider how completely different my motivation is now than when I started the company. I can only imagine how differently I'll feel in another few years, and how challenging that would be to manage with a partner.
There is nothing unreasonable about having doubts, and for many people, bringing in a partner effectively assuages those fears. But for me, the advice to try it on my own forced me to stand by myself and take the risk.