Startup Partners -- Can You Work With Someone Close to You?
Starting a business with a spouse or good friend can be very advantageous, as long as some basic issues are worked out beforehand. Knowing your business partner very well means it should take less time to hammer out who does what and each of you are already familiar with the other's quirks and habits. It should be easier to provide each other moral support, especially during the dark days of startup (and there will be some). You will be aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses and be in an excellent position to keep each other, and the business, on the right track. On the downside, partnering with someone you are close to can put strain on the relationship, especially if you fail to work out both the personal and practical ground rules for expanding your personal relationship into a successful business partnership. The practical issues are fairly easy to negotiate but very important, especially if you live with your business partner. First, both parties must agree on set work and personal schedules, with time blocked out for focusing on the separate aspects of your lives together. Starting a business isn't a hobby, it's a job, and should be treated as such. If it is possible to establish separate workspaces, consider doing so. Everyone has their own style of organization and each partner is likely to be more productive if their workspace is their own. Network the computers if possible, and consider installing wireless internet and printer technology so time isn't wasted switching around cords.
Before the actual startup work begins, responsibilities should be divvied up by skill and interest, and methods for dealing with big decisions to be made together should be established. You and your partner will have disagreements, and ground rules for resolving conflict should be hammered out while you are getting along. Schedule daily check-in meetings, perhaps over a cup of coffee away from the home office, to review each other's progress and bounce ideas off one another. Getting away from the work desk, even for a short time, can be rejuvenating and one of the great pleasures of working with someone who knows you well is their ability to help you see another side of things.
On the personal side, working with a spouse or close friend requires a mutual respect, trust and ability to communicate in order to keep the relationship on track while building a business together. Respect does not mean always allowing the other person to be right. Rather, respect stems from recognizing each other's strengths and weaknesses and looking to complement your partner, not exploit them. This means not using one's weaker areas as weapons to control or manipulate, but rather pulling from the other's strengths to fill any gaps. Acknowledge areas in which your partner is more skilled and appreciate the opportunity you have to use those skills to balance yours. Choose not to compete internally over business issues, but rather to team up to compete externally in the marketplace. Don't allow control issues or power struggles to overshadow the mutual goal of building a successful business.
Trusting your partner in both business and personal arenas is a must. Trust issues can destroy a business before it even gets off the ground. In sorting out the responsibilities of the business, each partner should be absolutely comfortable with any decisions to turn over full control of one area to one partner. If not, a checks and balances system should be put in place so that both partners are satisfied. It is important that neither partner take offense to the other's need to be involved in every aspect, but it is also important that both parties are able to let go of some control and trust the partner to handle their assignments correctly. Any business owner must acknowledge that different work styles can be equally effective, and this understanding is even more important among business partners. Practicing trust on the level of how work gets done is actually great training for delegation skills, which both partners will need as the business grows.
In addition to mutual respect and trust, business partners who also have a close personal relationship must have excellent communication skills in order to keep both relationships in good shape. The best partnerships share a good sense of humor. A good laugh can relieve stress...and there is plenty of stress to go around during a startup. It doesn't matter whether your humor is silly or dark, as long as both partners can lighten the load with laughter. Effective partnerships often use humor to help work through disagreements, as well. Conflict will happen, arguments will ensue, but the ability to laugh at yourself, each other, and the predicament you are in will make resolving the inevitable issues far easier.
Successful partnerships also require open communication about problems, expectations, and their visions for the future of the venture. There are many big decisions, as well as hundreds of small decisions, to be made before a business idea can even get off the ground. Partners in business, and in life, must be able to articulate their positions clearly and be willing to hear and understand the other side. There are times when you will have to just agree to disagree...these are the times when the clear division of responsibility becomes critical. Someone has to be able to make a final verdict, so even if you have reservations about a decision that does not fall under your responsibilities, it is important to respect and support the final decision of your partner.
Still, the biggest decisions should be hashed out together. "Big decisions" will vary depending on your particular business, but you will know when they arise. Hopefully, you and your partner have a shared vision of the future of the company, so agreeing on the best course of action should be based on that vision. It is also important that you both have realistic expectations for your business. Before you get started on the planning phase, a heart-to-heart about the possible and likely outcomes of your efforts is worth your time. If one partner has ideas of slow, methodical growth over a period of years while the other is looking to explode into the market, those clashing perspectives can cause problems if not dealt with beforehand.
Working through a startup with a close partner can be a remarkable experience and can really enhance your personal relationship. But without a solid foundation and established ground rules, the pressure of developing a business idea can also be destructive. Talk out all the major issues before you get down to work and you and your partner will find that two heads in business really can be better than one.
Have a question for K.? Ask or leave a comment below!