Much like a marriage, a business partnership is nothing to enter into lightly. Many possible perils await co-founders of a business when they haven’t carefully considered the pros and cons of such a relationship. Some of that includes considering the traits your business partner(s) brings to the table. As a lawyer and consultant, I’ve had a close-up view of dozens of business partnerships, good, bad and mediocre. In my role as a business “marriage” counselor, I’ve seen the traits that make a great business partner vs. a terrible one. Here are the top 7 traits that I have found make up a desirable business partner.
1. Accountable. The most important trait in any partner is accountability. You want a partner who is accountable for his conduct, for his ideas, for his communications and for his contributions. Accountability includes a bit of empathy, a touch of humility and a whole bunch of integrity. A person who lacks accountability won’t take responsibility for his mistakes, because he won’t believe he makes mistakes. At the core, a person who can’t face his own errors is really covering his own self-hatred with a fantasy of his own perfection – so, he’ll assert he knows it all and will be mortally wounded by any challenge. That combination – deep insecurity and insistence in his own perfection will fuck you up. He’ll need every idea praised. He’ll need to be the smartest guy in the room, even if he isn’t. He’ll trust sycophants and bullies. He’ll talk too fucking much. And, he’ll have zero tolerance for the mistakes of anyone else, because since he doesn’t make them, he expects perfection. Not being able to see or countenance mistakes means he won’t provide the room to fix them. Even if he’s not such a narcissist, he won’t be able to honestly confront conflict. I promise you, there will be conflict and you need a partner who will grapple with it like an adult.
2. Skilled. You may be a Renaissance person, adept at a wide range of topics, but you can’t know or focus on everything. You still need partners who balance you in expertise. If you are a finance guy, you need a marketing guy or a management guy or a product/service design guy. And, vice versa. If you are not organized, there must be one partner who is. If you are a coder and you must partner with other coders, make sure that the other coders have things you may lack: big picture vision, business development acumen, social skills. Every successful business has to have someone with aptitude for marketing, money, product/service delivery and management – make sure your partner(s) cover the field.
3. Supportive. A great partner roots for your success. That’s not trivial or entirely common. There are millions of jerk wads, who silently prey and pray for your defeat. There are people in your life now who you know in the back of your mind really hope you fail or at least stumble. You know it and you keep coming around them, because life. That’s fine. But, going into business with someone has huge stakes. You could ruin yourself or you could strike it rich. Probably, you’ll hum along making a living. In any event, the person who signs loans with you, writes checks for your cash, talks to your employees, romances your customers and shares your headaches and opportunities is someone who needs to hope for your success almost as much as he does for his. If not, he’ll wreck you when he can.
4. Sympatico. You and your business partner must walk the same path. If you want to build a business to sell in an exit and he wants to build a lifestyle business, so he doesn’t have to work that hard, neither of you are going to make it. Because no investor will put cash in a business run partly to produce a 4 hour work week. And, you aren’t going to enable his strategic decisions to limit your product offerings and hours. You both must have roughly the same goals.
5. Inquisitive. The great thing about running a business is you never know what you don’t know. Entrepreneurship requires continued learning and challenging assumptions. But, many people with a fixed mindset think that learning ends at graduation – avoid these people. You want a partner with a growth mindset who knows that the object and imperative of business and life is to continue to deepen knowledge and beat his own record.
6. Reliable. Your business partner must be reliable – he must show up, meet deadlines and give a shit. Unreliable partners are embarrassing, debilitating free loaders. Worse, you will end up picking up the slack. Your resentment will build into contempt. You’ll rue the day you picked this guy.
7. Clean-ish. If you find out your prospective business partner has a serious drinking or drugging pattern, you should probably run like hell. Sure, everyone has a vice. But, you want a partner whose vice is in control. I’ve personally seen many businesses die because of the addictions of its owners.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, people with drug problems are more likely to have:
- No focus
- Erratic performance
- Carelessness and mistakes
- Frequent financial problems
- Deterioration in personal hygiene
You’ll be working with your partner in close quarters – so the dangers of deteriorating hygiene ought to be enough to scare you away from going into business with a user.
But, if you choose to ignore the risks… I know how hard it is to find someone willing and able to go into business with you, so rejecting them because of risk would be hard. If you decide to roll the dice and hope for luck, just prepare yourself for destruction. Get to know your partner’s strengths and weaknesses and structure everything around them. A partner that is unaccountable will require clear, simple, written agreements – he’ll also need perfection from you. A partner that lacks different skills needs to understand that you have to hire what you don’t already have. An unsupportive partner means you have to make everything as transparent as possible so he can’t sneak up on you; you’ll also need to create alternative means of getting the support you need. If your partner has a different goal than you, be honest with each other and try to make accommodations where possible. If your partner isn’t a lifelong learner, then you have to be; plus, you’ll have to silo your partner in his areas of expertise. If your partner is not reliable, then prepare to manage him like a child. And, if your partner habitually uses illegal drugs or too much alcohol, keep an eye out for changes in his behavior.
Even if perfect…Most importantly, even if your partner is perfect on paper, you always want to follow the one great advice of Ronald Reagan – “Trust But Verify.” I don’t care if your business partner is a new friend or your brother. “Love is rare, life is strange, nothing lasts, people change.” People can go rogue; they can also just make mistakes. So, put restrictions on the company bank accounts and credit cards. Make sure customer relationships are shared widely among your firm. Meet and discuss problems. Talk to employees. Check up on each other. Don’t be offended if your partner wants to check up on you. Remember, your business partnership is a relationship, subject to the human strengths and weaknesses of all others. Pick wisely and tend to it for as long as shall last.
 Gretchen Cryer & Nancy Ford