In an ideal world, being business partners would be so easy. You have a shared goal of working together and making money. Still, worst-case scenarios can happen. Maybe you and a vendor, supplier, investor or actual business partner simply don't see eye-to-eye on certain things. The next thing you know, your profits are falling, your working capital is drying up and your cash flow is non-existent.
Suddenly your business is in serious trouble.
You and your business partners can't avoid every potential crisis, of course, but if you do want more successful relationships, you may want to follow some of these strategies.
1. Outline your expectations from the start.
Seth Kravitz is the CEO of PHLEARN, a photography and Photoshop training company, based out of Chicago. Kravitz says that making it clear what everybody's roles at the beginning of a partnership is crucial.
“It doesn't matter if it's a small one-week project or some massive new partnership that will be years of working together," Kravitz says. "Both parties need to fully understand what they are responsible for and not responsible for."
Especially when finances are involved. If you're taking out a small business loan, or you're both using business credit cards, for instance, you want to be make sure you are of the same mindset. (You probably wouldn't want to pair up with somebody who figures making late payments is no big deal.) How will you each handle things if your cash flow goes awry?
People shouldn't ignore their gut regarding whether they feel their potential partner is going to live up to his or her end of any deal.
—Tina Willis, owner, Tina Willis Law
"I used to make the mistake of saying things like, 'We'll figure that out later,' or, 'I'm sure we can make it work,' because I wanted to seal the partnership or deal and move forward quickly," he says.
“It turns out those pesky little details like outlining all deliverables, responsibilities, costs and timelines are what can be the difference between a great partnership or dissolving into lawsuits," he continues. "Taking the time to outline them should never be looked at a waste of time or getting in the way of a deal, but rather the key to making a deal that actually works."
Brad Ormsby wishes he had known his first business partners better. (Ormsby owns Colorstone Marketing, a marketing agency in Modesto, California.)
“My very first business partner relationship went south, and it took a long time to dig out of the damage," Ormsby says.
So what went wrong?
“My original partners were doctors who had always worked at a job," he says. “They completely lost their wits when their responsibility was on their shoulders, and the pressure changed. Today, I have several partnerships in different businesses, and all are going great because we know who's responsible for what and we can all handle the pressure."
All the more reason to discuss things like how you'll handle managing the ups and downs of cash flow and what the plan is if working capital dries up.
And he agrees with Kravitz about outlining expectations.
“The best advice I can give is to work out the details and legalities on paper and in a contract. It can save you big money and a lot of wasted time," Ormsby says.
2. Get to know your partners.
Jane Scudder is a Chicago-based certified executive coach, corporate trainer and motivational speaker. (Her company is called The New Exec.)
Scudders says that she always encourages people to get to know their partners, whether it's a vendor, supplier or a lender who is giving you a small business loan.
“This doesn't have to mean you become best friends or know their children's schedules and interests, unless you want to," she says. "It simply means you're curious about them and their work and show interest."
After all, this may be business, but it's a business relationship. If you don't have the relationship part down, you're just a faceless partner to someone, which is very easy to have happen in this digital world we live in.
“At the end of the day we are all people working with each other," Scudder says. “We're not robots working with other robots, or companies working with other companies, or even people working with suppliers. We are individuals working with other individuals and treating your partners and colleagues this way will help lay the foundation for positive, mutually respectful behavior."
Speaking of which…
3. Listen to your partner.
Tina Willis, an Orlando-based personal injury attorney and owner of Tina Willis Law, has worked with another lawyer for years on most of her cases.
“Because we work so closely together, we have encountered many problems over time, from compensation splits, to practical issues dealing with the work division, to how to present ourselves to clients," she says.
But Willis says that they've always been able to work disagreements out, precisely because they've gotten to know each other well—and they listen.
“Over the years, we have always talked through whatever problems [we have], and kept talking until we had a solution that worked for both of us," Willis says. “I think we both always consider what the other person is feeling and experiencing, as much as we think about our own problems and concerns. Finding a partner or partners with this mindset and determination to find solutions together really is the key."
So if you have a business partner who you think is likely to vanish or freak out the moment your cash flow hits the skids, listen to your inner voice.
“People shouldn't ignore their gut regarding whether they feel their potential partner is going to live up to his or her end of any deal," Willis says.
4. Expect things to not always go smoothly.
There are going to be days when your cash flow is not exactly killing it, and your inventory is low, and your business partner is freaking out because of issues with your main supplier or a host of other minor and major catastrophes.
Sean Johnson is a partner at a venture fund Founder Equity and an innovation consulting firm Digital Intent. (Both businesses are based in Chicago and have the same partners.)
Johnson says that he and his partners trust each other implicitly at this point. But they also expect and know that they won't always get along.
“You're dealing with different people with different motives than your own. And odds are they are strong personalities who are used to getting their way. You partnered with them because of their expertise and what they can bring to the table. Constantly remind yourself of that," says Johnson.
That said, it is easier to disagree about issues like a problematic cash flow trend, working capital dwindling or a customer service mishap when you're all friends, Johnson says—or at least friendly.
If it's practical, Johnson advises anyone who works with business partners, whether they're inside or outside your office, to "spend time outside of work with them. Assume the best as a default. Care about them personally. I think you'll make better decisions as a result."
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