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How to Survive a Business Partnership

They say two heads are better than one and in some case three or more.   Working in a partnership has numerous advantages.  Firstly, you don’t have to handle the risks and stress all on your own; there is someone else to brainstorm with; some support as you go through the varying challenges of running a business and if nothing else, someone to empathise with you along the way.   Running a business singlehandedly can be lonesome, so a partnership can be a great way to mitigate that.

Every business requires time to nurture and grow it, however with a partnership; you have the added challenge of nurturing and growing your relationship with your partner(s).    Every day will present your business partnership with a fresh challenge or surprise.  No matter how long you may have known each other, setting up a business together is a different thing altogether.  Like any relationship, you will find that your partnership will go through various stages and each stage will requires a certain response in order to build a successful partnership.

Honeymoon Stage

You are all excited about being together.  It’s the start of a new venture together and, seemingly, nothing can stop you from achieving all your goals.  You make grandiose ten year plans and look forward to facing the future together.  This excitement creates a bond at the early stages of the partnership, sometimes even before the business has been formally formed.  This is when you make the decision that you want the same things from the business and are committed to seeing it through.

Your response: Rather than luxuriate in the excitement, this is the time to sit down and agree how you would like to run the business.  Talk about your goals, your ambitions, decide on roles within the partnership, agree on shared values, how you are going to execute your plan etc.  It will not always be so rosy, so take advantage of the moment.

Reality Bites:

As you start to work together, the reality of working out your plans in unison begins to dawn on you.  Even though you have the same goal in mind, you might have different ways of achieving them.   You discover that you don’t necessarily agree on the way certain decisions are being taken; you might even feel left out of certain things.  You discover personality traits about your partners that you weren’t aware of previously and suddenly, this happy union is not as rosy anymore.  This is a vulnerable stage.  In a partnership your weaknesses are glaringly obvious and your strengths might not necessarily be appreciated within the team.

Your response: You might need to set up mechanisms for communicating openly and clearly about things you are not happy about.   Schedule a regular meeting to address such issues and as time goes along you’ll find that it helps to clear the air and everyone is carried along.

Make or Break

This is the stage where there is a need to gain respect and individuals start to assert themselves.  This may represent itself in the form of aggression or rebellion.   Self-interest may threaten to overtake the ‘greater good’.  At this stage arguments and disagreements are inevitable as individuals try to get their voices heard.  Personality clashes take place as each person seeks to be trusted to handle their ‘area’.

Your response:  At this stage, it is important that you learn to disagree in a professional manner.  It’s how things are said rather than what is said that leads to dissension.  If you haven’t already, clarify roles and parameters of the roles.  Now is a good time to set boundaries and decide on a quorum for decision making. Avoid rash decisions and with a little patience and perseverance, you’ll pass go through this stage successfully.

Submissive Stage

This is the stage where everyone is comfortable with one another.  You’ve been through enough together and a greater level of trust has been built.  You are quite happy to submit to the strengths of one another rather than second guessing each other.  Teamwork and trust are ingrained within the fabric of this stage of partnership.  You are all at ease with one another and have found a rhythm to working together.  It’s not all happy families, but you work with the mindset of heading towards the same goal rather than pull away from each other.

Your response: Now is the best time to try something new together, take the business into a new direction, revisit your 10 year plan and maybe change a few things.  It’s an enjoyable time again so take advantage of it; it might just be a good time for planning individual holiday time.

Life Stage: 

There may come a time when your partnership will have to adjust to changes in the life of an individual(s) in the partnership.  Someone may have a baby, fall ill or lose a loved one.  It’s inevitable that there will be a drain on their time and commitment as the need for self preservation takes over.  You might find that a threesome is now a double due to an unforeseen circumstance.   It might initially seem like the harmony of the team is being threatened but with some ‘manoeuvring’ it could be overcome.

Your response: You will need to assess the impact of this life change to the partnership in terms of its daily operations as well as its survival in the foreseeable future.  There might be a loss of skill and knowledge which you might have to replace, you might need to reassess time frames and give yourself realistic targets in light of the changes, change of roles, etc.   This might also be the time to face some hard questions and decide whether you might have to end the business.

Happily Ever After

You’ve weathered the storms together and managed to grow a successful business.  You’ve been working together for some time now and you may be creating employment for people.  Whilst your business objectives are being achieved, you might find that your passion is waning as the need for self-actualisation is paramount at this stage.  This is the stage to determine a greater cause for the business.  It might be a social one or diversification into another industry.  The key is to find new levels that challenge you as a partnership so as to reinstate the passion you once had.

Your response: Redefine your partnership at this stage.  The values you started out with may have evolved and each member of the partnership will need to reassess what they want from the partnership.  It’s time to start thinking about succession planning, perhaps even mentoring the next generation within your industry.  Find a cause that gives you a new lease of life and the passion for your business will be reignited.


Happy Partnering……

Your partnership will not necessarily go though every single one of these stages, but in order to build a successful partnership, an understanding of the different stages and the right responses will make you stronger.

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1 Comment
  1. Matt Kinsella says

    A long time ago an accountant I knew (who had worked with a lot of partnerships) told me the phrase “A partnership is a sinking ship” and I have repeated it quite a few times since because I have seen very few business partnerships work out in the long term. When I first heard it I was myself involved in a business partnership and I wanted to prove him wrong but inevitably I couldn’t so I wish I had listened to him earlier. It can work but I have only seen it happen within families or very close friends, outside of these relationships it can be a struggle. However you have offered some great advice here which I am sure will help