Over the last few weeks I had several meetings with three companies from the current and past “classes” at TechStars - as I observed the team dynamics playing out it got me thinking about what does it mean to have a partner in business from a startup perspective.
I’ve had numerous partners over the years - all of them had moments of joy and stress and they all came to a natural end. Partnerships tend to end with certain events - the obvious ones like a sale of the company, or the not obvious ones like a change in attitude where one partner just wants something different or a realization that your partner isn’t as talented as you hoped. Some partners will start several businesses together - some won’t. There is no rule like marriage - so don’t try to squeeze the notion into a similar box.
An ideal partner for me is a catalyst. He helps me start turning the massive flywheel that gets a company founded. He often works harder than me, forces me to put in long hours by putting in longer hours himself. He is living the business 24x7 - often will send me emails late at night or on the weekends. He is critical of my work product and holds me to the highest standard. He is a constant source of energy and motivates me and others to stay positive in the face of challenges. He instills a sense that everything is possible and doesn’t tolerate negative attitudes. Early on, he participates in every new hire making sure they not only have the required skill but also fit in our culture. He focuses me, motivates me when I’m down, and is always thinking of the business before himself. My partner makes me better at everything I do for the business. And I strive to be the same for him.
A partnership for me starts as a commitment - but it isn’t irrational, emotional or even natural (best buds shouldn’t be business partners just because they are best buds). The commitment isn’t simply just to “work together” - like marriage isn’t simply a commitment to live together. The commitment is really more of a promise you make to each other that goes something like this, “I promise I can do this - I promise I can help build this business and I am the best person for you to work with on this opportunity. I promise I will work as hard if not harder than you, I promise...” And I can go on like some wedding vow promise but I think it really just boils down to three key elements: skills, behavior and attitude.
Skills. In a partnership each person needs to bring to the table skills that are germane to the business and complimentary to the other partner. I believe they must be good at all tasks and great at the few which are critical for the business. Ideally there should not be overlap with the other partner’s core skills but sometimes there is a little. Skills, however, are not the most important thing a partner can bring to the table. Skills can be developed and learned - the others can’t.
Behavior. Behavior is how you act in the office, your work ethic, and how you treat your partner and other employees. It is how you look at your own performance and the efforts you take to learn more about your job and industry. In the most basic sense it is how hard and how smart you work.
Someone with just average skills can behave in a manner to improve over time by taking classes, working extra long hours, seeking advise from mentors, etc... Having great skills but being unpredictable in your behavior really goes against the promise you make as a partner. Behaving in a predictable, reliable and respectful manner and producing high quality work in a timely manner is the promise partners make to each other.
Attitude. Attitude is the energy and enthusiasm a partner brings into the business. It is not about being “happy” it more about believing in the business and the team. Someone who is wicked smart, works really hard but is always a downer in the office can be an emotional drain and really hurt a partnership. On the flip side, a partner with B level skills and somewhat unpredictable schedule is tolerable if they have just an electrifying attitude when they come in the door. A positive attitude can make up for a lot of other deficiencies but a negative one can accentuate them as well.
Commitment, loyalty, respect, trust, friendship - all important elements of a partnership but in my mind are really just byproducts of getting stuff done well with a great attitude. These byproducts give the partnership staying power and patience when one person isn’t performing. It allows for course corrections and adjustments to the relationship. It also serves as the force multiplier when everyone is working at peak levels. There is nothing more satisfying in business in just knowing your partner will get some critical task done - ahead of time, without your involvement and better than you could ever achieve.
So as I coach folks on their partnership and reflect on my past - I can actually distill the frustrations down to a mismatch between expectations and performance in one or more of those three areas. It’s never easy to talk about your partner’s performance to him/her or to listen to feedback - it feels a little judgmental and emotional - but it needs to be done. Without talking about how you are each performing on the promises made there can be no improvement.
My advise (which I need to do myself) is to schedule a regular time when you give your partner feedback on their performance and listen to what they have to say. For me, my success has been and will always be linked to my partners. Partner wisely.