Finding the right partner for your business venture can be a daunting task, but sometimes you need look no further than your existing social surroundings. While in some instances a close friend may make a great partner, in other circumstances, you may recognize the ideal personality traits you’re looking for in a sports teammate. I spoke with five entrepreneurs about the unique places they met their business partners and asked their advice about what to look for in a potential partner.
Jeff Salter, founder and CEO of Caring Senior Service, met his business partner on the rugby field. “I needed someone that had leadership ability, business understanding, and a hunger to succeed,” he says. This winning combination was found in the physically exhausting game of rugby. “Rugby is a fluid game that requires all 14 players to work together,” he says. “One minute you’re on defense, then things can change quickly and you’re on offense trying to score a try.” During games, Salter says he was able to see players’ true strengths, whether they were team players, and how they thrived under stress.
Ashley Morris, CEO of Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, a national sandwich chain with over 100 locations, looked to his childhood to find her business partner, Jason Smylie. The two were friends from the time they were 8 and 10 years old. “I wanted a business partner with a complementary and not overlapping skill set, and someone who was on the same page in terms of vision and values,” says Morris. Smylie fit the profile perfectly. “I knew he had vision, was a natural deal maker, and had genuine integrity,” he says. Having known Smylie for 15 years, Morris knew he and his future partner had incredible communication skills and could play to each other’s strengths. Because of their history, the two trust each other fully and know when they need to just let certain issues go for the sake of their business and friendship.
Darren Lancaster, cofounder of ThinOPTICS, a line of flexible reading glasses, found his business partner at a bar after squaring off against each other in an ice hockey game. “On the ice and all other playing surfaces, he is always relentless and a pest to the other team. In business, that translates over to someone who is open-minded, very creative, and willing to explore nearly any option or idea without prejudice or bias,” says Lancaster of his partner.
Ted and Molly Fienning, cofounders of Babiators, a line of aviator sunglasses for babies, looked no further than their college yearbook to find their business partners. Matthew Guard and his wife, Carolyn, were in an a capella group with Ted. They sang together over 10 years ago as undergraduates at Harvard University, and since then had spent many vacations together, where they dreamt about being entrepreneurs.
The foursome knew they would make great cofounders, mainly because during live performances, the group went in with a plan but always had to be prepared for contingencies. Plus, they each brought something different to the table. “Ted and I are more action-oriented and creative, which helps the design and marketing side of the business, while Carolyn and Matthew are planners and detail-oriented, which is essential for the financial and analytical side of the business,” says Molly Fienning. Just as in their singing group, the foursome realized they were stronger united than they were working as individuals.
David Sternlight, CEO of Cabeau, a line of travel pillows and accessories, met COO Ryan Hilterbran when Sternlight interviewed Hilterbran for a graphic designer position at a mortgage company. The mortgage company offered Hilterbran a position on Sternlight’s character recommendation. Sternlight says he could tell by the responses Hilterbran gave that they shared the same vision and enthusiasm about entrepreneurship, and the two clicked on a personal level.
Each left the company and pursued other opportunities but came back together eight years later to form Cabeau at Sternlight’s kitchen table. “I was looking for someone with loyalty and a strong work ethic,” says Hilterbran of his connection to his business partner. “I have always admired David’s drive to succeed,” he adds.
So, what should you look for in a business partner?
Find the right values. It’s important to make sure you’re on the same page in terms of your personal and business values and the principles that will drive your company. “These qualities will be the glue that keeps you together during the most difficult times, and the driver for success during the good ones,” says Sternlight.
Follow your strengths. “Know the strengths that are required to be successful in your business, and look for those qualities in non-business-related ways,” says Salter. If you’re an introvert and need someone who is more extroverted who is comfortable making cold calls and holding face-to-face sales meetings, you may find those qualities in someone on your hockey team or book club.
Find a friend. “Find someone that you synergize with and who you’d enjoy having a beer with,” says Morris. “Working with people you don’t like is not a fun way to spend the better part of your week.” While similarities may be the hallmark of your friendship, Molly Fienning recommends finding a partner with complementary interests, skills, and personality traits. “It’s beneficial to have friends with different backgrounds and strengths in various arenas of the business, so you can divide and conquer the tasks at hand to ultimately build greater success,” she says.
Fill in the gaps. “Be selective in making additions based on the gaps and collective needs of your team,” says Lancaster. If your potential partner’s skills and experience overlaps too much with yours and that of your existing team, you may have to turn them down and look elsewhere for someone who demonstrates strength in the areas where your existing team is weak.