Plenty of companies are born when one person with one set of skills has one idea. But entrepreneurship doesn’t often stay a solo affair forever. At some point, you may want to bring in a partner to help you with the parts of your business that don’t play to your strengths.
It goes without saying that finding the right fit isn’t always easy. But one thing entrepreneurs don’t always consider is that in vetting a potential partner, they’ve also got to be scrupulously honest with themselves about their own needs, working style, and priorities. And those might not be things you’ve had a lot of time to consider before searching for a partner. Follow these basic rules and you’ll be more likely to get it right.
To decide what type of partner you want, you first have to decide what kind of partner you’d like to be to them. A “partner” is simply the first person you hire. Whether this person comes in as an employee, a long-term independent contractor, or a stakeholder, they’ll become your de facto business partner.
It’s always your prerogative as a founder to have the final say in every decision, but you still need to recognize that by joining you at such an early stage, your new partner has taken a huge leap of faith in your ability to sustain this business. Not only that, but they believe they’re the right person to help it grow and thrive.
By adopting an attitude of superiority or rejecting input, you risk creating a really miserable environment for yourself, too–or simply losing your sidekick altogether. In an office of two, whether physical or virtual, you have to maintain the spirit of collaboration and respect. There simply aren’t enough people to dilute negativity.
The precise arrangement you make will depend on many factors: financials, mutual goals, even personality traits. Some people are happier being employees and foregoing the financial risk. Others will jump at the opportunity to be an investor or partner in a startup. You may even prefer sharing risks and rewards. Whatever the case, it pays to treat your first employee like a partner, no matter their official status, because in the most basic sense, that’s what they are.
If you’re considering someone you already, keep in mind that your significant other, best friend, or former colleague isn’t necessarily the best choice simply because you’re already close. Know right from the start that this arrangement might not work out, and that the fallout can damage your personal relationship.
If it’s someone you don’t know, make every effort you can to get personal recommendations. A company of two is a bit like a marriage in disguise, and similar considerations should apply. You don’t want someone you come into conflict with constantly, but it’s hard to forecast that with someone you’ve just met. In your interview, try to figure out if you have similar attitudes towards money and profit, company structure, business ethics, and work-life balance. In fact, this goes equally for your best friend and someone you stumbled on through LinkedIn.
Whether or not you’ve thought carefully about it before, now’s the time to define what your company stands for. Soon you’ll be steering someone else’s career path in addition to your own, and you can’t change course without thinking how it’ll affect them, too. Give that same courtesy even if you’re hiring a friend. Be vocal and honest right from the start about how you’d prefer to move forward, and make sure that sounds right for both of you.
It’s actually better if you don’t agree on everything. Someone who plays devil’s advocate or brings in fresh perspectives is far more valuable than someone who’s always on your side. You can’t possibly be right 100% of the time, and the real value in not running your business alone is having a built-in second opinion.
But look for compliments, not diametric opposites: It’s far better if a team is comprised of a risk taker and a cautious second-guesser than two gung-ho risk takers–but only if you’re agreed on what the risks you’re weighing are actually for. Whichever of the two types you happen to be, you can still maintain your veto powers as a founder, but it ensures you’ll have a balanced discussion first.
Letting go of doing everything yourself won’t always be easy. When I found my business partner, there was a list of tasks I couldn’t be happier to hand off. But with certain others, I insisted on being way more involved than I needed to be. In fact, I knew it would be better to get out of the way. Building trust takes time, even if you’re working with someone you know well. But that’s all the more reason to be careful that you aren’t accidentally hampering or sabotaging their efforts.
Let your person take on not just the “what” but the “how”: Give them authority to establish their own system for handling whatever you’ve backed away from, and collaborate on developing processes for the tasks you jointly own. Set clear boundaries–mine, yours, ours–but be prepared to reassess. You may discover you were actually much better at certain tasks than you’d thought; if you take them back, don’t write off your partner if they can’t do it all as well as you did. Be patient. This person isn’t you.
What if it’s just not working out? Seriously consider whether your attitude and approach are to blame. None of us are perfect bosses or coworkers. Perhaps some extra effort or flexibility on your end can make a big difference.
But if the warning signs are mounting and, despite your sincere effort, your partnership seems out of sync, inefficient, or just a big source of stress, make that call sooner rather than later. Parting ways isn’t pleasant, but neither is spending your day swimming upstream, which can waste time and money, and even kill your business. Assess the situation as impartially as you can, and if you need to break your pact, be respectful and considerate.
Above all, remember your partner wants to help you succeed. In the name of success, you’ll disagree. Sometimes you’ll be right; sometimes you’ll be wrong. You’ll each get better at working together over time–or you won’t. That’s why understanding your new partner is as much about vetting them (continuously) as learning about yourself (no less continuously). You’re as accountable in making your partnership work as your partner is, if not more so.
And if you forget all these rules, remember this one: Being a good partner and a good boss starts with just being a good human.
Maria Rapetskaya is creative director and founder of Undefined Creative, a creative agency she has differentiated from its competition through flexibility, low overheads, and a general emphasis on good, old-fashioned customer service.