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Your Best Business Partner Is Your Polar Opposite; Here’s How To Get Along With Them

“Friction is hard but it’s really productive. If you don’t have ability to be challenged, you shouldn’t start a company.”

Your Best Business Partner Is Your Polar Opposite; Here’s How To Get Along With Them
[Photo: TEK IMAGE/Getty Images]

Successful startups often have partners who have different strengths. One person might be the technical genius, while the other takes what they do and sells it to the masses. But what if partners have similar strengths and strikingly different personalities?

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Jonathan Kay and Eli Sapir had to overcome that exact challenge when they teamed up to launch the mobile app marketing firm Apptopia.

Sapir, CEO, is an idea guy, says Kay. “He has more brilliant ideas than can ever be executed on in an entire lifetime, but he can’t focus to execute,” he says.

On the flipside, Kay describes himself as “execution oriented.” “I would never have a good enough idea to start a company, but I have an ability to execute on anything,” he says.

Success is not a solo activity, says Hugh Blane, management consultant and author of 7 Principles of Transformational Leadership: Create A Mindset of Passion, Innovation and Growth. “Without the accompanying friction that comes from differing personalities and perspectives, a business will underperform,” he says. “Every idea can be improved on, enhanced and made more compelling when a strategic diversity of perspectives is deployed.”

Kay agrees that his relationship with Sapir allows the pair to yield a sum greater than two parts. “If you have two very different people, your ceiling is the best idea of one of those individuals,” says Kay. “For us, the end result is neither of our ideas; it’s a hybrid solution based on our discussion.”

But their differences initially caused problems. Kay admits that during the first two years, he got mad and stormed off a lot.

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Personality Vs. Purpose

To last, a partnership must have two things, says Antony Bell, leadership consultant and author of Great Leadership—What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex World: “First, they have to be committed to the same purpose and vision for their business,” he says. “Differences in personality can create a healthy debate and can allow for complementary approaches and perspectives; differences in purpose and vision tend to generate competitive and destructive conflicts.”

Second, both partners need a high level of self-awareness, and, by the same token, a deep appreciation for the differences between the two partners. “The pursuit of this kind of self-awareness needs to be deliberate and intentional, and without it, innocuous differences become divisive differences,” says Bell.

Kay and Sapir knew they were strong together, and the solution to their differences was creating a veto plan. “Each one of us has the ability to use veto power, but it needed to be used sparingly,” sys Kay. “It says you can end this discussion if it’s something you feel unusually strong about.”

The plan helped them push past initial objections, says Kay. “We would say, ‘Talk me through what it is you don’t like or would change,'” he says “When it comes down to it, we were only about 15% to 20% off. That delta is amazing. One of us is deep and one is on a higher level. They’re seeing things you can’t see because you’re not on fifth floor of the building.”

At cellphone service provider Ultra Mobile, David Glickman and Tyler Leshney had to learn how to compromise on the pair’s opposite appetites for risk: “I’m the guy who is always grasping for big opportunities and more customers and with that is plenty of risk,” says Glickman, founder and CEO. “I go with my gut, while Tyler comes from more analytical background. The two styles butt up against each other at times.”

The pair worked out their differences through better communication. “One of the things I’ve learned is keeping David involved instead of thinking, ‘I’ve got this,'” says Leshney, president of the company. “Our fundamentally different views bring better results. I think we come to middle ground every day, and the basis is trust.”

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Taking Advantage Of Your Differences

Having two personalities allows each individual to grow, says Leshney. “David pushes me in Socratic way,” he says. “He knows I’m competitive and lights that fire even on things I think are audacious or absurd. I’ve gained an ability and willingness to experiment. I realize there were times that I held myself back looking for the perfect solution.”

If you can’t be challenged by a partner, you probably shouldn’t be in business at all, says Kay. “Friction is hard but it’s really productive. If you don’t have ability to be challenged, you shouldn’t start a company, because you’ll be challenged every hour of every fricking day by customers, investors, and employees.”