The Final Word on Business Partnerships

Chatting with Madeleine Shaw, Alexandra Samuel, and Danielle LaPorte – three local entrepreneurs who know the ins and outs of business partnerships.

Chatting with Madeleine Shaw, Alexandra Samuel, and Danielle LaPorte – three local entrepreneurs who know the ins and outs of business partnerships.

If there’s one thing I learned, writing our book, The Boss of You, it’s that I have opinions and knowledge about running a business gleaned from my years of experience – and that there are hoards of other folks full of business wisdom, too.

So for my final installment on business partnerships, I reached out to some smart B.C. businesswomen for their thoughts. Below are three Q&As.

Madeleine Shaw

Owner and founder of Lunapads International Products, a thriving Vancouver business dedicated to helping women have happier healthier periods. Lunapads’ product design was recently featured in Fast Companies list of Sustainable Product Designs for the Future.

What’s the biggest  bonus to having a business partner, as opposed to running the show by yourself?

A: It sounds so obvious, but not having to make every big decision by myself. We make better decisions together, and I don’t have to do things that I am not good at or are outside of my experience. Being deeply connected with someone else who has as much of an interest (and as much at stake!) as you do, to do everything from bounce ideas around to sign off on loans and choose investors.

What words of wisdom would you give to anyone entering a new business partnership?

A: That it’s like a marriage or other significant relationship; in other words, not to be undertaken lightly or with someone who you do not trust absolutely. That said, obviously it may not work out despite your best intentions, but I think that if the right kind of feeling is there for both of you, then trust that and go for it. The payoff can be huge. Give each other space to shine in your own ways, create safety around not always agreeing, show appreciation for them.

You didn’t start with a business partner. Why did you make the decision to bring one on?

A: For many years people said to me, “You should find a business partner,” which used to irritate me to no end. Gee whiz, sounds great, would that be under “B” or “P” in the Yellow Pages?

Back to the marriage/relationship analogy: if it was easy to meet the right person, why would we need dating services? While I had recognized the wisdom of the idea of taking on a business partner, I didn’t seriously consider it until I got to know Suzanne. I still remember telling my husband about her; that I had finally found someone I could imagine working with – different enough in terms of skills and experience, but very much on the same page in terms of values and mission. I have not had a moment’s regret.

Alexandra Samuel

Alex is the Director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, the co-founder of Social Signal, and a blogger for the Harvard Business Review.

What’s the biggest  bonus to having a business partner, as opposed to running the show by yourself?

A: Two main advantages: One is that it’s critical for employees to have a court of appeal – to know that they can get a second opinion or take up concerns with another partner. The other is that I’m someone who thinks through conversation; I need to be able to talk things through in order to make up my own mind or find the best approach. A business partner is the person with whom you can talk through those questions.

What words of wisdom would you give to someone entering a new business partnership?

A: Think about the relationship as much as the business. When two good friends start dating, they always think about how it will affect the friendship; the same should be true for business partners. This person is going to be as big a part of your life as your spouse – possibly even bigger, in terms of the hours you spend together! You need to make sure it’s someone you’ll enjoy spending time with – but think carefully if it’s a good friend, because business can be difficult, so you are putting your friendship at risk by undertaking a joint venture. When it works, you’ll get the joy of succeeding together; and when it’s tough, it will strain your friendship.

Has the fact that you’re married affected your business partnership. If so, how?

A: For the most part I think it makes the partnership easier. One thing I would observe of my friends in business is that spouses can be a major pressure on a career or partnership. For example, a spouse may resent the amount of travel that is required for the business, and an entrepreneur can feel caught between a partner who expects them to travel and a spouse who wants them to stay home. In our live and business, we make those decisions in an integrated way: if one of us gets a speaking invitation, we jointly decide whether the benefits of accepting are worth the hassle/pain of the other person handling two kids solo for a few days.

The other big benefit is that the business isn’t pitted against the marriage. The time we spend at work isn’t time away from our relationship; it’s time in our relationship. Particularly now that we have kids, it’s terrific to have so much to talk about that isn’t related to our kids – though of course it helps that it’s the same stuff we talked about (blogging, social media, social change) before having kids or a business.

The main challenge isn’t for the business, it’s for the marriage. Our business is such a reflection of who we are and what we have in common, what we are both passionate about, that sometimes it’s hard to find a corner of our relationship that isn’t either about the kids or about the business – especially since Battlestar Galactica ended.

Danielle LaPorte

Danielle LaPorte recently launched an insanely successful (like, $11K sold in the first 12 hours) e-book/e-course series called the Fire Starter Sessions.

You’re currently rocking a solo entrepreneurial gig, but your last venture was a partnership. Why the change?

A: I’ve had some beautiful collaborations. We were like a small sailing team, each knowing when to pull the ropes or grab the rudder. We cruised. I’ve had some wonky unions where we were the blind leading the blind, stumbling on expectations and co-dependencies, but still making progress in the world. And I’ve been one part of a duo that looked picture-perfect but had some dark, cluttered corners.

It was a learning process that led me to the life-altering conclusion that, for me, creative sovereignty is the only way to go. Freedom. And that looks like Lone Ranger artistry for me.

What words of wisdom would you give to anyone entering a new business partnership?

A: Consensus can create mediocrity. When you and your partner(s) agree that you have to agree on everything, it can stymie decision making, slow you down, foster risk aversion, and can generally make for weak strategy. When you agree that you have to agree, you tend to avoid things that might cause disagreements. And that’s not good.

Domains of responsibility have to be established. The buck has to stop with someone.

When you agree that one person has the final say in a particular area, here’s what happens, ideally: the person with the final call is extra-thoughtful, they weigh the options out, they do their homework – trust is nurtured. Teamwork isn’t about harmony at all times, it’s about covering all the bases so you can win the bigger game by letting each person exercise their true individual strengths – and carrying the success and the failure together.

So figure out who’s in charge of what – the marketing, the money, the staff, the front end, the back end, the brand. Allow for creative tension, and enough space for everyone in charge to leap, to lose, and to take their charge to a whole new level.