As a long-time business advisor and angel investor, I’m a believer that “two heads are better than one” in building a new business. Very few entrepreneurs have the range of skills and experience to be the solution creator as well as business creator, or operational as well as sales leader. The challenge is to recognize and recruit that ideal partner match early with minimal cost and risk.
In fact, I would broaden the definition of partner from co-founder to “business partner.” The reason is that good attributes apply equally well to “external” partners, as they do to internal partners, like a co-founder or CTO. A good overall example is the synergy between Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as well as long-time Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.
In all cases, the challenge is the same, of finding people that you can work with and enjoy in the business relationship. The relationship has to have trust, communication, and respect in order to work. Otherwise, like a marriage, it will be doomed to constant conflict, second guessing, and unhappiness. So the following traits have to apply to both sides of the partnership to work:
- Capable of working collaboratively. Some people are too independent to be partner material. If they or you find it hard to trust others, love to work alone, always have to be in control, or insist on micro-managing, it may be time for change or looking elsewhere.
- Neither partner needs to be managed. Good partners are people who are confident in their own abilities, and willing and able to make decisions, take responsibility for their actions, and able to provide leadership, rather than require leadership.
- All partners have compatible work styles. Most entrepreneurs work long hours and weekends to get the job done. If you team with a partner who likes to sleep late, and reserves the weekend for other activities, the partnership will likely not work.
- Agree on a common vision and commitment. It doesn’t take long to sense someone’s real commitment, or vision and desired outcome of a joint project. Is your project seen by both as an end in itself, or a means to another end? Conflicting visions won’t work.
- Believe in similar values and goals. If one of your core values is exceeding your customer expectations for quality and service, and your potential partner ascribes to the low cost, high profit mantra, a successful partnership is highly unlikely over the long-term.
- Operate with a comparable level of integrity. High levels of integrity are important in business, but more important is your level of comfort with your partner’s integrity. This is a critical element of a good relationship, but a tough one. This is probably the best place to apply your “gut” feeling.
- Brings complementary skills and experience. If both of you are experts at software development, even though one loves design and the other loves coding, that still won’t get the marketing done. Look at the big picture first of development, finance, and marketing/sales.
- Feels a real passion and love for their role. The passion has to be in the business context – meaning results oriented, customer oriented, and sensitive to competition. In many cases, experts with academic or research credentials are not good partners for a business venture.
- Believe in the same ethical and diversity boundaries. How the leaders of your company handle adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the law will be seen by all employees, customers, and investors. Ethics and the view of personal boundaries should be explored fully.
- Carry minimal historical baggage. Partner decisions are more important than team member hiring decisions. Thus you should do the same or more due diligence on educational background, previous work, and references. Look impartially from all angles and do the follow-up on all relevant previous roles.
Beyond the core team of two or three startup partners, every startup should seek to “outsource” the rest of their strategic requirements to external business partners. It’s faster and cheaper than building a large team in-house, and usually more effective.
By using this checklist, you should be able to objectively match potential partners with your own needs and expectations. Then, as I always recommend, it’s time to establish a formal agreement or contract to cement the partnership. With that, you will have a strong foundation for success, as well as a great working relationship for the next thirty years.