5 Secrets of a Perfect Partnership

Going it alone is too hard and too slow. Here are five fundamentals of a strong co-foundership.

Entrepreneurship is almost always portrayed as an act of solo heroism. One person against the world, going it alone. And yet, whenever I talk to groups or aspiring entrepreneurs, the sense I most often get is, "I'm a little nervous about going it alone; I'd really like to, but how do I get started?" To which my answer is always the same: Get a partner!

At that point, just about everyone looks scared because they've all heard the horror stories of partners who've fallen out, started as friends, and ended in lawsuits. They think of Paul Allen no longer friendly with Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs being mean to Steve Wozniak. What they don't think about is that these companies might never have been started by any individual alone. And they don't consider how valuable a partner is to the momentum you need to start at all.

Every entrepreneur has what I think of as the edge-of-the-swimming-pool moment: I want to jump in but I'm scared! That's when you need someone to give you a push. If you have a partner, that person almost always has confidence on the days that you don't. He or she will have ideas or a sense of urgency when you're paralyzed with fear. And on the days that you're full of optimism, he or she will be in a funk wondering what you're so bright-eyed about. You need each other. That's how businesses get born.

So what does a business partnership need to make it work?

1. Different skills

The Australian surfwear company, Ripcurl, got started when two friends--Doug Warbrik and Brian Singer--decided to team up. Warbrick was a great detail guy, while Singer knew the surfing scene inside and out. When the business needed high-profile endorsements, Singer could get them, while Warbrick could make sure the products were made well. Neither one could have done both jobs singlehandedly.

2. Trust

When Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan started Method home cleaning products, they'd been friends for years. They often spent vacations together, tossing around ideas about what kind of business they could start together. That their relationship was so well established meant that, when they did start the company, they felt it had derived from both of them. Neither of them was a great cleaner but they trusted each other to develop the skills that the business would need.

3. Conflict resolution skills

It's useful, before you start, not to get too wound up about who owns what. Keep it simple. But do think about how you will resolve disagreements. Don't try to second-guess the problems, just outline a process for working through them.

4. Open-mindedness

I've never read a business plan that turned out the way its authors said it would. Timing, positioning, funding--all of it changes. That's fine, as long as you and your partner stay aligned. It's much more important to find out what works than to follow a blueprint.

5. Agree to serve the business

When you create a company, it is the boss--not you, not your partner. You have to serve the entity you're creating. That can mean that, at some point, one of you will leave if you're unnecessary or no longer aligned with the direction the company needs to take. The best leaders understand that it's not about them. Does that mean you need legal protection, clarity around ownership, and an understanding of who gets what? Yes it does. But put the company first. Otherwise there won't be anything to argue about.

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