I’ve been in a business partnership for eight years, and people often comment that we seem to get on extremely well and wonder how we make it work.

It helps that the way most people hear us interact is on a podcast, where any blazing rows could be edited out. But no, there are no acrimonious tirades left on the cutting room floor: there’s as little friction as two people working together could realistically have.

Why does it work so well? Reflecting on our partnership, there are some lessons that you might consider if you’re thinking about going into business with someone else.

Have different skills, but the same values

Most successful partnerships are formed of people with opposing skillsets – like the classic visionary/engineer of Jobs and Wozniak. Having different abilities is highly beneficial, but you need to have the same values and attitudes underneath.

For example, we both favour the long-term over the short-term. We both believe in doing the right thing, even if it costs us. We’re both trusting by default. Having these attitudes in common meaning we naturally end up agreeing on many of the day-to-day decisions that come up.

We tested this by taking a “founders quiz” before going into business together, and ended up being closely aligned on 19 out of the 20 points. There’s a copy of the questions here.

Learn to disagree well

We actually disagree about small things quite a lot, and that’s a good thing – there’d be limited value to having a partner if they were just a clone of you.

The key is to disagree well. When we’re not aligned on something, we respect the other person’s opinion and want to hear their reasoning. We’re quick to change opinions or drop ideas if the other person convinces us.

In our case this is a calm and low-key process, but it’s fine for it to be more fiery and dramatic. People have different ways of communicating, but it’s the underlying respect and willingness to have your mind changed that matters.

If you can’t get aligned, at some point you just have to move forward with one person’s idea. At that point, it’s vital that the person who “lost” gets fully behind the idea and pushes it forward as if it were their own.

Sometimes, you disagree with an idea and it turns out you were right all along – it’s a disaster. Other times, you disagree with an idea and you were wrong – it turns out brilliantly. In either case, you need to win or lose gracefully. Saying “I told you so” is never helpful.

Make yourself a good partner

  • Drop the ego. Once you’re in business together, the business comes first – not you and your ego. Needing to be right about everything, get your own way and have the final word will be damaging for the business and corrosive for your partnership.
  • Develop self-awareness. You have annoying traits. Everyone does. Do your best to work out what these are, and rein in the ones your partner finds particularly annoying.
  • Assume good intentions. If your partner is annoying you, they’re probably not doing it on purpose. If you’re not sure why they’ve done something, it’s probably not to screw you over. Sure, if they’re asking for the combination for the safe while holding a plane ticket to the Bahamas in their hand it might be worth asking some questions, but it’s exhausting for both of you if you’re constantly assuming the worst.

Pick the right partner

However hard you try and how much you work on yourself, you’re onto a loser from the start if you pick the wrong partner.

Who’s the right partner? Look for someone who’s:

  • Inherently trustworthy. The best way to tell if someone is trustworthy is to see them behave in a trustworthy way consistently over time. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to get to know someone well before going into business with them, or to start with a small low-stakes project. We started a podcast together before starting a business, so we routinely saw each other show up and do what we said we were going to do.

    (The worst way to tell if someone is trustworthy, by the way – actually a negative indicator – is for them to tell you frequently how trustworthy they are.)
  • Has good past business relationships. It sounds obvious, but if someone has a string of disastrous business partnerships in their past…why would you expect yours to be different? They might have stories about what terrible people their partners were and how badly they got screwed over, but (1) who’s the constant across all those relationships?, and (2) repeatedly picking bad partners doesn’t exactly show great judgement.
  • Has good current relationships. Do they seem to have good relationships with their romantic partner, children, friends etc? Again, if someone is prone to conflict in their relationships in general, it’s unlikely yours will be any different.
  • Is someone you enjoy spending time with. You’ll be spending a lot of time together, so it’s important that you enjoy their company – or at least that they don’t drive you crazy, however talented they might be. You don’t have to be best buddies away from work (or even at work), but you do need to “gel” on some level.

~ ~

Come to think of it, most of this applies to any kind of relationship – not just business.

Have you been in a partnership that’s turned out well, or poorly? Let me know if you’ve got any additional tips to share from your experience.

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1 thought on “How to have a successful business partnership

  1. Enjoyed the article and can relate to much of it.
    My own partnership has been going now since 2008 and still going strong with each of us learning and adapting along the way. This process never stops, all be it fine tuning and micro adjustments in later years.
    There is a ten year age gap between us which I think has worked really well until now that is.
    I am the older at 60 years old and my focus has started to change. I want to be less hands on whilst still being involved in the decision making processes but not everyday. My partners drive to fill each day productively toward completing each project has the effect of making me feel guilty when I am not actively engaged myself.
    This is where defined rolls within the business become increasingly important from time to time it’s worth revisiting this area.
    Good communication is a key factor in a successful partnership I am about to find out if it’s working within ours.

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