Aug 31 2012

Starting a Business: To Partner or Not to Partner?

When it comes to entrepreneurship, sometimes two may be company, too.

The tech-startup world really has a thing for co-founders. When we look at the legend of Apple, we trace the company’s success back to the mystical mojo of its original co-founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Like yin and yang, the two Steves couldn’t have been more different. Back then, Wozniak was somewhat reserved and actually wanted to be liked. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was aggressive in his personality and couldn’t have cared less if he rubbed people the wrong way. He just wanted his product to be perfect.

But take another look at Apple: Is it really the success story of a partnership, or a shining example of what happens when one captain steers the ship?

While Apple broke barriers and made tons of cash in its initial run with the two Steves in the 1970s and ’80s, its second wind, with only Jobs at the helm in the early 2000s, has far outpaced what the two Steves achieved together.

After all, with a market-cap of $620 billion, it is now the most valuable company in the world.

So was the original partnership really necessary, since Jobs proved to be more effective by himself? The answer, as with most complex dilemmas, is that it depends.

Finding the Right Business Partner

One benefit of having a business partner largely comes from having someone by your side who fills in the holes that your leadership style leaves open. Everyone, no matter how successful they are, has weaknesses. And if you choose wisely, you can find a business partner who exudes strength where you show weakness.

Another strategy is to double up on the strengths that you have by teaming with someone who’s like-minded. Let’s call this the Miami Heat strategy, named, of course, after the NBA team’s decision to load up on all-star players LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010. Beefing up what you’re good at has the potential to amplify your success, since you’re now even stronger in certain areas than you were before. But you’re also doubling up on your weaknesses.

Take this example: If you’re an entrepreneur with a sharp eye for product development, and you hire a co-founder with a similar talent but neglect to stack the team with someone who has administrative or business management skills, you could find yourself planning an amazing product but missing fund-raising goals.

Another good reason to bring a business partner on board is to avoid the yes-man syndrome. Kalen Smith of Moneycrashers.com wrote that:

“Some people become lackadaisical when they begin a business. They may have a hard time maintaining the discipline needed to stay motivated. Partners keep each other on the ball, and hold each other accountable for any mistakes.”

The flipside, of course, is that sometimes you don’t want to hear the truth. And when your business partner insists on telling you that “truth,” the tension can cause the business to fall apart.

As with most relationships, the key to a successful business partnership is to establish clear boundaries and expectations.

“A co-founder can be a blessing or can be a curse. It depends on finding that right co-founder, establishing these rules as to who is in control of what, and what the chain of command is, all the way up to the board and to the customer, and all the way down to the employees,” said Jason Feffer, co-founder of SodaHead.com, in an interview with Docstoc.

If you’re someone who believes that two heads are better than one, then by all means, seek out a co-founder. Just make sure that your business doesn’t take too many lumps because you and your partner can’t stop bumping heads.