Business partners, like parents and spouses, are rarely perfect. The acid test of a good business partnership is whether each partner feels better off with the partnership than without it.That requires each partner to perceive the business as a success and to regard the contributions of his or her partners as critical to that success. Only embark on a business partnership that promises to pass the test.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when evaluating a potential partnership:
Achieving success will require you and your partners to agree on what success looks like. The most frequent objectives of small-business owners are to be profitable and have highly satisfied customers.
But clearly, entrepreneurs may have other goals relating to size, growth, innovation, risk-taking and the cultivation of respect and recognition within your industry and community.
It will be difficult for you and your partners to agree on strategy and tactics if you don’t agree on the definition of success. Business goals are often a reflection of your personality and your stage in life. As these change, your goals may change, too.
One of the most obvious reasons for partnering with others is to enlarge the skill mix of ownership.
While you can hire someone with almost any skill, you can’t hire individuals with the same level of commitment to success that ownership has. The time-honoured division of labour into “outside activities,” like sales and business development, and “inside activities,” like operations and management, still makes sense for many businesses.
More recently,having a technology savvy partner can offer huge advantages for many types of firms. Even if partners play similar functional roles – as is often the case in small, professional service firms – it’s useful to have partners that cater to different types of clients. Skill differences are among the most healthy and productive differences that business partners can have.
Business owners make hundreds of decisions about how to run their business: whether to operate a formal or informal office environment; whether to have many meetings or few; whether to have an open floor plan or individualised offices; whether or not to have company outings; how frequently and how best to conduct employee reviews;the type and number of administrative staff; and so forth.
For the most part,there are not any right or wrong decisions, no “best practices” that work for every company. Such decisions are often simply a matter of taste and aren’t worth arguing over. Yet argument is inevitable unless you and your partners’ tastes are compatible to begin with.
Share (and Often Share Alike)
While you might suspect that compensation comprises one of the most difficult partnership issues, in many cases, it may be among the simplest. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, partners should receive a fixed share of profits (and in many cases, an equal share of profits).
Performance measurement systems only exist because of “free rider” problems in larger organisations, that is, the tendency for people to slack off when their contributions can’t be directly observed. In a small organisation, it’s assumed that everyone is doing everything possible to contribute to the success of the business. If that’s not the case, the partnership will have problems that no compensation system can fix.
Trust – but Verify
As Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and generations of economists have pointed out, people pursue their own self-interests. That’s as true of great business partners as it is of anyone else. But business partnerships work in spite of self-interest because partners have mutual interests (shared goals). But shared goals aren’t enough. Trust and transparency are equally important.
The importance of trust is obvious: You’d never go into business with partners whose honesty and integrity you questioned.But transparency in business processes is also critical.
You and your partners may have discussed and agreed on critical matters involving pricing, contract language, budgets, expense accounts and the like, but the temptation to effect self-serving change at the margin is always present. The most effective way to prevent this behaviour and the conflict can lead to is to ensure that the decisions of all partners are as transparent as possible.
On a practical level,this means ensuring that critical business documents and data are continuously updated and available for easy inspection by all partners.
One of the most reliable predictors of partnership success or failure is whether partners improve the decision-making process.
Partners with shared objectives and a shared understanding of how to reach those objectives make better decisions as a group than they would on their own because they benefit from the diversity of knowledge all the partners bring to the process.
Conversely, with the wrong partners, shared responsibility for decision-making will slow the decision-making process and lead to worse decisions than the partners could make on their own.
The Whats And The Whys Of Creating A Successful Business Partnership
Partnerships can break businesses. They can also make them fly. How can you ensure your partnerships serve all parties and safeguard the company’s vision?
One of the first businesses I started was a high-school DJ-ing business with my brother. We were going to ride the party wave to untold success. Because I had known my brother all my life, I just assumed that we would be on the same page in terms of the future of our little business, and I didn’t bother to check whether we had the same long-term vision.
When the money started coming in, he wanted to invest the earnings, while I wanted to plough them back into the business. Each of us had a distinct idea about an end goal. I wanted us to be a leading DJ company on the South African event scene. He wanted to preserve the capital. Both of these were noble pursuits, but we neglected to ensure that we were on the same page when we first started out.
The “why” really does matter
Right there is the first lesson that anyone should learn when considering a partnership – you need to agree on the “why”. Simon Sinek wrote that great book, “Start With Why”, which encourages people to begin by finding their purpose. In a business partnership, if your whys aren’t the same, if you don’t have the same fundamental reasons to do what you’re doing, your business isn’t going to fly.
As we all know, business can get tough – all efforts must push towards the same end-point to enhance your chances of success.
If you’ve ticked the “why” box, the next thing to consider is the “what?” What are you and your partner each bringing to the table? When the skills sets are very different, it can be hard to understand value… which can result in resentment on both sides.
For example, if you are an engineer who has built an amazing platform, but you’re just not a people person, you could establish a partnership with a business development expert with loads of connections. From one angle, it might appear that your new partner spends each night having expensive dinners, until he lands the contract that provides your platform with national exposure and gives your business the first step into true operation.
There’s no way to put an actual value to the contribution that you’ve each made, but the business would be nothing without both of your efforts.
Once you’ve defined what your business needs, it’s a process of accepting that even if a different skills set cannot match the blood, sweat, and tears that you have invested in the business, it can still contribute exceptional value to your bottom line.
Partnerships in practice
Even established businesses can investigate partnerships in order to evolve. At Fedgroup, we’ve engaged in in three active partnerships to allow us to innovate in new, future-critical spaces.
Our Impact Farming venture was perfected as a product from a tech and accounting perspective, but would never have made it to market without the deep expertise of our partner Suraj Lallchand in the sustainable agriculture and agritech world.
We have also partnered with the machine learning and AI guru, Marco Cerutti and his company DragonFlower, clearly recognising that this technology is critical to Fedgroup’s sustainability, and further recognising that we simply didn’t have the skills to make fruitful contributions in this space.
Another example is our Internet of Things partner, Techsitter. Michael Stofberg, the head of Techsitter, has allowed us to enter this market with a deep skills set and vast knowledge that we would never have gained in-house in time to meet demand.
A leap of faith
The funny thing about all of this is that my brother and I are still the same people we were in high school, and both of us are using our particular approaches to the benefit of the companies we run. I still want to use my profits to reinvest in the business and grow, whereas his successful property portfolio investment company, Fieldspace, ensures capital preservation and growth.
In all the partnerships I’ve mentioned, there was a meeting of minds. There was a common why, and a complementary what, but in the end when you’ve ticked all the boxes, any partnership is a leap of faith, and sometimes you just have to take it.
Success Fuelled By Partnership
Property Point, the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) along with the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) have joined forces to drive market access to a legion of high potential small black-owned businesses.
When SEDA invited Property Point to apply for funding through their incubation fund structure, the pilot project became a game-changing partnership. The aim of the project is to provide incubation funding of R6-7million annually over three years. The Enterprise Incubation Programme (EIP) under the Department of Small Business Development awarded Property Point funding of R5 million for a 12-month programme to incubate 15 businesses.
“The goal of the collaboration was to drive market access to a cohort of high potential small black businesses,” says Desigan Chetty, Head of Operations at Property. “Point Property Point’s demand led-approach to ESD suited DSBD’s objectives to ensure that businesses are able to access markets after going through a capacity building programme.
“Property Point’s objective is to establish a strategic relationship with government to assist in contributing to the sustainability of small businesses, reducing dependency and ensuring that businesses are enabled to competitively access market opportunities,” he explains.
Access to markets, job creation, and sustainable small business growth
The major objective was to access markets, ensure job creation and sustainable growth of small businesses. Each business was taken through a diagnostic assessment and a bespoke business development map was produced.
“One-on-one mentorship was a successful tool to align the objectives of the owners as well as the businesses,” adds Desigan. “In addition, the focus was on profiling the businesses, enabling them to access markets through a solid sales pipeline process, acquiring machinery to increase operational capacity and also accessing technical certifications which are often a barrier to opportunities.”
The power of partnership
The biggest success story would be that Property Point has managed to exceed all expectations of DSBD, according to Khutjo Langa, Property Point’s Monitoring and Evaluation Manager.
“The impact targets were achieved in the first quarter and we have been pushing the boundaries to increase the ROI of the funding. We have added one more business to the initial set target of 15 businesses because we saw a need and a perfect fit for that business to benefit from this partnership.”
Khutjo believes that there is certainly a need for collaborations of this nature, “especially now that we have seen the results that can be achieved if things are done correctly. South Africa needs both private and public to work together to solve the ills of our country. These kinds of collaborations allow easy flow of resources and accountability, thus ensuring that everyone does what is expected of them.”
Working with the DSBD
The small businesses that are part of the DSBD intake will form part of the Property Point alumni network and we will still maintain contact through our monthly Entrepreneurship To The Point networking engagements.
“The DSBD team was supportive and provided oversight to ensure that programme objectives were met,” says Desigan. “The Director General, Edith Vries, attended the launch of the programme and engaged with each of the 16 businesses on the programme individually.”
“We have learned a lot from this engagement,” says Khutjo. “We were stretched but proved that our ten years of existence and proven track record qualifies us to be able to take on such projects and succeed.”
Bradley Kodi, Programme Manager at Property Point agrees. “The experience has been amazing thus far, by no means easy, but a beneficial relationship of interchangeable learning between both organisations,” says Bradley. “I strongly believe this public-private partnership can be considered a success – our impact speaks for itself.”
Alan Knott-Craig Answers: How To Find Partners And Navigate The Partnership Territory
Most businesses are built on some form of partnership, from co-founders to investment deals. Here’s how to find partners and navigate partnership territory.
How do you find the right partners? — Johnny
The best way to find partners is to make it easy for them to find you. Speak at conferences, write a blog, write books, do media interviews, make it easy for people to notice you. With some luck someone will approach you and voila, you’ll have a potential partner. The real challenge is knowing whether they are the right partner.
The only way you will find the right partner is if you are totally honest about yourself. The only way you can be totally honest about yourself is to know yourself.
To know yourself, you need to take risks. Lots of risks. Fall in love, start businesses, travel, meet new people, do public speeches. Keep taking risks. Sometimes you’ll win, most times you’ll fail.
It’s in failure that you’ll find out how you respond to setbacks, what is important to you, what type of people you gel with. One of the biggest risks you’ll take is choosing a business partner. If you make a mistake, it’s painful, but you then know more about yourself and will find it easier to find the right partner next time. Take risks.
How do I discipline a senior executive in my business? We’ve been partners for over two years, he’s helped me enormously, but he recently crossed a line with one of our staff members and I’m not sure how to handle the situation. — Busi
Start with having a disciplinary code and disciplinary process that describes the steps to be taken in the event of an employee contravening the code.
You then need to call in your partner, have a witness present, and get his side of the story. If the issue can be explained away, problem solved.
If not, you have to follow your disciplinary process to the T. If anything, you must be overly strict. You must over-react.
You have to show the rest of your staff that no one is above the law. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if your staff become demoralised and disrespect you and your disciplinary code.
I’m a CEO of a small business. We’ve recently had some HR issues. What’s the right response to gender or racial discrimination in the office? — Vusiswa
No company in South Africa can tolerate gender or racial discrimination. Immediately start a disciplinary process, act firmly and publicly. Make an example of the situation. Draw a line far away from anything that could be construed as offensive, and make sure your entire team knows where that line is.
The first offenders should be used as public examples. Tough luck for them, but the best way to save others from doing the wrong thing is to over-punish the first offender.
I’m losing the confidence of my investors. What do I do? — Belinda
There are a couple of reasons for losing investor confidence:
- They think you’re incompetent. Only you know whether that is true. If true, there is no escaping this truth. Your only option is to find someone else to run your business. That action will rebuild investor confidence.
- They think you’re a liar. If you’re a liar, you will eventually be caught out. Investors will forgive incompetence, but they’ll never forgive fraud.
- You are not delivering on the promises you made. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are incompetent. It means you over-promised. The solution is simple: Stop over-promising. If you think you’ll do 20% sales growth, promise 10%. Get into the habit of giving yourself a margin of error. If you keep your promises, your investors will back you.
Read ‘Be A Hero’ today
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