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Essential Elements of Working with a Business Partner

When Bryan Burkhart and Sonu Panda launched their New York-based subscription floral service H.Bloom in 2010, they spent every working moment together.

Paul Andruss



Business Partners

“We went to the flower market at the crack of dawn, interviewed every type of potential hire and drove a ZipCar around Manhattan to figure out how to scale deliveries,” says Burkhart, CEO. “We needed to learn the ins and outs of the business together so we could set the direction of the company together.”

As the business took off, though, the founders realized they also needed to work independently on various tasks so they could build the company on multiple fronts simultaneously. Today, Panda runs the day-to-day operations, directing engineers, buyers and managers of H.Bloom’s five regional markets; Burkhart focuses mainly on sales, marketing and investor relations.

“We have a clear division of labour and discrete roles and responsibilities,” Burkhart says. “[Panda] does much of the work that is gruelling and detail-oriented, things that I find extremely painful but are integral to our success. But we had a very honest discussion upfront about how we would think about splitting up the workload and making sure we were both OK with it.”

Having a co-founder is great when it comes to sharing the grunt work, holding late-night planning sessions and perpetuating a sense of camaraderie. But once a business is up and running, it can be complicated to determine who should do what, who shouldn’t do what and where the buck stops.

Divvying up duties is important to avoid duplicating efforts, to work more effectively and to play to each founder’s talents. “You need to look at the experience, strengths and styles of each partner and apply them to the needs of the company,” says Joni Fedders, president of Aileron, a Tipp City, Ohio-based non-profit that mentors private businesses.

Divvy It Up

There’s a clear delineation of responsibilities for Jonas Falk, CEO of Chicago-based healthful school-lunch provider OrganicLife, and his business partner, Justin Rolls. “I hadn’t filed tax returns in five years, but Justin has paid his taxes quarterly since he was 18 years old,” Falk says.

“He’s very paperwork- and detail-oriented, and I can’t stand paperwork; I like to focus on the creative things. But each of us having different strengths is what makes our business successful.”

Also important in deciding who does what are lifestyle differences, say Kirsten Lambert and Joan Ripple, founders of Hingham, Beantown Bedding, which makes biodegradable, compostable bed linens.

“Kirsten is a night person, and I’m a morning person,” Ripple says. “But it’s a positive thing, because she can do follow-ups in the evening on things that may be urgent, and I can do the same in the morning. Embracing our differences brings depth and perspective to the business.”

Flexibility is key, even when duties are clearly defined. At times dividing lines must be blurred for the good of the company. For example, partners should be prepared to work their personal connections when necessary, regardless of whether the task at hand falls under their purview.

“Sometimes our duties are based on the function, but sometimes it’s the relationship that matters, and you both have to know it’s OK to cross over when situations like that arise,” says Ripple, who stepped aside from her typical functions when an influential advisor felt more comfortable working with Lambert, with whom there was a previous relationship.

There may be times when founders reach an impasse on a task no one wants to tackle. Fedders suggests compromising on a rotation – i.e., “You take it this year, I’ll take it next year.” If you and your co-founder absolutely can’t agree to share the undesirable jobs, consider enlisting outside help.

Ripple has turned to others for functions ranging from web design to merchandising and sustainability. “Don’t be afraid to outsource where there are gaps in knowledge,” she says. “When we wrestle with something, getting help from an outside expert is definitely worth it.”

Make It Official

Even though job descriptions may seem obvious, Fedders says it’s a good idea to officially clarify individual responsibilities among all involved, particularly in high-level areas of operation. “Instead of just saying, ‘Is sales your responsibility or my responsibility?’ go deeper and ask if that person is also responsible for the selling structure, compensation and new client acquisition,” she says. “The greater the clarification, the better off you are.”

She recommends utilising common organisational tools, such as a good, old-fashioned org chart. “Just get it down on paper in some form,” she says. “‘Here are the areas of responsibility you’re taking; here are the ones I’m taking,’ and then include a breakdown of all tasks that fall under those categories.”

Even after responsibilities have been decided upon, Fedders suggests revisiting them regularly. “There’s a different leadership style needed when you’re going through a start-up phase vs. when you’re more in a growth stage,” she says. “As you grow and add people on, responsibilities are divvied up more. So revisiting those areas and responsibilities on a fairly frequent basis, especially when you’re in high growth, is critical.”

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What PayPal’s Rocky Beginnings Can Teach You About Start-up Success


Keep Communicating

It’s also essential to connect regularly – not just for accountability, but so each founder has a complete picture of how the business is evolving. In an expanding company, though, individual workloads can make that harder than it sounds.

When H.Bloom launched, Burkhart and Panda had plenty of time to talk shop. But that changed when they expanded into Washington, D.C. “He was so focused on keeping the lights on in New York and I was so focused on trying to turn the lights on in Washington that we lost that connection,” Burkhart says. “We weren’t communicating as frequently, and therefore we weren’t on the same page about direction anymore.”

The two resolved to schedule quality meeting time together every week – breakfast, dinner or sometime in between. Other entrepreneurs would do well to follow their lead, Aileron’s Fedders says. “When you have your own individual responsibilities, that constant communication takes time, energy and effort, but that’s what it takes to stay strong together,” she says. “If you don’t, it can wreak havoc on your organisation.”

A common thread among successful partnerships is that they’re based on shared core values about the business and a mutual conviction that its success trumps everything else.

“We both care a lot about food and everything that goes into it, and serving people – and those shared beliefs are what lets each of us trust the other and his judgment to do his own work,” OrganicLife’s Falk says. “Stuff comes up 100 times a day, every day. If you have to spend any time wondering what your partner is doing or bickering about who’s doing what, you’re never going to have a business.”

Adds H.Bloom’s Burkhart: “Even if we run into disagreements, we know we both care so deeply about what we’re doing that at the end of the day, we trust one another to go off to our separate roles and responsibilities and make it happen better than anybody else we know.”

The Deciding Factor

Working with a co-founder comes with challenges. Whether it’s dividing responsibilities, agreeing on a pace for expansion or plotting other strategies, decision-making is surely near the top of the list. “Decision-making obviously becomes slower in a partnership, because now you have someone else you have to run the decision by,” says Joni Fedders, president of business consultancy Aileron.

“That complicates things, because we all have different perspectives, different expectations and different styles.”

When hashing out who should and shouldn’t handle certain responsibilities, it can be helpful to create a framework of core values and principles for co-founders to consider when making decisions. “The more you can clarify these,” Fedders says, “the better it helps your decision-making process.”

Sample questions might include:

  • What are our goals and objectives?
  • What is our strategic plan?
  • How do we define our values?
  • What is our company culture?
  • How do we expect behaviours to work?

Paula Andruss is a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to hundreds of articles to national consumer, business and custom magazines and websites, including Woman’s Day, USA Today, Entrepreneur, Parents, Parenting and more.

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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?

Grant Field




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.

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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.

Property Point



Property Point_Desigan-Chetty_Khutjo-Langa_Bradley-Kodi

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.

Related: Public Private Partnerships Can Work For Entrepreneurs

“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.

Related: 4 Black-Owned Businesses Participating in This Enterprise Development Programme That Are Growing – Fast

“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.”

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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.

Alan Knott-Craig




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.

Related: Alan Knott-Craig Answers: How To Build A Debt-Free Business

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.

Related: Alan Knott-Craig Answers Your Questions On Money And Partners

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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