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The Power of Partnerships

A good partnership can give you the competitive edge.

Greg Fisher




In a world where competitors can come from around the corner or around the globe, it is increasingly difficult for firms to operate in isolation and establish and maintain a valuable competitive advantage. Typically, a firm can do a few things really well but to be exceptional at something valuable a single firm often needs to combine its skills and competencies with those of others to be truly competitive over time.

As we move toward a more interconnected society, competitive advantage depends not only on what you can do, but also who you work with. From the largest multinational corporations such as GE and Microsoft to the smallest owner managed entity, partnerships have become a critical element of business strategy.

Although partnering is important for all firms, it is generally not well understood and managers and entrepreneurs make many errors when seeking out partners and entering into business partnerships.

In this article I will seek to highlight a few of the most important aspects of business partnerships by discussing the what, who and how of partnering for business success:

  • What is a business partnership?
  • Who should one partner with?
  • How should one manage a business partnership?

1. What is a business partnership?

While business partnerships are defined in many different ways (eg. strategic alliance, joint venture, associative relationship etc) ultimately all these names and definitions boil down to the same thing: A partnership is two or more entities working together in a structured way to achieve a desired outcome.

Within this definition, a number of things may vary: (1) the nature of the entities working together may differ; (2) the structuring of the relationship may not be the same; and (3) the desired outcome may vary. Each of these variations within the definition of partnership is discussed below.

1. Nature of the entities working together. It is very common for two or more businesses to work together in a partnership called a ‘Business2Business’ or ‘B2B’ partnership. Well-known business partnerships in South Africa include partnerships between Standard Bank and MTN to provide cell phone banking services or Discovery partnering with Virgin Active to bundle gym membership as part of their vitality package.

But partnering is not limited to business level arrangements. It is also common and relevant for businesses to form partnerships with individuals called ‘Business2Person’ or ‘B2P’ partnerships. For example, I have personally partnered with Entrepreneur Magazine over the past five years to produce insightful content and to deliver educational seminars to entrepreneurs in South Africa.

Partnerships don‘t necessarily need to involve businesses; they can be two or more individuals coming together to form a business (Person2Person or P2P partnerships). For example, Rob Stokes and Justin Spratt combined their creative and business skills to grow Quirk Marketing while Yossi Hasson and David Jacobson joined  their personal business and technical skills in the creation of IT company, Synaq.

2. Structuring of partnerships. For many years it was believed that partnerships could be placed somewhere on a single continuum ranging from highly contractual (ie. everything defined upfront in writing) to highly relational (ie. a partnership based almost entirely on personal trust).

Recent research suggests that these two dimensions actually exist independently of each other. Therefore, it is possible to have partnerships that are either low on both the contractual and relational elements, high on one or low on the other, or high on both the contractual and relational elements (see Figure 1 on page 58).

The best performing partnerships are the ones that are high on both the contractual and relational dimensions. In other words, the most productive partnerships tend to be those where the parties engaging with one another implicitly trust each other but still take the time to contractually define the relationship upfront.

Pure relational mechanisms tend to be more important than pure contractual mechanisms in governing long-term partnerships; therefore partnerships that are founded on a basis of relational trust with little contracting tend to outperform those that are founded on the basis of contractual mechanisms with limited relational mechanisms.

If neither relational nor contractual mechanisms are in place when creating a partnership, then the partnership is likely to be doomed.

3. Desired outcomes. Business partnerships are established for many different reasons. I find it useful to describe the desired outcomes of a partnership in terms of one of four categories: new products, new markets, an integrated offering or financial returns. New product partnerships (also called R&D partnerships) focus on innovation.

They mostly entail the coming together of people and organisations with different knowledge and skills sets to create something new and different — the creation of a new product or the advancement of a technology.

New market partnerships are orientated around one or both of the entities in the partnership entering a new market. Many times such partnerships are formed because one partner has a foothold in a market and the other partner wishes to get their product or service into that market.

They therefore link up so that one partner can leverage the other partner’s customer base and local knowledge.

The third type of partnership is orientated around an integrated offering. Two or more entities come together to deliver a joint product or service offering. The final type of partnership is focused primarily on financial returns. This is usually when one partner provides another partner with capital in the hope that their investment will generate good financial returns over time.

2. Who should you partner with?

One of the most critical and important decisions in forming a business partnership is the selection of partners. Many partnership headaches can be avoided if one selects wisely when getting into a partnership. Research suggests that many firms pay relatively little attention to partner selection and then try to control partners with a myriad of different contractual arrangements in the course of the partnership.

Those firms that focus more intensely on selecting the right partner are not obliged to enforce contractual arrangements and end up with much better partnership outcomes. So one key element to good partnering is partnership selection.

There are a number of elements that underly effective partner selection, the most important of which are discussed below.

Values. One of the most critical things to look for when selecting a person or organisation to work with is values alignment. Values are things that you and your organisation hold most dear, the things that you would be unwilling to change even when under pressure.

People and firms can value many different things. Some values have a moral underpinning eg. honesty, integrity. Other values focus on how people are treated eg. respect, customer service, while other values may focus on how things get done eg. innovation, punctuality, or creativity. When looking for other entities with which to partner, it is useful to assess the extent to which your values are aligned.

If your values are way out of line with a potential partner, then it is probably not worth moving forward. If your values are marginally out of alignment, it is important to recognise that, to discuss it in detail upfront and to make provision for it in the written partnership contract. If your values are strongly in alignment, then it becomes easier to make decisions and move forward as the partnership develops.

Trust. No matter how many clauses you write into a partnership agreement and how many lawyers you involve in establishing a partnership, it still largely hinges on trust. If you cannot trust your partners everything else about the partnership becomes very difficult.

No matter how attractive all other elements of the deal are, ask yourself: “do I trust these people?” If you cannot answer with an emphatic yes then spend some more time getting to know them before you enter into a business partnership and only move forward when you feel confident that you can trust them.

Complementarities. One of the key aspects of finding appropriate partners is to look for people and businesses with complementary skills and assets. It is not always useful to seek other entities that are good at the same things as you. It is much more valuable to first understand why you wish to enter into a business partnership — is it for new products, new markets, an integrated offering or financial reasons?

Then determine what you lack in terms of achieving your objectives. At an individual level, if you are a strong business person, you may be looking for a partner who is strong technically. The famous examples include Steve Jobs, the business mind, teaming up with Steve Wozniak, the engineering expert, to create Apple Computers.

If you are a creative genius you may realise that you need to partner with someone who is strong on organisation and operations.

That was the case when Howard Schultz created Starbucks. He had the vision and charisma, but he needed someone to channel and organise his energy appropriately so he teamed up with Orin Smith in the coffee retailer’s early days.

At a business level it is just as important to look for complementarities in other businesses. It is important to know what you’re good at, what you are not good at, and what you need to be really competitive in your industry.

Map the industry ecosystem. A useful exercise in seeking partners is to map out the ecosystem of the industry in which you operate and to find partners that help you become more powerful and more productive within that ecosystem (see the sidebar on mapping your industry ecosystem).

As a small firm, you may have an innovative new product but need a partner to help you get that product to customers. If you have been in business for a while you may have developed a strong sales force and could partner with an overseas organisation looking to bring a complementary product into your existing market.

Whether you are an individual partnering with another individual to start or grow a business or a business partnering with another business to increase your competitive advantage, the key is to find other parties that do things that you cannot do so that when you combine your competencies you get something unique and valuable.

Dual benefit. If a partnership is to work over the long term, it is critical to ensure that all the parties participating in the partnership are benefitting.

This may seem obvious but I am surprised at how many people and organisations enter into a partnership without being clear on the benefits for themselves or their partners. It is important to make this explicit early on in the partnership’s negotiations because it aids the transparency, communication and goal setting.

If the parties entering a partnership can be open and honest about why they are pursuing the partnership and what they stand to gain, the partnership can be developed on the right foundation. If you or your prospective partners are cagey and obscure about why you are going into partnership, you should rethink your strategy and motives.

3. How should you manage a business partnership?

As you enter into a business partnership with another organisation or individual, there are a few things that you can do to significantly enhance the likelihood that the partnership will bear fruit. The advice for succeeding in a business partnership is not very different from the advice for succeeding in marriage.

The two types of relationships are actually very similar; therefore, if you consider some of the elements of a successful marriage, they will serve as a guide for successfully managing a successful business partnership.

Establish ground rules. Unless you are explicit about how you expect things to be done in a partnership, both parties will end up making a lot of assumptions. Assumptions are dangerous and destructive in a partnership, especially when things are not going as hoped.

An open and honest conversation, early in the partnering process, about each party’s expectation of the partnership can save a great deal of frustration, tension and confusion down the line. (See page 57 on items that should be covered in setting up the ground rules of a business partnership.)

Communicate. Always keep the lines of communication open in a partnership. This means asking questions and clarifying with your business partner when you don’t understand, and always making sure that both partners are on the same page.

A number of surveys and research studies suggest that lack of communication is the single biggest downfall of partnerships. To overcome the risk of communication breakdown try the following three things: (1) find a means of communication that is comfortable and easy for both parties — this may include phone, email, face-to-face meetings, Skype;  (2) set up a regular time to communicate, even if you have nothing specific to talk about. Regularly connecting with business partners will radically increase the chance of partnership success; (3) follow up all communications with an email or document that clarifies and records the essence of what was discussed and lays out action points and deadline dates.

Give more than you take. The final important philosophical point in effectively managing business partnerships is to always seek a way to give more than you receive in your dealings and interactions with business partners.

If all partners approach a partnership with this philosophy then things just seem to work. If you constantly feel like you are contributing to the partnership, then you will remain interested and committed, which will make your partners more inclined to contribute.

A very successful CEO told one of my MBA classes the other day, “Giving is not an afterthought to success, it is the foundation.” This could not be truer for business partnerships. Unless all parties perceive that they are contributing to the partnership it is unlikely to succeed, and the giving begins with you.

Any person wishing to be successful in business, whether they are leading a large corporation or operating as an independent consultant, needs to confront the challenge, the joy, the frustration and the positive synergy that can come from entering into business partnerships. The essence and value of partnering goes back many years but it is more relevant in business today than it has ever been.

Greg Fisher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Management & Entrepreneurship Department at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. He teaches courses on Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Turnaround Management. He has a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle and an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He is also a visiting lecturer at GIBS.



What To Do When Partnerships Go Bad… Very Bad

What do you when the honeymoon is over and you discover that you’ve gone into business with a snake?

Alan Knott-Craig




Q: My business partner is trying to screw me out of my business. I approached him a month ago to say I wanted to chase a different path, and sell my minority stake. It’s worth R1 million, but the shareholder agreement says that if I resign he has a call option to buy the shares for nil. His response to my request to exit was that he would exercise his option and pay me nil. What should I do? Should I stay? Should I walk away from the shares with no money? Should I fight for what he owes me? I’m not happy in the company, but I can’t bring myself to write-off the value of my shareholding. — Anonymous

Know who you’re partnering with

I have bad news for you. You’ve lost your money. Kaput. Gone. Minority shareholdings in unlisted companies are worthless, unless you’re in bed with honourable people.

If your majority shareholder is a crook, you’re screwed. You can’t sell to someone else, and a crook won’t do a fair deal to buy you out. If you stay, you’re delaying the inevitable.

You will be screwed. Rather leave now than later. Rather be happy than hang onto the promise of a pot of gold that never materialises.

Focus on creating new wealth

You’re an entrepreneur, so you have the instinct to fight. To never give up. To persevere. This is one of those times where your instinct is wrong. If you fight, you’ll end up in the mud with a pig. Pigs love the mud. He’ll enjoy it, you won’t. Worst of all, you’ll invest energy in trying to regain what you had rather than creating new wealth.

It’s a bit like trying to win back the girlfriend who cheated on you, rather than going out and finding a new girl. Rather find a new girl.

Don’t seek revenge or short term satisfaction

Once you’ve accepted that staying is not an option, and nor is fighting, the next reaction is revenge. “Damn it, I’m going to punch him in the head!” Short-term satisfaction. Long-term, it makes you look bad. And maybe you go to jail.

The best outcome you can hope for is that your story gets traction in your industry/circle of friends/town before his story. Believe me, he has already told everyone he knows that you’re unethical and screwed him. That’s what crooks do.

Related: 7 Ways To Quickly Spot The Wrong Partner (And 3 Tips To Get It Right)

Good luck fighting the war of whispers. Rather don’t. It’s bad energy. Who cares what people think. The people who care don’t matter, the people who matter don’t care.

Let your reputation define your achievements

In the end your reputation will be defined by your life’s achievements, not by the words of a crook. If you are a nothing, no one will care about his words. If you make it big, no one will care about his words.

If you want revenge, be successful. Success is the ultimate revenge. The rule for partners is this: Make it easy for them to screw you early. That way you don’t waste a whole lot of time with the wrong partners.

Whatever happens, remember this: Life is an adventure. It’s your choice how you describe your story. Is it a sad drama (‘Oh woe is me’), or is it a funny story with some speed-bumps and a happy ending? Frame your story as the latter. You hit a speed-bump, not fun. But not the end. The truth is that business is rough and tumble. So toughen up.

Don’t lose faith in your abilities

This is where it’s useful to have a loving spouse. With him or her at your back you can withstand anything. Whatever happens, don’t lose your self-belief. You have the magic.

You’ve had a bad experience in business. So what? You trusted someone. That’s not such a bad thing. You just got a bit unlucky that he was a crook. Next time lucky. But there is no next time if you lose your self-belief.

Winston Churchill lost all his savings to financial con-men in 1929. He said he was faced with two choices: Fight to get back what he lost, or make more money. He decided to make more money. Keep moving forward. Don’t look backwards.

PS: The best way to deal with a crook is to play dead. Cut him loose. Don’t engage at all. Just play dead.

Related: 5 Things to Do Before Saying ‘I Do’ to a Business Partner

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Related: Business Partners Limited Explain What It Takes To Have The X (Fundable) Factor

A business plan is also essential for every entrepreneur, as it forms the roadmap of how your business will achieve its goals and should include its operational, financial and marketing strategies. Our team of experts will always be available to give you all the assistance you need with your business plan.

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Related: 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to a Business Partner

Lastly, when you need help moving your fully-formed business plan in the right direction, you can visit any of our Enterprise Development Centres across South Africa to build and grow it from inception until maturity through unlocking access to financing, markets and business development support services.

For more information or to open an Absa Business Banking Account online, visit our website.

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7 Ways To Quickly Spot The Wrong Partner (And 3 Tips To Get It Right)

Finding the right partners is the path to happiness, good memories and success. On the other hand, finding the wrong partners is the path to conflict, angst and failure.

Alan Knott-Craig




Business without partners is hard. And it’s no fun. No one to share memories with. No one to celebrate with. No one to commiserate with.

No one to hand over the reins to when you have a personal crisis. So how do you find the right partner?

Related: Getting Partnerships Right: Lucid Holdings

First, make sure you avoid the wrong partner:

1. Birds of a feather flock together

The best crooks are natural salesmen. They talk a good game. Penetrating the façade is impossible, so rather look at who she hangs out with. Are they your kind of people? If not, take a pass. Birds of a feather flock together, always.

2. Live a simple life

A flashy lifestyle attracts bugs. Money attracts leeches. Living the high life attracts the wrong kinds of people. Don’t stick out for having a fancy car. Keep your life simple and you’ll find that bad people will ignore you.

3. Ask your spouse

No one knows you like your spouse. Sometimes she can’t verbalise why someone is a bad match for you, but her gut is saying, “Stay clear.” Listen to her gut.

4. Make yourself vulnerable

If you want to know whether she is going to screw you, make yourself vulnerable. Build in an ‘engagement’ period during which you can break-off the relationship easily, and then make it easy for her to screw you.

5. Watch how she treats other people

Watch how she interacts with people when she doesn’t think you’re watching. If she treats the cleaner differently to how she treats you, stay clear.

6. Play golf

Competitive sport brings out the best and worst in people.

  • Does he lose his temper if the ball bounces badly? He can’t handle adversity.
  • Does he move his ball in the rough? He’s a cheat.
  • Does he throw in the towel before the hole is finished? He lacks perseverance.
  • Does he not care about losing? He doesn’t care about winning.

7. Turn up the temperature

Don’t be afraid to crank up the pressure. The only fool-proof method of finding out who people really are is to turn up the heat to the point where they crack.

Related: Getting the Most from Marketing Partnerships


The right stuff

Okay, so you can filter out the wrong people. Now to find the right people.

Tinder may work for casual sex, but doesn’t work for long-term business partners. In general, the best way to find the right people is to make it easy for them to find you.

How do they find you?

1. Know thyself

If you don’t know who you are, you can’t be who you are. If you can’t be who you are, you can’t be authentic. If you’re not authentic, the right people won’t be attracted to you.

Find mentors, meditate, travel, read books, take risks, reflect on your experiences, do everything you can to maximise your self-awareness.

And then be yourself.

2. Tell everyone

She won’t knock on your door unless she knows you’re looking. Tell your family and friends that you’re looking for a partner. They will naturally filter people based on your personality.

3. Hold up a flag

She can’t knock on your door if she can’t find your door. Make it easy for people to learn about you and your mission, and to contact you. The Internet is the simplest tool for raising a flag. Start a blog, start opening up, start putting yourself out there.

You might think you have nothing of interest to say, but maybe someone else has been waiting their whole life to read what you have to say. You’ll never know unless you try.

Related: The Power of Partnerships

Formalising the partnership

Let’s assume you’ve found the business partner of your dreams. Now you need to put your partnership in writing, usually in the form of a shareholder agreement.

A shareholder agreement is not for marriage, it’s for divorce. You’ll never look at that document again until the day you have to break-up, especially if it’s an acrimonious break-up.

Pay attention to the provisions for exit and dispute resolution, the rest is gumph. Partnership is like the mafia. Hard getting into, much harder getting out.

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