It is a well-worn saying that a business partnership is like a marriage, except that you see more of your business partner. This may be an easy way for those inside a business partnership to reference the complexity that connects them.
Like marriages, partnerships can succeed in all sorts of ways. We see success with partners who are very similar in temperament and those who seem like they could not get through a meeting together, much less prosper for 30 years in business. Some have the recommended complementary skill sets and personalities and some appear to be cut from the very same bolt of cloth. But failed partnerships (and partnerships fail at a much higher rate than marriages) appear to have common characteristics: loss of trust, unmet expectations and poor communication.
Trust and commitment, the foundations of marriage are also central to a business partnership, though interpretations vary. In our partnership, this mean trusting that we are both fully committed to the success of our business and everything that goes into it. We trust that when our partner says she will do something it will get done, on time and thoroughly. The sense of “being in this together” is an important bond in both marriage and partnership. The times that have been difficult are when either of us perceives that this commitment is waning.
For us, a big part of the value in our partnership is trusting the other to fully bake our half-baked ideas, and to diplomatically discard those that are best left uncooked. The freedom to express potentially bad ideas with the comfort of knowing they won’t see the light of day without some serious vetting is something that many sole entrepreneurs say they miss.
Like a marriage, it is fruitless to casually observe a partnership with the aim of understanding what makes it tick. To observers we may appear very different, even incompatible. One of us is more reserved and is very comfortable with conversational pauses. The other is not. One is very concise; the other needs some reining in. For all of our outward differences though, our Myers-Briggs assessments revealed that we share a personality type that is common to only about 1% of the population (ok, it’s INFJ). This is a red flag for partners, but it has not hampered our success over the years and we suspect it has given us more patience with each other in times of stress.
Both as business partners and consultants to other partnerships we’re envious of the breadth and depth of research on marriage. There is remarkably little research on the inner workings of partnerships. Would further investigation and analysis result in fewer failures? Are there measurable steps partners can take to ensure the success and longevity of their endeavor beyond the standard operating agreement checklist? What do the strongest partnerships have in common that may be replicable? Stay tuned for research that seeks to answer these questions.