I have run my software consultancy company, Synapse Studios for 18 years in December 2021. But I could not run it successfully this time by myself. I’ve had those same 50/50 partners since founding the business in 2003, when my friend Bob Egan came up to me and asked if I wanted to join him in starting a company that built web apps. I said of course, and here we are, almost 18 years later.
Those 18 years have not been easy, but working with a trusted partner through the complex and tedious process of building a business has made it possible. There was someone else in the trenches with me who was bought on an equal footing, and most of the time, both of our brains together were better than one.
I have realized that a business partnership can be a marriage as well. It is not always easy, and although our partnership is still going strong after all this time, it has not been without challenges and risks. This is especially true for partners who come together when they are not on the same page in terms of values or vision. But when you align and you learn to let go of your disagreements and discord, your relationship is bound to result in greater results than the sum of its parts.
What makes a successful business partnership?
When people hear that Bob and I have been in a successful business partnership for so long, they often ask us how we work it out: How are we still being productive, and how do we provoke each other to the breaking point? What’s our secret to not bothering? I’ve had a long time to think about the answers to those questions, and I’ve turned it into a few important pieces of advice for anyone participating in anything as a business:
1. Make sure your values align well enough—but don’t be afraid to disagree a little.
If you were dating someone and you realized that you have a completely different value system, that would at least be a yellow flag. The same applies in business partnerships. It is important that you broadly agree on certain principles and philosophies towards leadership, how you expect to treat your employees and customers, and what you are trying to accomplish together.
In our case, we have maybe 80% or 90% overlap, and that 10% to 20% delta is where the growth comes from. Too little overlap and you’ll almost never see them face to face, but too much overlap will reduce the value a partner brings to the table.
2. Similarly, make sure you are aiming for the same goals.
It’s really important to align around similar goals, and one of the biggest reasons I’ve seen partnerships fail or one partner’s goals is moving away from the other partner over the years.
For example, if one person is working hard to grow the company and another wants to stay, those broad goals will drive the decisions made by each partner, and soon you’ll be working cross-objectives. It is worth noting that it is completely natural for people to change their goals. Discussing these goals and intentions openly and regularly is the key to ensuring a healthy and successful business partnership.
“Individually we are a drop; But together we are one ocean.” — Ryunosuke Sato
3. Clearly delineate responsibilities.
It absolutely took an “I thought” You Run Payroll” to make us realize that most responsibilities should be the work of just one person. Play with your strengths and identify the tasks, tasks and initiatives that each of you will have. That the other partner will not have some input, but the final say should be with the person who has that task.
4. Be prepared to change your mind.
Being an entrepreneur is extremely difficult. This attracts Type-A personalities who think they have the right answer most of the time. Our superpower is our ability to convince each other of anything, despite both Bob and I being highly opinionated.
The result is our mutual desire to listen to the other person and change our minds. We go into a discussion or debate with a situation, but we really want to learn from the other person. In the end, I would prefer to choose what is right for the business rather than winning arguments and choosing the wrong thing.
5. Define your exit terms early.
My partnership is quite unusual in its long run and in our continued shared alignment. But it’s important to have a clear mutual understanding of what happens if one partner wants to leave the business or stops participating in the day-to-day.
It is important to have a strong operating agreement that outlines reasonable, agreed-upon steps and clear criteria for evaluating the business and purchasing a partner. And if things change it’s best to make this agreement early in the relationship.
A successful business partnership can also bring many other intangible benefits to the table: a larger network, diversity of perspective, a different way of thinking or solving problems. And, perhaps most important, have someone keep you from feeling alone in the journey. Those benefits don’t come without a thoughtful effort put into the relationship, but after 18 years, I can say with confidence that the effort pays off in the long run.