Finding the Right Partner

I had lunch last week with a woman who has an exciting idea for an online publication and companion web site. Her business idea grew out of a passion she has nurtured for years in various ways.

She was able to clearly articulate her vision for her fledgling company. She waxed eloquent about the niche it would fill, the audience it could attract, the community it would build, and even the cause it could champion.

Her words were infectious. Heck, by the end of lunch I was nearly ready to have her company logo tattooed on my butt (right next to the ClickZ logo, of course, and the little butterfly I acquired during one fuzzy evening in college).

At the same time that my friend has been out evangelizing for her company, however, she has been frantically hiring people to perform some key tasks she’s been handling since the company’s soft launch earlier this year. Most visibly, she’s kicking over every rock in the Boston area in her search for a CEO.

She’s right to be thinking in that direction. Because while she’s a great evangelist, she recognizes that she nevertheless lacks some critical skills her company will need to really move ahead. In her view, the right candidate will plug in those holes, leading her company down the path from passion to profitability.

Which got me thinking (yes… again). I started thinking about partnerships and what role a truly complementary partner can play. In my view, a good working partnership has a ton of professional chemistry: You gotta like each other. You gotta be on the same page philosophically. It helps if you speak the same language, too.

Yeah, yeah — but what else? Well, a few key things. Herewith my highly subjective prescription for the best pick for a business partner:

1. Complementary skill set. My friend has it right. She needs someone to help her translate her passion into a real business. She needs someone who possesses the skills she lacks.

She is searching for a CEO who can understand and adopt the vision, certainly. But she also is looking for someone who, more importantly, possesses strong business skills, a been-there-done-that background in growing fledgling companies, and connections that will open doors she’s been knocking on for a while.

You may be strong on the editorial side, but you need a publisher. You may be strong on the technical side, but you need a sales and marketing type. You may be strong in sales, but you need a financial type.

In other words, good partners fill each other’s gaps. My friend’s worst pick for a partner, in fact, would be someone exactly like her. (Speaking for myself, then, I should of course avoid anyone with a winning personality, good looks, and a sharp intellect.)

Ask yourself: What would a partner be bringing to the table?

2. Mutual respect. If you aren’t awed a skootch by your prospective partner’s talents, then you probably need to keep looking. At the same time, he should have a healthy respect for what you bring to the table as well.

It’s best if you mutually feel that you couldn’t possibly contribute the other’s particular brand of expertise or bring the same brand of creativity to a solution. You’ve gotta feel a little admiration for him, especially since a healthy respect will also make you work harder to earn that same respect in return. And that, of course, will benefit you both.

Ask yourself: Does your partner wow you?

3. Sense of humor. Listen, life is humorless enough without being saddled with a partner who’s a drag. That doesn’t mean you have to unearth someone who can twist balloon animals to impress a classroom of preschoolers. It means she at least has to have the ability to laugh, especially at herself.

The bottom line is this: Building a company is a stressful, scary thing. Without a sense of humor, and even with the benefit of a finely honed one, it can get a little intense. You’ve got to be able to lighten up, at least some of the time.

Of course, with a little luck and timing, you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. But if the wind doesn’t blow your way, it sure helps if you can also laugh at the one that got away.

Ask yourself: Can your partner laugh at herself?

One concluding observation: Should none of these qualities apply to your top pick for a partner, he should at least have pockets full of cash. The sad truth is… money may not make partners foolproof, but it sure can help you suffer them gladly.

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