When Susan Smith (not her real name) opened a restaurant in Southern California two years ago, she reduced her economic investment by starting the business with a friend. Smith, 50, thought it would be a match made in heaven, but within weeks her partner discovered he hated the restaurant business. Eighteen months later, he sold his half to someone else.
"I didn't like the new partner as soon as I met him, but we were splitting the shifts and would only work together a couple of hours a day, so I thought, `How bad could it be?' " recalls Smith. "Boy, was I naive.
"The new partner was obnoxious, difficult and unwilling to be trained," Smith says. "He refused to sign the lease and became verbally abusive, swearing at me when no one was around. Customers didn't like him, either, and sales were sinking like a stone. After he walked out and sued me, dozens of customers told me he had treated them poorly."
Partnerships can be disastrous, says Irwin Gray, who wrote The Perils of Partners: How to Protect Yourself Against Crooked, Conniving and Incompetent Partners (Smith-Johnson Publishing, $22.95, 800-929-7889) after disastrous partnership experiences of his own.
"I went into partnership with a man who turned out to be incompetent and a liar," says Gray, who now runs Smith-Johnson Publishing in Flushing, New York. "It was a giftware business, and he was supposed to handle sales--but I rarely saw him. When he did show up at the office, he'd brag about his successful sales calls. One day he went to meet an important potential client. I called the client's office to give my partner a message, but they said he'd never shown up. Later, I asked him how the meeting went, and he said it was the best ever. At that point, I dissolved the partnership."
Many people don't realize partnerships are a lot like marriages, says Michael Adler, a business lawyer in Pomona, California. "When you're in partnership with someone, you share the workload, the profits, the responsibilities and even the mistakes."
Despite the challenges of partnership, many successful businesses have grown from the meeting of two (or more) minds. Ann Coil, 56, has been involved in two successful partnerships, the first a threesome lasting 10 years. "The partnership worked because we all had our strengths but were flexible and could jump into each other's roles easily," says Coil of the Tustin, California, career consulting firm Coil & Associates. In 1993, Coil started another business with a partner, Ann Crowell. That company, People Works, produces employee-development materials for clients such as UPS and Nordstrom.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer in Orange, California.