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Left in the Lurch?

How one company moved past a partner's sudden departure

Aaron Keller and his business partner Brian Aducci were working hard to grow and establish Capsule, the marketing and design firm they founded in 1999 with a third partner. But when their partner left 18 months into startup, the pair had to scramble to keep their business intact. Luckily, they had a board of advisors to help them navigate these murky waters. "It happened really quickly--basically, over a weekend," remembers Keller. "And certain employees and clients were recruited away, so we went into high-action mode. We created a war room and got to work on saving every client and every employee we could."

Disaster-type triage is exactly what experts suggest setting up to deal with this situation. "When a partner leaves, you've got to first sit down and realize what the extent of the damage is," says Lea A. Strickland, founder, president and CEO of FOCUS Resources, a business consulting firm specializing in entrepreneurial issues and strategy in Cary, North Carolina. One of your first tasks is eliminating that person's access to bank accounts, your physical premises and company assets, including specialty equipment--an exiting partner with malicious intentions could damage these critical business elements.

You must also immediately determine and define this person's role in the business and see how you (or any remaining partners or employees) can fill that person's shoes. You may even consider hiring a consultant or independent vendor to take over some of the tasks temporarily, notes Strickland, who is also author of Out of the Cubicle and Into Business. Then focus on the legal ramifications of the exit--did you both sign an exit agreement? Did that partner have financial obligations to the business that have yet to be met? Look to trusted advisors like your attorney and accountant to help navigate these issues.

Hopefully it won't happen to you, but no matter how well you think you know a partner, prepare for the worst-case scenario. Says Strickland, "Protect yourself by understanding what the issues could be, and if something does happen, [have] the attitude that you can recover from it." Keller, 35, and Aducci, 38, certainly recovered--today, their Minneapolis company is thriving, with $1.8 million in sales last year.

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This article was originally published in the May 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Left in the Lurch?.

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