From the August 1998 issue of Startups

One of the reasons people start businesses from home is so they can operate at their own pace. They don't want to be accountable to anyone but their customers or clients. So why do they form virtual partnerships--everything from every-now-and-then collaborations between two freelancers to virtual strategic partnerships of 20 people or more? Why do they want to link up with colleagues again?

The answer lies in the mundane and the meaningful. On a basic level, having a partner in a homebased business means someone will check your voice mail and return important calls for you when you're on vacation or out of town on business. A nearby partner can also cover for you when you unexpectedly have to run to school to pick up your sick child half-an-hour before you're due downtown at a client meeting.

Even more important, a virtual partner makes the whole working experience more pleasant, says Mary Beth Berkoff, a public relations consultant with Jaffe Associates Inc. who also owns her own firm, Creative Consortium Ltd., in partnership with Jamie Shor. Berkoff operates out of her home in Chicago; Jaffe Associates is headquartered in Washington, DC; and Shor is in Bethesda, Maryland. For Berkoff, the value of these relationships is that she has people she can talk to, bounce ideas off of and develop concepts with. And these collaborations relieve the isolation of working at home.

Make no mistake about it, however: Finding the right virtual partner is no easy task. Partners must have the same personal and business values. Because they don't see each other at work very often, if at all, they must have the highest level of trust in each other's ability, knowledge and desire to succeed. For homebased entrepreneurial partners, goals for growing the business must be similar, integrity and professionalism must be high, communication must be clear and frequent, and adherence to deadlines is a must.


Patricia Schiff Estess is author of Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage and Kids, Money & Values (both published by Betterway) and president of Working Families Inc., a Manhattan firm specializing in family memoirs.

Perfect Match

Being a loner is not a virtue in a virtual partnership. Dianne Morse Houghton, president of Jaffe Associates, a virtual partnership of 19 consulting and public relations specialists, says the specialists look for partners who want the flexibility that working from home provides but who also enjoy and value interaction with others as part of a team. Houghton herself was lured to join Jaffe from a traditional consulting firm because it was a perfect answer to her lifestyle needs when her husband, Paul, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, was assigned to a U.S. submarine whose home port is Hawaii. Houghton recognized that being part of a virtual partnership would give her the flexibility she wanted: She could work from Hawaii when Paul was there and go back to their permanent home in Washington, DC, when he was at sea.

For Kathy Garland and Maxine Guli, virtual partners of G II Design Group, a Glencoe, Illinois, interior design firm, another aspect of an in-sync partnership is similar priorities. Garland has two children; Guli has five. With all that responsibility, each must agree: Family comes first. "That's not to say we don't work hard," Garland says. "We do. But when something comes up in our families that requires our presence, it's important we feel free to go."

The home life of virtual partners plays an important part in the success of the partnership, according to Michael Dziak, president of InteleWorks Inc., a telecommuting consulting service he operates out of his home in Snellville, Georgia. "If there's a difficult teen in the home and the partner is going to be called away from business every so often to deal with problems, I want to be aware of that," says Dziak, whose partner, InteleWorks vice president Theresa Perry, lives nearby. "And I like to have a [congenial] relationship with my partner's spouse. That way, if I call and leave a message, I know my partner will get it."

Respect for personal preferences and personal lives is also essential. Mary Ann Galloway, president of NWB Managed Care Development LLC, a development and consulting firm for managed care companies, works out of her homebased office on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina; her two partners are on the West Coast. She and one of her California partners are early birds; the other is a night owl. Considering time zones and biorhythms, the window of time when they can get together is narrow. "It may be that we're all working at the same time only three or four hours a day," Galloway says. Respecting the difference, they try to schedule conference calls at an hour convenient to all--but are flexible enough to recognize that, on occasion, adjustments may have to be made. And they're appreciative of and responsive to each other's personal goals and responsibilities. Galloway says it never entered their minds to be anything less than supportive when one of the partners' mothers became ill and she had to take off several months to be with her until she died.

Communicating Every Which Way

The key to the success of a virtual partnership is excellent communication--formal or informal, written or oral, face-to-face or via technology.

It starts with a partnership agreement that, depending on whether this is a collaboration or a formal partnership, may include everything from stock ownership and confidentiality/noncompete clauses to compensation and how phone bills will be handled. Interestingly, it's rare that an agreement deals with the very issue--work/life balance--that prompted many entrepreneurs to choose home as the base of their operations.

Most virtual partners, even those in cities thousands of miles apart, agree that personal contact is a necessary overlay to the e-mail and phone conversations that most virtual partners have daily. Jaffe Associates partners meet every other week in Washington, DC. Those who can't meet participate virtually. "It's not as effective as being there," says Deborah Schwartz, a Jaffe publicist. "But even those connected by phone get involved in discussions."

And Jaffe takes getting together one step further. Twice a year, the partners have retreats at the company's headquarters in Washington, DC, where they discuss goals, philosophy and how to work more effectively in teams. On one of the retreats, each member of the firm took a Meyers-Briggs personality evaluation. "That helped us explore ways to improve our communication," Houghton says.

For smooth day-to-day operations, virtual partners use every available technology to stay connected: fax machines, cell phones, voice mail and, of course, e-mail. E-mail is especially important for Tracy Mathieu, a virtual partner of WowGlobal, a Washington, DC, digital Internet TV business that markets and sells products and services worldwide. It's a kind of "Baywatch Meets Harrods," she says. Mathieu's partners are two brothers, one in England and one in Spain. E-mail works especially well for them. "I'm a late-night person," Mathieu says. "So I can be out at a meeting during the day, and if there's an e-mail from one of my partners that requires a response, I can work on it in the evening. By the time he gets to his computer in the morning, my e-mail reply is waiting for him."

Even though it's not always necessary to keep your partners up to date on your whereabouts (after all, isn't the flexibility to come and go without "reporting in" one of the benefits homebased entrepreneurs are looking for?), many do. "If I'm out for a few hours in the afternoon doing something with the children, I'll e-mail my team so they know when they can expect me back," says Schwartz.

Jamie Shor, Mary Beth Berkoff's partner, thinks the new affiliation is perfect for her business and lifestyle. "Mary Beth and I both want the same things," Shor says. "Hokey as it sounds, we want control over our lives and the opportunity to work together on projects we both care deeply about." Compelling reasons for a virtual partnership.

Splitsville

Theirs was an exciting public relations partnership. Laura Beth DeHority and Roberta Silverstein, both of San Jose, California, had talents that complemented each other and working habits that dovetailed. Silverstein, "who must have been a bat in a former life," quips DeHority, would work into the wee hours of the night and leave dozens of e-mails for DeHority, which she read when she logged on the next morning. "We formed a virtual agency with talent that would rival the finest public relations firm," DeHority says.

Then DeHority's life changed dramatically. "My husband and I adopted a son," she says. "I wanted to enjoy more time with him. I didn't want a nursery school to raise him. Roberta and I talked about it, and it didn't seem like a problem at first. Then, as we contemplated the future of our business, I realized I didn't want to work 50-hour weeks. I wanted to limit the number of clients we had, and Roberta, the primary earner in her household, wanted to increase their client base and grow the business. My reluctance to put in more than 25 hours a week meant she sometimes had to work 75. I was her anchor--though she never made me feel that way--and it was unfair to her."

Eventually, DeHority and Silverstein dissolved the partnership. "But we were able to walk away friends," says DeHority. "I know now how important it is to have similar personal goals if a virtual partnership is to be successful."

Contact Sources

Creative Consortium Ltd., (773) 929-0468, creatvpr@ix.netcom.com

InteleWorks Inc., (770) 979-9459, michaeldziak@mindspring.com

Jaffe Associates Inc., (202) 383-6633, http://www.get-serious.com

NWB Managed Care Development LLC, (803) 883-5055, http://www.nwborg.com

WowGlobal, (202) 342-0979, MsTMathieu@aol.com