Going The Distance

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.

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