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Not Just Any Partner

You like marketing; he likes accounting. You enjoy designing new products; she's a sales guru. Finding a business partner with complementary skills can be the best thing you do for your business--and yourself.

It's a lot like meeting your one true love. Perhaps your eyes meet across a crowded room, you're set up by a friend or you turn to a matchmaking service. One thing is certain: Finding the right business partner is just as crucial as finding the right romantic partner.

Tony Levitan and Fred Campbell, original founders of Egreetings and owners of Lexy.com, heartily recommend finding a business partner--both have experience running businesses on their own and with partners.

"It's the ability to have someone with you to weather the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial venture," Levitan says.

Build a Better Partnership
Every business is as unique as its owner. Partnerships have to reflect dual personalities. Know how to set up a partnership so its chances for success increase. People who have done it suggest four steps:

1. Create a process of communication.
2. Align both parties' goals.
3. Figure out if the partners' skill sets really are complementary.
4. Envision the breakup.


Campbell agrees: "It's really difficult to keep [a business] going every day of the week on your own energetically, and there's no way you can see all your blind spots."

And just like in a personal relationship, when looking for a match, you should not only be on the same wavelength about big-picture values like money, work/life balance and overall goals, but also have complementary skills so that on a day-to-day basis, you both do what you enjoy and what you're best at.

John Suit's forte is technology. He founded Fortisphere in 2005 in Chantilly, Va., to offer solutions for managing data centers, but he soon realized that while he's a great CTO, he's not a CEO. He turned to his investors' networks to find his CEO, Mike Harper.

"Mike is the business leader with strong marketing and sales experience," Suit says. "I complement that with a technology vision for the company."

Management consultant Cy Wakeman says that finding a business partner should be treated as a "serious courting process. Tap your network and use professional head-hunters to help source candidates."

But, don't just stop at the first good catch--there are a lot of fish in the sea.

"Resist the urge to court or consider a single candidate," Wakeman says. Too many entrepreneurs make partnership decisions without thoroughly investigating the many great options that exist."

Suit, 36, also suggests looking within when looking for a partner.

"It's important to inventory your own skills and experiences in an honest way that allows you to clearly identify the profile of the person who will maximize your success."

Fred Campbell and Tony Levitan had the luck to join forces in a test company. The pair met at Stanford Business School in 1991 and started a small consulting firm.

"We do have classically complementary skills," says Campbell, 53. "[Levitan] has an extensive background in marketing, and mine is more business development."

More important, during their first summer venture, they found their aspirations to build their business also meshed.

"[We have] shared values, the shared background we had at Stanford," Levitan says. "It's those similarities that really allow our differences to emerge in the most positive, most substantial ways."

This partnership led to the creation of Egreetings, which went public in 1999 and was acquired by American Greetings in 2001. Campbell and Levitan joined forces again in 2005 to create San Francisco-based Lexy.com, an audio on-demand service that notifies you via e-mail or mobile device when the latest news feeds are available.

While each partner focuses on his core strengths, the pair also bounce ideas off of each other and consult each other on decisions. They even help their employees develop a contact or advisory board to work with in the same manner.

"Clearly, what our partnership relies on is the other being a sounding board and a resource for understanding so that the lead is making the most informed decision possible," says Levitan, 48.

Sisters Gina Catan-Eckstein, 42, and Ivette Catan-Helfend, 41, didn't have to look far to find a partner with complementary skills--Ivette is the design guru of their Woodland Hills, Calif.-based jewelry line, Linx & More, while Gina focuses on the business side--but being able to appreciate each other's differences and communicate clearly has also helped them find success.

"We've learned to overlap," Ivette says. "When she does design, she's not in a room with a closed door. I'm in with her and we're working together. Same thing for if we have a large account coming in--we discuss the pros and cons [together.]"

Wakeman says this type of communication is key when working with a business partner.

"Remember that ambiguity is the root cause of all difficulties, not personality differences. Work on a regular basis to clearly articulate goals--of the company, for the client, of the meeting or even for the week. Communicate openly about the roles each will play in the pursuit of those goals."

Creating this process of communication is one of three steps Levitan and Campbell suggest when setting up a partnership. Another is aligning those aforementioned goals: "What are your expectations for what you're trying to build? Are you aligned and sharing that? For example, is one partner looking at building a lifestyle business and the other one's looking to cash out in three years?" Levitan says.

Then, you must decide if your skills really are complementary. "Does one plus one equal three or more? Do you guys really support each other in ways that extend your capacity as an individual? If you're duplicative, then that's hard to support."

Wakeman suggests one final step in finding a partner: envisioning the breakup.

"Plan not only for success in the relationship, but also for the more probable time that you will want to end the relationship, either through the sale of the business, or separation on either mutual and pleasant circumstances or difficult times," Wakeman says. "A 'prenuptial agreement' of sorts is vital to ensure that you do not risk the business you have built to date and are hoping to grow with the partner."

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