Successful Business Partnerships Are Rare. Here’s How to Pull It Off

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I’ve run my software consultancy company, Synapse Studios, for 18 years come December 2021. But I couldn’t have run it successfully all this time by myself. I’ve had the same 50/50 partner since the business’s inception in 2003, when my friend Bob Eagan came to me and asked if I wanted to join him in starting a company building web apps. I said sure, and here we are almost 18 years later.

Those 18 years haven’t been easy, but working with a reliable partner through the complex and exhausting process of building a business made it possible. I had someone else in the trenches with me who was bought in at the same level, and most of the time, our two minds together were better than one.

I’ve realized that a business partnership might as well be a marriage. It’s not always easy, and though our partnership is still going strong after all this time, it hasn’t been without challenges and risks. This is especially true for partners who come together when they’re not on the same page in terms of values or vision. But when you’re aligned and you learn to overcome your disagreements and bickering, you have a relationship with results greater than the sum of its parts.

What Makes a Successful Business Partnership?

When people hear that Bob and I have been in a successful business partnership for this long, they often ask us how we make it work: How are we still productive, and what’s our secret to not flaming out or annoying each other to the breaking point? I’ve had a long time to think through the answers to those questions, and I’ve distilled it all into a few vital pieces of advice for anyone partnering in something as big as a business:

1. Ensure your values align enough—but don’t be afraid to disagree a little.

If you were dating someone and realized you had a completely different values system, it’d be, at the very least, a yellow flag. The same holds true in business partnerships. It’s important that you broadly agree on certain principles and philosophies toward leadership, how you expect to treat your employees and clients, and what you’re trying to accomplish together.

In our case, we probably have an 80% or 90% overlap, and that 10% to 20% delta is where growth comes from. Too little overlap and you won’t see eye-to-eye almost ever, but too much overlap will reduce the value a partner can bring to the table.

2. Similarly, make sure you’re aiming for the same goals.

Aligning around the same goals is really important, and one of the biggest reasons I’ve seen partnerships fail or fizzle is one partner’s goals shifting away from the other partner’s over the years.

For example, if one person is driving hard to grow the company and the other wants to stay put, those overarching goals will drive the decisions each partner makes, and soon you’ll be working at cross-purposes. It’s worth noting that it’s completely natural for people’s goals to change. Openly and regularly discussing these goals and intents is a key to ensuring a healthy and successful business partnership.

“Individually we are one drop; but together we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Sat

3. Clearly delineate responsibilities.

It took exactly one “I thought you ran payroll” for us to realize that most responsibilities need to be just one person’s job. Play to your strengths and identify the tasks, chores, and initiatives each of you will own. That doesn’t mean the other partner won’t have some input, but the final say should rest with whoever owns that task.

4. Be willing to have your mind changed.

Being an entrepreneur is exceedingly hard. It tends to attract type-A personalities who think that they have the right answer most of the time. Despite Bob and I both being extremely opinionated, our superpower is our ability to convince the other one of anything.

The corollary to that is our mutual willingness to hear the other person out and change our minds. We go into a discussion or debate with a position, but we’re genuinely looking to learn from the other person. In the end, I’d rather choose what’s right for the business than win an argument and pick the wrong thing.

5. Define your exit terms early.

My partnership is fairly unusual in its long run and in our continued shared alignment. But it’s important to have a clear mutual understanding of what happens if one partner wants to leave the business or stop participating in the day-to-day.

It’s crucial to have a strong operating agreement that outlines fair, agreed-upon steps and clear criteria for valuing the business and buying out a partner. And it’s best to create this agreement at the beginning of the relationship in case things do change.

A successful business partnership can bring many other intangible benefits to the table, too: a bigger network, a diversity of perspective, a different way of thinking or solving problems. And, perhaps most important, someone to keep you from feeling alone in the journey. Those benefits don’t come without putting a thoughtful effort into the relationship, but after 18 years, I can confidently say that the effort pays off in the long run.

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