How to Determine Whether a Partnership is Right for You

Business partnerships are a tricky thing. Some are born of necessity -- you and your design partner get laid off and decide to start an agency. Some share a vision -- you and a developer have a social media concept that you’re convinced will push Facebook off its pedestal. Others are a matter of luck and timing -- you’re compelled by the brilliance of the speaker at a networking event. Turns out you’re both "in transition" and you convince her that with your talent and her contacts, “Look out world, here we come!”

Let’s say you take it all the way through due diligence and: 

  1. You write a business plan.
  2. You have enough capital between you to last six months.
  3. You create your value proposition and website.
  4. You find affordable office space.

Now comes the real test. You pitch your business to a contact and land your first client! Break out the champagne!

Not so fast. Here’s what can happen:

Drama. I had a business partner with a long-running dysfunctional domestic relationship. They called each other throughout the day, bickering over past hurts, playing mind games and tossing F-bombs at each other. I said, “Could you please refrain from doing this in the office?” When it didn’t stop, I started to psychoanalyze the problem and share my insights with her. Bad idea.

Know the person you’re dealing with. I knew she had a good head for strategy, and I thought we were on the same page. When it came to financial success, we were. But if you’re not in sync with how you treat each other, this will find its way into the business and make things toxic.

Fear. There’s one thing all businesses fear, and that’s a lack of sales. If yours is a service business -- either an agency or a consulting practice -- the partners are going to be responsible for business development. Trust me on this. No outside hire is going to have the motivation to create a prospecting plan, send out mailings, plus do the follow-up calls and emails consistently. 

For some, prospecting is all about face-to-face networking. I had one partner who was a joiner. She hit all the B2B networking events, served on committees and built relationships. That’s great if you have the time and inclination. But building a list, using digital media and picking up the phone are all part of an integrated sales strategy. Make sure that at least one member of the partnership is fearless and impervious to rejection.

Expectations. My first partnership lasted 15 years; then we decided to add two additional partners. Why? I still ask myself that question. If two is good, then four is better? Not so. One of the partners did bring in a significant retail account. But it came with a $40 million dollar media budget. So we had to go outside for a lot of additional services and people. That put the B2B accounts on the back burner. At one point, the new partner said, “We’re going to be a big TV agency!” Didn’t happen. The account was the result of a personal relationship; not our cred in broadcast media. They were in Chapter 11, and 9/11 put them out of business.

I can’t stress this enough: Align your expectations; make sure that you’re working toward the same goals. This will impact: 

  1. The type of clients you serve.
  2. The people you hire.
  3. The culture you foster.
  4. The reputation you build.
  5. The success you enjoy.

Brooke Lighton is a principal at Connascent, Inc., a branding and sales consulting firm based in Chicago. Brooke is a native New Yorker who started her career as a science writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She segued into advertising, working first as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a Group CD at Foote Cone & Belding. In 1988, Brooke launched her own agency, Lighton Colman. Today, she is a principal and heads creative services for Connascent, a branding and sales consulting firm. You can see their work at

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