The secrets of what makes a good partnership in business

April 28, 2021

What does it take to make a good partnership in business

It’s a cliché but it’s nonetheless true: A good partnership in business is like a good marriage.

“You really want to find someone you enjoy being with, like and —  most of all – trust”, says Peter Mark Shaw, professor of business administration at Tidewater Community College in Virginia.

But after that, it’s all business. “Be clear on how the company will operate and how it will grow. Which responsibilities will each partner have”, says Professor Shaw. “And get it all in writing, including a nondisclosure agreement.

Before that, he advises, do a good deal of due diligence on a prospective partner. “What experience do they have? What type of professional expertise do they bring that benefits the business? You have to be open to listening to each other. The marketplace evolves, so a business has to evolve with it.”

What does that advice look like in real life and what makes a good partnership in business? Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay started their partnership, Zen of Slow Cooking, in 2012 with a food blog that, nearly a decade later, has evolved into a successful enterprise. Their products – spice blends that help home cooks use slow-cooking methods to put delicious and healthful meals on the table while maximizing family time – are sold nationally in the U.S. through retail outlets and online.

Tips for successful business partnership

Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay shared the rules by which their partnership runs smoothly and successfully. Some of their tips for a successful business partnership might help you do better with your partner.

Build your business partnership on trust and shared values

Most entrepreneurs start businesses in order to solve a problem or meet a need; in other words, they have a mission.  To maintain a good relationship with a business partner, you must make sure you share the mission and vision for their enterprise – and everyone within the enterprise must, too.

“We align on the love of travel, families, food, pups, and outdoors, but there’s more to it,” says Meg. “At Zen, our mission and vision center on family, a world where meals bring people together and where home cooks are empowered to create delicious, healthful meals using slow-cooking technology.

“We also have a social mission of creating an inclusive economy, which is why we pursued certification as a woman-owned business and joined companies like Ben & Jerry in becoming a Certified B Corporation, balancing profits with purpose.”

Don’t shy away from a 50/50 split

Conventional wisdom says someone has to be the “boss,” but Meg and Jane find that being 50/50 partners works for them because of the aforementioned trust and shared values. “They said, we operate within our own zones of excellence”, Jane says. “Meg holds most of the responsibility for top-of-funnel sales and I’m operations, but it’s truly a partnership, and we ask for help with our respective tasks and decisions.”

Don’t do it alone

Outside input prevents groupthink. “We have an informal ‘kitchen cabinet’ that advises us and a small team that helps behind the scenes,” says Meg. “Our marketing professional is from the outside, and we partner with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Venture Lab for interns.”

“We also hired a consultant to help us develop our strategic plan for the year. It meant really digging deep and being honest about our highest and best use.”

Stay connected with your business partner

Plan to meet daily (in person or virtually) with an agenda and expected outcomes to maintain a good relationship with your business partner. Even though Meg lives in Chicago and Jane is in the U.K., they use every technology available to make it feel like they’re sharing the same space, despite the fact that they are working remotely.

“We recently decided to ring-fence two hours each Monday morning to honor a ‘Meg and Jane only’  working session,” says Jane.” Previously, we were finding time to run the business but never the opportunity to catch up with one another on strategy and slow it down to make better decisions. The feeling of relief once we began this weekly practice was palpable. We realized that we had both been feeling overwhelmed.”

“We also email frequently throughout the day but are respectful of time zones and off-hours.”

Have a process for settling differences but maintain flexibility

The partners have agreed on areas where one of them has the final say. But the road to the agreement can be bumpy.

“During a package redesign in 2019 for Walmart, we felt like we were going around in circles,” says Jane. “After several rounds of edits and revisions with the designer, Meg offered to step away from the project, but I told her, ‘We’re in this together!’ With some very long days and new creative input, we made our deadline for an entire re-brand, including a logo.”

Lesson learned: There is usually a resolution, but it is not necessarily pain-free. Embracing the pain and channeling it in a positive direction is what makes a good partnership in business.

Be accountable to your partner

Meg and Jane take individual responsibility for their work and are accountable to each other for results. “If we have long-term projects, we’ll share a Google doc to manage the project to completion,” says Meg.  “But all other tasks are really ‘owned’ by one of us and we will send notes if we feel like the completion date needs to be moved back.”

Where to find your business partner?

How do you identify a potential partner? Professor Shaw says there are a variety of resources about what makes a good partnership in business.

Jane and Meg met at a small business workshop on social media while they both were living in Chicago. “I thought how interesting she was and kind she seemed to be someone I wanted to get to know more,” Jane recalls. “So when she invited me into her world of slow cooking and asked me to help with a recipe test, I snapped up the offer.”

Like Jane and Meg, you could connect at a workshop or other business training. “Professional business networking is another source,” says Professor Shaw. “You can also look to current or former coworkers, especially if they seem to inspire trust and share your values.” Or you can head to Enterprise League where you will find thousands of businesses you could partner with.

How about family? “That can be touchy,” he notes. “I avoid that personally.” If the partnership is dissolved (preferably through a pre-planned written agreement), family relationships may be negatively impacted.

Jane and Meg say that passion is the spice that inspires their partnership. “We both would love to give a lift to passionate business startups with a mission to do good in the world,” says Meg

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