Being an early founder means having to set vision, inspire, delegate, sell constantly, build trust, and play many, many, many roles in between. One role that is latent but extremely important is that of choosing partners. It is an important role that can make or break companies.
The obvious first partnership is between co-founders, the second with customers and strategic partners, and the third with investors. What you look for in each of these is different in many ways but there are some commonalities that are significant.
The main things to be sure that these partnerships have are:
- A solid foundation:No lasting partnership can’t be built based on deception or untruths. Gauge early talks for transparency and honesty. Without these, there is no need to go forward.
- Common or complimentary purpose: The best partnerships are synergistic. Take for example strategic partners: co-branding a product or cross-promotion works best when each party equally contributes and benefits. Contribution can be time, money, effort, customers, or product. Another example would be co-founders: the vision and drive must be shared or the partnership will likely not last.
- A commitment to ensure that each partner benefits: As partners, you must have each other’s best interest in mind. I’ve spoken to many founders that kept pushing themselves through hard times not just for themselves and their employees, but also for the investors that had backed them when no one else would. This commitment can go far but requires the other pieces to be in place. Partnership based on obligation is not enough.
- Trust: Trust is the ultimate key to a good partnership. Without trust, co-founders micromanage and exhibit subversive behavior. This then trickles down into the culture and companies implode. If an investor loses trust in a founder, they will also micromanage and most likely take action to replace the founder at the earliest opportunity. Similarly, an untrusting relationship for a founder toward their investor is toxic and jeopardizes the future success of the company. Trust is the most important thing.
Choose your partners wisely
Although it is true that there are desperate times where it’s tough to choose your partner and people have to take what they have vs. what they would choose, do consider that the alternative (a reluctant partnership) often brings you to a much slower and painful demise. Sometimes sticking it out and saying no will yield to better outcomes.
For example, picking an investor. There have been many who have said, I’m not in a position to make a choice and will take money wherever it comes from. I caution, there is such a thing as bad money (and dumb money is no better). If you focus on revenues in times where the options don’t seem great, you can often end in a better place and perhaps find a better partner down the line.
Similarly for a co-founder, if you have any reservations, this is an equally dangerous bad partnership to engage in. There is a good reason that this relationship is compared to being married, and trust me the divorce can often be the nasty kind. This is not a relationship to rush into or be cavalier about as it is a big commitment where you have to be making big decisions and spending a lot of time together. Be sure the foundations are strong and the goals aligned.
With customers, particularly early customers, you are going to be dedicating a lot of time to them and making key decisions about your product and business based on them. Be sure that you are focusing on the right customer and that the time you spend on them is moving your business in the right direction. Every good marketer knows that there are bad customers and that your product should not be for everyone, keep that in mind as you build your base. The same applies to strategic partners.
Overall, founders will continually be faced with the challenge of when to say yes or no to a possible partnership, and which to pursue or not. These decisions can change the course of the company, so keeping the four checks above are imperative. Certainly, we really don’t know whether our decisions were “right” or “wrong” until the outcomes are known, but often there are signs along the way if we read them. If you sense you made the wrong decision, try to correct it quickly, because just like a bad hire can harm your company deeply, a bad partnership can most definitely do the same.