Finding the right business partner is probably the most important business decision you can make. Do it wrong and life is miserable. Do it right and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In my first technology startup, I found a great partner while getting my MBA. He handled the technology, and I handled the business (fundraising, hiring, board and investor management, etc.). It worked out well — so well that we ended up getting married and now have two kids (human ventures)! We’re 7 years into marriage, so we’ll see how that turns out.
I’ve been going at it mostly alone in my current business, Babble Soft, with sideline help from my husband. And, although I’d made progress, it was tough and tiring. I didn’t have someone I could bounce around ideas with. I needed a partner. I found my first business partner in business school, so how would I find a partner working from my home office? How could I find someone who shared the same vision I did: to help new parents navigate the world of parenting in a digital age? I ended up finding her — where else? — online.
Once upon a time, I met Connie Reece, Austin’s social-media maven. She set me up with my first blog and began introducing me to people, including Wendy Piersall, who runs Sparkplugging. Wendy and I got along famously, and she invited me to join a Blog Mastermind group of extremely talented folks like Char Polanosky, Jill Koenig, Edward Mills, Easton Ellsworth, Dawud Miracle, and David Bullock. After one of our calls, Edward sent out links to articles he wrote on Sparkplugging about the experiences of a company called Pick Nick’s Brain, a baby sleep consulting site run by a woman named Nicole Johnson.
After reading his posts, I reached out to Nicole, and we started a dialogue. PickNick’s Brain was a perfect complement to our baby sleep offerings; she has two little boys; and, more importantly, she had the drive and passion to make a difference in the world of parenting. I’ve never hired an employee sight unseen, let alone a full-fledged partner. But a Skype video call (so we could make eye contact), several voice calls, tweets and emails later, it was official. She took a leap of faith and joined me, and I can already feel the difference in productivity and energy.
Nicole is smarter than me in technology development — my head had hurt daily trying to manage it. She received her undergraduate Computer Science degree from UC Berkeley and her MBA from Ohio State. I now have someone I trust handling the technology, so I can do the things I’m much better at doing and like to do. I’m anticipating that this partnership will work out just as great as my first business partnership — without the marriage part!
Since picking a virtual partner sight unseen can be a daunting task, here are some things I’ve learned about evaluating a potential partner:
- They must be smarter than you are in their respective area of expertise. Heck, they can even be just plain smarter than you and increase your perceived braininess! Michael Dell hired smart people, and the people that Bill Gates brought on were pretty darn smart, too.
- They must communicate well. Observe their communication and conflict resolution style. The last thing you want is to beg someone to communicate with you when things don’t go as planned. If they don’t live in the same city, you can’t show up on their front door!
- Spend time getting to know them. Watch them and see how they behave online and with other people. If you watch someone online (e.g., read their blog, tweets, comments) for a couple of months, you can make a reasonable assessment of their personality and reputation.
- Check each others’ references. You don’t want something to surprise either one of you. References usually say great things, but knowing what questions to ask and what to listen for gives you 80 percent of the information you need.
- Take care of necessary paperwork. Getting a lawyer involved is a necessary evil. Agreements should be in place to protect both of you. If you assessed item No. 2 above correctly, then agreements can always be amicably adjusted to reflect new information.
Bringing on a virtual partner can be a daunting task. You are taking a risk by giving up part of your company to someone you have never met. But taking the chance to bring on the right partner can make all the difference in the world!
Aruni Gunasegaram is a serial entrepreneur and Founder/CEO of Babble Soft. She blogs at entrepreMusings. She has two kids and runs Operations for the Austin Technology Incubator during the day. You can follow her on Twitter @aruni.