It was three weeks ago when the e-mail hit my in-box.
I’ve been sitting on a business plan for a few years now. It’s a killer concept, driven by irreversible demographics, not trends, and there’s no rush, because the market is so big and so poorly served, there’s room for a lot of players and demand will only explode for decades to come.
But, I never moved forward, because as you guys already know, my dancecard’s been insanely full for quite some time. And, as much as I want to be attached and play a strong role in developing the mission and message, I don’t want to run it.
I needed a high-level operations guy, nobody fit the bill.
So, when, completely out of blue, a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from someone who seemed to be my dream operations exec for that venture and he came looking or me, it just seemed too good to be true.
I’d have loved to jump right into action, brought him into the project and breathed life back into into. But, having been through the start-up and growth cycle a number of times, I knew better. Because in the world of entrpereneurship, all to often…
Those who get married without dating end up in a Christie Brinkley style divorce.
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is jumping in the company bed with people that seem to be corporate soul mates too early, only to find themselves in small-biz divorce court a short time later.
No matter how well you get to know someone before committing to a project with them, you can’t completely eliminate the risk of things going bad. But, by taking your time and dating for a while, you can substantially minimize the chance of a really ugly breakup.
Here’s a short list of critical steps and conversations that should be explored for weeks, months or even years, before you make the call. How quickly you move through each conversation and stage will depend on the nature of the venture being contemplated:
Partner/Joint venture dating questions & steps:
- Talk about relative strengths, experiences, skills and weaknesses. Take the time to get a really solid feel for who’s bring what, in terms of operating capability, to the table. Move beyond words and explore actions.
- Define broader lifestyle visions and core values – You may be on the same page when it comes to the business, but to the extent possible, you also want to either be on the same page or be able to foster genuine respect for each person’s outlook on the role of the venture in their bigger lives and the value they expect to run both the business and their lives by.
- Share venture specific vision, long-term goals/desired exits – Have each person write a detailed concrete description of the long and intermediate term visions for the company and, if appropriate, the desired exit strategies. Do this on paper and DO NOT DISCUSS them until they’ve been committed to paper. Then print them out and swap papers. Doing it this way will keep each person’s vision their own, rather than pressuring one or both people to relent to the perception of the other person’s public, maybe more strongly argued position. From these positions, now the real discussion can begin.
- Check out resumes, references, online reputation and interests – As much you value your gut instinct, be smart and do your due diligence. You cannot imagine the surprises you’ll find.
- Explore desired roles, titles and responsibilities – Share not only the bigger vision, but the specific roles that you see each person taking on in the venture. Then see if they work well with the skills and abilities that person brings to the dance.
- Look at individual execution styles, systems vs cowboy orientation – One of the greatest sources of conflict between partners is not so much in what they want, but the “way” they go about getting it. We all have our own operating styles and approaches. Some work well together, others are like water and oil. So, talk about operating styles and see if they mesh.
- Reveal approaches to attracting and managing people – Just as operating styles can differ, so too can approaches to managing people. Share management philosophies, styles and how each of you have handled challenging situations. Make sure you both share at least a strong outlook on the role of people in the business.
- Understand risk tolerance levels and profiles – Some people are cowboys and others are anchors in a storm. Talk about risk tolerance levels and how comfortable each of you are taking and living chronically with certain types and sizes of risk.
- Explore nature of contribution: money, work, connections – Talk about exactly what each person is able to bring to the table. Then try to agree on the relative value of each type of contribution. This makes allocating ownership an easier process.
- Discuss readiness, timing and hard-line restrictions – Just because two people connect around a shared vision doesn’t mean both are ready to take action at the same time. Talk about readiness and timing and confirm that both people are at a point where they are capable of moving forward.
- Share what’s make or break and what’s open to discussion – Whether we admit it or not, we all have lines we draw in the sand. Sometimes they’re real, other times, they’re just posturing. When you’re dealing with someone you hope to share a venture with, try to keep posturing to a minimum, be forthright about what is non-negotiable and what is open to discussion. Excessive posturing can start off a relationship in a really bad place, so deal openly and honestly with those you hope to build a lasting partnership with.
One final major piece of advice, if possible, test the relationship first.
Even if everything above seems to gel, see if there is some kind of smaller project with a similar bent you could work jointly on, before committing to a fuller venture.
Talking about how you each work and what you value is one thing, but walking the walk is another. A lot of people like to think they are far more open, flexible, kind, tolerant, respectful, vision-oriented and skilled with people and tasks than they really are. So, if there is a way to let “actual,” rather than “professed” experience be your guide…
Take the opportunity to gather information from not only words, but experience.
Now, all the above questions are factors that I’ve found, over years of entrepreneurship, have been very helpful to me. But, as always, you guys are my worldwide sounding board.
Do you see any problems with this list, or even with the notion of dating before entrepreneurial mating?
Have you had any experiences, good or bad, that bring this point to light?
What else might we add to the list to make it as robust as possible?
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