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The Ultimate Partnership Guide for Freelancers

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There are some compelling reasons to find a partner: a complimentary skill-set, and an extra pair of eyes and hands, not to mention that it isn’t nearly as much fun to work alone.

On the other hand, there are some fairly compelling reasons NOT to find a partner: they get half of your business, you won’t always see eye to eye, and let’s face it, things can get messy.

So... what should you do? Is partnering a good idea?

I’ve been down both roads; I’ve started and run businesses on my own, and I’ve done it with partners. Of the businesses that did involve other people, some of those partnerships worked out, and some... well, not so much.

Let’s take a close look at the perils, pitfalls, and possibilities of partnering in this guide. We'll extract from my experience and shed light on when to partner and when not to.

Partners: The Good, and the Bad

When partnerships are good, they’re really good. You work well together: complimenting each other’s strengths, making up for each others’ weaknesses, keeping each other on task, and pushing each other to meet more aggressive targets.

You play well together, too: challenges aren’t as stressful, you share jokes and stories, and as productive as you may be, work still feels like a social event.

You play well together, too: challenges aren’t as stressful, you share jokes and stories, and as productive as you may be, work still feels like a social event.

I’ve had a couple of partnerships like that, and they’ve been wonderful. But when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

You seem to accentuate each other’s weaknesses, and nullify each other’s strengths. You can’t see eye to eye about anything, and you can’t help, but think, that you could get more done if you were working alone. Even worse, you find yourself hating your work – it’s stressful and unpleasant, and instead of making things easier, you feel like your partner is just another impediment to getting things done.

If you’re going to partner, you want to make sure it’s the good kind! A really great partnership has two things at the outset: the right partner, and the right expectations.

Finding the Right Partner

The first step to a successful and productive partnership is finding the right partner. Or rather, making sure that the partner you’re considering is the right one.

Because let’s face it – usually, when you’re thinking about partnering, you have someone specific in mind. Either you like them, or they’re bringing something useful to the table, but whatever the reason, you already know who you want. You just need to be sure that it won’t blow up in your face.

The following questions are simple and straightforward, but in the excitement of sealing a new partnership deal, they are far too often overlooked – to the great dismay of the partners further down the line!

  • Do you get along? This might seem like a no-brainer, but it is important, and no matter how much the partnership might make sense in other ways, it isn’t going to work if you can’t get along. So do you get along? Do you like each other? If you don’t know each other very well, spend some time together to make sure.
  • Are you both bringing something valuable to the table? This can be a lot of different things; it can be time, expertise, money, experience, connections, and so forth – but both sides have to bring something valuable to the table, and both sides have to acknowledge the value of what the other side is bringing; otherwise, it’s a recipe for disaster.
  • Do you work well together? This is not the same as getting along, and it can be difficult to assess, because you may not have worked together in the past. If you can’t actually work on a project together before making a decision, consider having both prospective partners do assessments like the DISC, Strengthsfinder, and the TKI. Then discuss the results, which will help you find a partner whose style fits yours.
  • Do you both have time for this partnership? In other words, will you both be able to meet your obligations once the partnership is underway? This is where the rubber meets the road – great intentions and lofty ambitions are all fine and dandy, but will you both be able to put in the time and energy required to get to where you want to be?

That’s it – four simple questions, but it is vitally important that you have a “yes” answer to all of them. Let’s assume that you do – the next step is to set the right expectations.

Setting the Right Expectations

If you’re lucky enough to find a good partner, you should make sure that the partnership stays good by being completely clear about expectations. What you’re going to do, how you’re going to work, how often you’re going to communicate, and how you’ll resolve disagreements. Here are some of the most important things that you should agree on:

  • How much time are you both going to put in? Are you both going to put in the same amount of hours? Does one of you have significantly more time to invest? How will that be compensated? What happens if someone doesn’t work as much as they’re supposed to?
  • How much money are you both going to put in? This applies to initial investment, and to ongoing investments and expenses too. Start-up costs are one thing, but ongoing spending is quite another, and you shouldn’t assume that just because your partner is putting in half of the start-up costs, they’re willing to keep footing half of the bill in perpetuity.
  • What is the approval process for expenses? Speaking of expenses, how do you decide what to spend on, and what not to? Do you both have to agree on every expense? That can get a little bit ridiculous if you want to try something that costs $5 – does that really require a meeting? Where should the cut-off be?
  • How will decisions be reached? What if you disagree? Speaking of which, how do you decide what you’re doing, and what you aren’t doing? Do you both need to sign off on everything, or do you have some leeway in terms of what you want to try?
  • What communication norms are acceptable to both of you? How often are you going to communicate? Are you going to have regular meetings, or will they be on an ad-hoc, as-needed basis? What about emails and phone calls? Do you expect responses within 24 hours? Does your partner feel the same way?
  • If a policy or practice isn’t working, how will it be changed? This includes the answers to all of the other questions on this list. It is entirely possible that you will make a decision, but that decision will turn out not to be an effective way for you both to work. If something isn’t working, how will it be brought up? How will it be addressed? How will it be changed? Will you have a regular review session to check in on how things are going?
  • How committed are you both to the project? If you don’t see the results that you want to see in three months, will you both keep going? What about six months? Or a year? Or two years? What happens if someone wants to back away from the project – how will that be resolved?

Take the time to sit down with your new partner and explore how you both feel about these questions. Reach answers that you’re both comfortable with, and put it in writing so that you have a record.

Note: I’m not a lawyer, and even if I was, I wouldn’t be your lawyer. You should probably have a partnership agreement in place, but that’s a whole different discussion, and you should have it with your lawyer.

When Good Partnerships Go Bad

There are lots of reasons why partnerships don’t work out. Most often, it’s because the partnership wasn’t all that good to begin with; you picked the wrong person, or didn’t set proper expectations. But even if you did everything right, things can still get hairy, because life happens, and things change. For example:

  • Less time to spend on the project. Maybe your partner got into a new relationship, or had a baby. Maybe they’re swamped in their day job, or other projects. For whatever reason, their commitments have changed in a way that no longer allows them to meet their obligations.
  • Less money to spend on the project. Often related to having less time, and usually a problem with projects that are not yet generating much money, a worsening financial situation can pull a partner away from a project.
  • Losing patience with the project. Did you expect to be making money in six months, but it’s already been more than a year? Maybe you see the light at the end of the tunnel, but your partner doesn’t, and is hesitant about spending time that could be spent on something that is more immediately lucrative.
  • No support for the project. Maybe your partner is still committed, but they no longer have the support of those around them (spouses, parents, siblings, and friends) to keep working on the project. Even if they’re completely committed, this can be a serious problem for you.

Whatever the reason, you may find that the balance of time, money and commitment between you and your partner has swung out of alignment. That’s a scary place to be in a partnership, because it’s very easy for things to go from bad to much, much worse.

Don’t Go From Bad to Worse

When things have gotten bad, it is critical not to let them get even worse, because you can easily find yourself in a death spiral that leads to lost business and damaged relationships. Here’s the damage-control procedure that you should use to pull your partnership out of a nosedive:

  • Isolate the problem. Take some time by yourself to think about what the problem really is. Forget about the missed appointments and the blown deadlines – what’s the root cause behind it all?
  • Figure out what matters to you. What is your best case outcome? Do you want to fix the partnership, or do you want to end it?
  • Figure out what matters to your partner. Same questions; do they still want to be involved? Do they see the problem, or is it just from your perspective?
  • Find the fit. If you’re on the same page, then great – it’s just a matter of calling a spade a spade, and making the change that you both want to see. But what if that isn’t the case? What’s the best-case scenario that would work for both of you?
  • Have the conversation. Don’t point fingers, and don’t cast blame. Talk about facts: “this is what’s been happening, and this is what I see as a possible solution” – ask them if they agree, and ask how you can work together to change the situation for the better.

I won’t pretend that this process is easy, because it’s not. If you can avoid it, then you should – and finding the right partner, and setting the right expectations, will go very far towards keeping you from ever having to do this.

But sometimes, you will. That’s just the nature of partnerships. Which brings us back to the original question...

The Verdict: You Should...

We’ve come full-circle in this freelance partnership guide– from choosing a partner, to setting expectations, to dealing with trouble as it arises. So we’re back to the original question: should you find a partner?

The answer, of course, is that it depends. If you know the person, trust them, they do good work and bring good value to the table, you both care about the project and are committed to the vision that you want to build together... in that case, go for it.

But if something is out of whack, then think twice before tying yourself to another person, because partnerships aren’t all that easy to dissolve, and linking up could be a decision that you live to regret.

Okay, over to you – what’s your experience with partnerships? Do you prefer them? Avoid them? Have you had good experiences in the past, or bad ones? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Pressmaster.

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