Business Partnerships: 5 Questions You Should Ask Before Taking The Plunge


Managed well, partnerships can make for dynamic business ventures that stand the test of time. Even if you’ve known someone for years, forming a business together can test your relationship to the limit. It’s been reported that 70% of business partnerships fail – yet if you get the mix right, it’s still a risk worth taking because your combined experience and talent could be a winning formula. The question is: how do choose the right business partner, and how do you boost the chances of that partnership succeeding? Here are 5 questions you should ask before taking the plunge. 

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Key challenges

Dr Jolanta Burke is a teaching fellow at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, specialising in psychology and business. She says partnerships present a struggle between authenticity and shared vision.

“Authenticity refers to individuals being true to what they believe is right, and shared vision is about letting go of some of that authenticity and allowing the shared vision to take first place, which can make some people uncomfortable,” she explains. “If partners are not authentic, the danger is that one person’s vision becomes a shared vision, thus alienating the other partner’s ethos and ideas.”

Life and business coach Mary MacRory, who also runs a family building company in County Kildare, agrees that differences in outlook can be an issue.

“Partners often have different personalities, different life experiences, different risk profiles and different strengths and weaknesses,” she says.

Burke says a clear understanding of the commitments of the business is essential for both parties. “In order for teams to succeed, partners not only need a vision, they need to work hard to make it happen,” says Burke. “Sometimes partners forget about the effort required and believe that when their vision is not as easily achievable, there must be something wrong with it, or with their partner’s. This may not be the case.”

Ingredients for success

While differences in personality, skills and experience can cause problems, they can also be turned into advantages. “The most successful partnerships draw on the diversity of the partners and benefit from the complementary skill sets that result,” says MacRory.

Burke, meanwhile, emphasises that trust has an important role to play – adding that successful partnerships are also marked out by the way partners respond to mundane tasks, challenges and arguments.

“They flex their styles, rather than remaining rigid, dust themselves off, rather than dwelling on negativity,” she says.

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Making it work

When forming a partnership, MacRory recommends putting a lot of thought into drawing up a comprehensive legal partnership agreement.

“The Partnership Act 1890 details many aspects that should be worked out beforehand to avoid potential conflict at a later stage when wires can get crossed,” she says. “Be clear about how much capital each partner is contributing to the business, the profit-sharing ratio, and have an exit strategy.”

Once you’ve entered into a partnership, how do you ensure it thrives? Naomi-Sian Bailey and her partner run Fíor Consulting, an advisory business with a human-centred approach. They have found that trust and creativity help their partnership work.

“When issues arise, we like to get creative -–our different ways of working and approaches to problem-solving lead to collaborative solutions that we couldn’t have envisaged alone,” she says.

“I would encourage all business partners to truly listen to the other person because two heads, or more, are always better than one.”

“The most successful partnerships draw on the diversity of the partners and benefit from complementary skill sets”

Mary MacRory, Life and business coach

She and her partner also set aside time for jointly exploring ideas she has brought back from the Women in Business Network Ireland (WIBN).

“We spend an hour or two a week reviewing the outputs of WIBN and brainstorming how we can translate this into new business solutions,” she says. She recommends networking and business mentors as important ingredients for ongoing success.

Tackling problems

“When you’ve had a bad day, don’t be tempted to make a rash judgement about your partnership; instead, think of ways in which you can do it all differently so that you are more likely to succeed tomorrow,” says Burke.

She also recommends communicating with each other honestly and constructively and tackling all issues promptly. “If you’re not able to do it, speak with an executive coach who can facilitate these conversations for you,” she says.

Bailey agrees that the key is how you tackle issues. “On the days we may be less accepting of the other’s feedback, we take a walk around the block, have a cup of tea and remind ourselves of why we started our business in the first place,” she says.

It’s also important to give each other genuine praise when good things happen. “Some research suggests that how we react to good news is a better predictor of a relationship success than how we react to bad news,” says Burke.

Ultimately, the success of this business relationship rides not only on choosing the right partner but also on how you respond to challenges. If you keep communicating and maintain mutual respect and commitment, your partnership stands the best chance of being a profitable shared adventure.

As Bailey puts it: “There is a reason you decided to build a business together; that was the start of a journey, and no one ever said it would be simple. Be honest, be open, make time to listen, take criticism, be passionate and remember why you started this journey.”

Five questions to ask before entering into a business partnership, according to Dr Jolanta Burke

1. How has your potential partner dealt with challenges in the past?

“If they didn’t tackle an important issue in the past or allowed a relationship to disintegrate without trying hard to resolve it, there is a possibility that they might do the same in a partnership with you.”

2. What strengths does your potential partner have that you don’t?

“Try to pick a partner who is not like you, but someone who can do all the things you can’t or don’t want to.”

3. Does your potential partner energise you?

“Remember you will be spending a lot of time together in the future, so it’s better to get involved with someone you enjoy spending your time with today.”

4. How does your potential partner argue?

It sounds counter-intuitive, but Burke recommends trying to argue with them to see how they do it. “If they become personal, disrespectful or start stonewalling you, steer clear from them,” she says. “If they are constructive, able to release tension quickly by saying something humorous or are willing to find a solution that both parties are happy with, these are good signs.”

5. How does your potential partner communicate?

“Beware of potential partners who talk a lot about themselves, rather than ask questions, listen or focus on shared interests.”

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