One of the most frequent questions I get from people is “how did you meet your partners?”, followed by “what is a good way for me to meet partners?” and “how do I avoid picking the partner from hell?”
In my What Startups Are Really Like essay I touched on this a bit:
How do you find good partners? When I gave my two presentations at James Madison University, I got this question from both groups. My partners and I were lucky. We all went to the same elementary school together. Growing up, we all knew each others’ brothers and sisters and cousins. We weren’t best friends and we didn’t all stay in touch through college, but when we came back together there was a level of comfort in knowing each person’s background.
Most people don’t find partners like this. The way that most successful partners come together is by working together. If you’re looking for a partner and you’re in college, look at your fellow classmates. Who have you worked well with? Who has complimentary skills to you? Entrepreneurship classes or clubs where you start a mini-business in college are also great places to find partners. The important thing is that you actually work together before committing. Lots of people – and I mean almost everyone – are bullshitters. You can weed out the bullshitters pretty quickly when you do real work together.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to work with your partners in some capacity prior to partnering with them. Even though we knew each other, my partners and I worked on a few web projects together in 2006 prior to coming together and incorporating in December of that year. You have to know how people work to know if you can work with them. Do they do what they say they’ll do in a timely manner? Are they actually good at what they do? Do you enjoy working with them? There are a bunch more questions like that, and they can only be answered by doing real work together.
In my opinion, college is the best place for finding partners. The college environment does a great job of putting you in groups with people you barely know, with the pressure to get something done in a very short amount of time, that is important to each and every one of you (if you care about your grades, that is). And you likely work with several groups per semester, every semester, so you have a lot to compare against.
This can happen in the working world, but the opposite can too. If you’ve worked with someone for years and you like them personally you might not be so good at objectively evaluating their talent. Then again, if you work great with someone for years and you plan on starting a business in a similar industry, work might be the perfect place to meet your partner.
I’ve also seen people come together after one partner hires the other partner. A great example is the web developer who sees potential in a clients project. The client enjoys working with the developer. They can successfully transition into partners because they already work well together.
Another way to protect yourself is to start your business part-time. There are many reasons why this is a good idea, but it also protects you from being “all in” with your new partner. If things fizzle out and don’t go to plan, you’ve still got your full-time job to lean back on while you lick your wounds and decide your next move.
In addition, sitting down with a good lawyer and drawing up a rock solid partnership agreement that protects all parties will take a lot of the stress off and prevent potential issues down the road.
Any way you slice it though, if you try before you buy, your chances of a failed business and a nasty divorce go way down.