Building a Business – Live
Join us each day this week at 1 p.m. to participate in one-hour live discussions with old hands in the world of business start-ups.
Wednesday: Choosing a Partner
On June 30, Washington Post reporter Sarah Schafer talked with psychologist Peter Wylie, who has been counseling business partners for 20 years, about the best way to look for a business partner and how to make a partnership work.
Psychologist Peter Wylie is to business partners what a marriage counselor is to couples. Wylie, who was trained as an industrial psychologist, began counseling business partners almost 20 years ago.
Wylie calls counseling entrepreneurial teams very taxing, emotional work, and likens a business partnership to a marriage, complete with all of the emotional bumps. To boot, he says, "entrepreneurs usually make pretty bad mates. They're not used to sharing."
Welcome to today's business chat. Our guest today is Peter Wylie, a Washington psychologist who has spent nearly 20 years counseling business partners.
Peter invites your questions on everything to do with business partnering. He has experience in helping people build strong, successful--and emotionally healthy--partnerships. He also can help you decide when it might be best to go it alone.
We now welcome your questions.
ROCKVILLE md: is it generally a good idea or a bad idea to enter into a partnership with someone that you have more than business relations with, like a girlfriend or wife? are there questions to consider before entering into a -business- part
Peter Wylie: There is an upside and a downside. The upside is that you know the other person pretty well. The downside is that going into partnership with them is definitely going to complicate the relationship. There are definitely going to be more stresses and strains on the two of you.
Vienna, VA: What is a good source for a partner? In other words, I am interested in locating someone who has interests like mine -hi-tech, web sites- and who would like to share in creating a site. Where are good places to find such people? Classifieds, clubs, etc?
Peter Wylie: I think it's a good idea to start looking at people you already know. But if you don't know someone, I think a good place to start is professional meetings. It's a chance to chat informally to get to know the other person and a sense of the chemistry between the two of you.
Sarah Schafer: Peter, do you suggest seeing a counselor before setting up a partnership? What kinds of issues do counselors like you tend to bring up that people might sometimes not be aware of before getting involved as partners?
Peter Wylie: I definitely think it's a good idea. I wish more engaged romantic couples would consider doing just that. The kinds of issues that a counselor would bring up would have to do with trouble spots that the two of you have already encountered or anticipate. For example, you're very detail-oriented and your prospective partner is very big picture oriented and things like that.
Washington, DC: Do you have any advice or comments on sibling partnerships?
Peter Wylie: This is a tough one. All siblings, even the ones that get along great have issues with each other. For example, I couldn't love my sister any more than I do and I think she feels the same about me. But we both know that as business partners we would struggle. That's not a reason not to do it but again, the relationship is going to get more complicated.
Sarah Schafer: Peter, how can I test out a potential partner before I sign anything. For example, should I work with him or her on a small project first--something that might show me how he or she performs under stress, for example?
Peter Wylie: I think that's an excellent idea. And I recommend that prospective partners do that all the time. It's a little bit like dating in a romantic relationship. You're not going to marry or decide to live with someone that you have not dated. The same principle holds here.
CP, NJ: What can be done to document a business arrangement?
Peter Wylie: Good question. That's really outside my area of competence. A good business attorney is somebody you should definitely talk to about that sort of thing.
Alexandria, VA: How do you know when it is time to admit defeat and say that these two or three people, who have started a business together, cannot agree on where the business should be going, or how the business should be managed day to day. In other words, is there a point at which it makes more sense to focus on dissolving the partnership gracefully rather than trying to fix it?
Peter Wylie: The most important thing to pay attention to is how all of you feel (on an emotional level) when you wake up each morning. If the feelings are largely negative and very heavy, it's time to do something about it. Before splitting up it may be a good idea to talk to a counselor that can help you decide whether or not to split up or stay together. That last thing you want to do is immediately go to your separate attorneys. Their tendency will be to aggravate the situation rather than improve it.
Sarah Schafer: What types of personal impact can a failed business partnership have? For example, have you seen people who have had troubles at home because their business partner was giving them trouble?
Peter Wylie: Their personal impact can be powerful. No question about it. I think it's in the very nature of close relationships to cause lots of pain when they are split or run into problems. Frankly, I'm not sure there's any absolute way to avoid that. I think it goes with being a human being.
What business questions should I being asking someone who wants to consider me as a partner in his established business?
Peter Wylie: Good question. The wonderful person who is helping me with the typing here just said "lots of questions". He's absolutely right. Better to err on the side of asking too much rather than too little.
Temple Hills, MD: Can you offer any specific qualities or characteristics for partners in a non-profit organization or consulting practice with a mission of environmental awareness?
Peter Wylie: Well, one that immediately comes to mind is a deep sense of caring about the particular mission involved. I think if you don't see that loud and clear, right up front, something is wrong. Perhaps another that stands out for me is the willingness to put more emphasis on the mission and less emphasis on making money.
Sarah Schafer: Are there certain types of businesses better suited for partnership arrangements?
Peter Wylie: Very good question. Frankly, I have not given that one a lot of thought. My gut tells me that any business is a candidate for partnering, but there are some that would put more stress on a partnership that others. For example, a joint writing project on a book where you've gotten a big advance is probably going to be more stressful than a situation where you are primarily in charge of operations and the other person is in charge of outside sales.
Peter, if we could go back to Todd's question, could you maybe list some examples of questions to ask a potential business partner? For example, should I ask him or her whether or not they are a morning person or a night person? I've heard even small things like that can be a problem in a business relationship.
Peter Wylie: Again, I think that any question that comes to mind is a candidate for asking. Particularly ones that you think might get at problem areas. Example of morning person vs. night person might be very important. For me, an extremely important question would be how much the other person needs to be in control. I have a problem with authority and I would listen very carefully to both the words and the tone in which they were conveyed. See what I mean?
Washington, DC: In trying to formulate a more democratic management structure with potential new partners, do you believe a firm can succeed with a team of five having equal votes, or does history prove that one person must be at the helm of the ship?
Peter Wylie: Excellent question. I've encountered that kind of problem many times. I do think it's important for all five (in this case) to feel involved in decisions. But I also think not all of us are natural leaders. I suspect that a natural leader will emerge and that the group needs to formally recognize that and give up some power so he or she can in fact be an effective leader.
Washington, DC: I have heard that business started by single women are most likely to fail? Has that been your experience?
Peter Wylie: That has not been my experience. I've been very impressed with the startup businesses that I've seen single women make. And I also think that when it comes to partnerships women are better suited than us guys to working things out when problems arise.
Arlington VA: Is there a point where there are too many partners involved in a company? Does human nature lend to an upper limit where it just gets too difficult.
Peter Wylie: I think the answer here is yes. Law firms and accounting firms are a good example. They are loaded down with partners but only a few actually run the show. My opinion is that this kind of setup causes more resentment and rancor than if only a very few people actually "owned" the organization.
Gaithersburg, MD: In the drive to move forward with a new internet business when everything is happening and needs to happen quickly, what are the best ways to go about checking individuals reputations-business records as they approach you to become involved?
Peter Wylie: While I understand the need to move quickly because of the nature of this business, moving too quickly can be a mistake. You need to know as much as you can about both the experience and the character of the folks you'll be hooking up with. If doing this carefully means missing an opportunity, I'd rather see you miss that opportunity than make a mistake that could haunt you for many years.
Peter Wylie: I think if you are as candid with him about your feelings and concerns as you have been right here, you've made an excellent start. Getting touchy subjects like these right out on the table is critically important in making any partnership work.
Fairfax, Va.: Don't a lot of these relationships boil down to "He who has the gold rules"? In my experience that is the case more than "He who has the idea rules"
Peter Wylie: Some partnerships can function that way but my experience is that resentment eventually builds up among the people who don't have the gold. And it boils over in an unpleasant and unhealthy way. If that kind of resentment is there at the start, it should get talked about at the start. And if the gold holder does not want to have that kind of conversation, I think that's a danger signal.
gaithersburg, MD: to follow up on a previous question- what are some specific steps one can take to learn about the reputation and record of a potential partner?
Peter Wylie: Certainly asking them direct questions is a place to start. Asking for references and interviewing those references in some depth is also a good idea. But I think talking to people who know them well but whom they have not recommended is an even better idea. It may take some digging on your part to find sources like that, but I strongly think it's worth the effort.
Sarah Schafer: Peter, I'm still thinking about the comment you made about women being better at working on partnerships than men? Why do you think this is true?
Peter Wylie: When it comes to relationships, I think women on balance are ahead of men. Women are what I call more relationship-oriented than men. Relationships are part and parcel of the conversations that women have with each other on a daily basis. I think they're willing to put more effort than men are (on balance) to making relationships work.
Sarah Schafer: What is the best way to communicate with my partner when I am angry? Is e-mail a good or bad way to discuss sensitive issues, for example?
Peter Wylie: Glad you asked. I think email is an absolutely terrible way for any of us to communicate with each other when we're angry. I wish I could show you the email arguments that partner-clients have sent me over the last several years. Seeing those point/counterpoint disputes would convince you that this is not a good way to work something out when two people are bent out of shape at each other.
Sarah Schafer: In general, do people with entrepreneurial personalities make good partners? Why or why not?
Peter Wylie: Another good question. What to say? Entrepreneurs are great. They have mountains of energy and come up with concepts that the world badly needs. But, I really don't think they make good partners. They want to be in charge. They want to run the show. You should know that going in.
Fairfax, Va: Do you usually recommend a "prenuptial" type agreement that provides some mechanism to break up if the partnership gets unbearable or unworkable?
Peter Wylie: Great question. Personally, the concept of a prenuptial in an actual marriage bothers me a great deal. But here we're talking business, period. I think if the two of you can word something that you both can live with and a business lawyer agrees, this kind of prenuptial is a very good idea.
Sarah Schafer: When business partners come to you for counseling, what are some of the most common problems you see?
Peter Wylie: The biggest problem is not what they say the problem is. The biggest problem is that neither of them is doing what is absolutely essential. And that's putting themselves in the other persons' shoes. That is definitely that hardest thing to do in any important relationship. My tendency, your tendency, everybody's tendency is to see the other person as full of you know what and ourselves as pure as the driven snow. It does take two to tango. We gotta see things from the other person's point of view.
Bethesda, MD: When choosing a partner, is it better to choose someone with the same strengths as you or someone whose strengths are your weaknesses?
Peter Wylie: Even though going with someone whose strengths complement your weaknesses and vice versa is going to make things tougher, I definitely think it will make for a stronger partnership and a stronger business. But, it's definitely going to make things tougher. Ask my wife Linda if you have any doubts.
Monrovia, MD: I know money can be a tense part of a partnership, do you see that many partnerships fail because of the way profits are divied up?
Peter Wylie: Yes I do. I see that kind of problem all the time. The big problem, however, is not so much the divying up. The big problem is that strong feelings and resentment over this issue don't get effectively talked about. We all have a tendency to avoid talking about touchy subjects with partners. And this is an extremely touchy one.
Fort Washington, MD: Could you provide your phone number or address for future references and-or need of a business psychologist?
Peter Wylie: My phone number is 202-332-7571.
Thank you for joining us today. Please join us tomorrow for columnist Leslie Walker's discussion on financing strategies for small businesses with guest David Gladstone, vice president of American Capital Strategies.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company