How to make a business partnership work

Companies led by a duo rather than a single head often attribute their success to the power of their business partnership. meets some dynamic duos who have driven growth in their businesses and finds out how they really work together.

The £50 note introduced in 2009 features one of the most dynamic duos in business history. James Watt was the Scottish inventor who souped up the steam engine to do more than just pump water, making the Industrial Revolution possible. But he hated doing business, once admitting that he would ‘rather face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain’. His partner was Matthew Boulton, a man of consummate commercial acumen who famously boasted to Dr Johnson’s biographer Boswell, ‘I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – power.’

It’s not always a simple case of raw brainpower married to business instincts, but the partnership of equals has continued to be a powerful force behind some of the most successful companies of our age. Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google are perhaps the most obvious example, but in the growth company sphere, such pairings also abound.

Mhairi McEwan founded brand and marketing consultancy Brand Learning with Andy Bird ten years ago. She remarks of the company’s dual leadership structure, ‘It makes an interesting dynamic. Unconventional it may seem to some, but it makes an awful lot of sense.’

Together over the last ten years, McEwan and Bird have steered the company to growing success, with turnover up 30 per cent in 2011 to £13.5 million. McEwan adds, ‘Two people bring two sets of skills to the party, balance a business and can make it more rounded’, while Bird chimes in, ‘Together we are better than if we were on our own.’

Like the pairing of Boulton and Watt, the partnership works because each plays to their strengths, with McEwan looking after the commercial agenda and Bird in charge of delivering the company’s service to clients such as the Football Association and the NHS. McEwan explains, ‘We were more passionate about certain things and those are the areas we fell into in the business.’ In any partnership, the key is to ‘work out what you do better than the other person’, she suggests.

The benefits of complementary personalities

It’s not just complementary skills that make partnerships work, but complementary personalities. OneClick Ventures is another fast-growing UK business, set up by Priyesh Rawal and Shaina Shipton in 2009.

Shipton notes that when it comes to decision-making in the boardroom, Rawal is far more willing to take big risks while Shipton admits she is more cautious. ‘Because of this, we can make a very balanced decision,’ she notes.

In its first year of business OneClick turned over £1.2 million, £6.5 million in its second year and in its third year turnover was an impressive £20 million. Shipton declares, ‘It would have taken double the amount of time to get this business to where it is now if there was one of us.’

Of course, divergent personalities could spell disaster if core values are not held in common. McEwan notes, ‘A vital thing for us was the sense of shared values, and we made sure we had similar values and goals at the start.’

Adrian Kinnersley, group managing director for Twenty Recruitment, who co-founded the firm with Paul Marsden, warns, ‘It really is about finding the right balance. Both of your personalities should be quite similar but being too similar doesn’t help either. It’s like finding the yin and the yang and making a full circle.’ According to the pair, their yin and yang turned out to be youth and experience. ‘I’d been knocking around a bit longer than Adrian,’ explains Marsden. ‘For us it has been that combination of someone who has been around the block and someone with that youthful drive.’

The two had already worked together in a previous company that Marsden had set up and run and where Kinnersley worked his way up to be partner. Because of this shared history, the pair felt confident they could work together. Marsden says, ‘In a way, we had already test-run it by working together before.’

From pals to partners

OneClick’s Rawal also attests to the advantage of building a strong relationship before setting up a shared business. He and Shipton studied pharmacy together at Bath University and are a couple outside work. ‘We knew each other for many years before we set up the business and saw how the other worked so were pretty certain about how well we worked together,’ says Rawal.

However, there is no magic formula for a perfect business partnership. McEwan and Bird believe the fact they didn’t know each other well prior to running the company has helped, not hindered their joint leadership. ‘We first met when Mhairi was working as an independent consultant and we worked alongside each other for about a year but didn’t know each very well, we weren’t pals for years,’ explains Bird.

He continues, ‘Our relationship has been created in this context. Maybe adapting to a business relationship after knowing each other in a different context would have been difficult.’

Old schoolfriends Nick Pannaman and Simon Kay are co-managing directors of digital services specialist JCA, which they acquired together in 2004. Pannaman warns that however well you know the other person, ‘nobody ever really knows how they will work together in business’. That said, he feels the pair’s long-standing friendship has helped them run the company harmoniously. ‘We know each other so well that neither of us would suggest something we knew the other would disagree with and we know we can share everything.’

Clearly defined roles

Whatever the relationship prior to co-founding a business, all dual leaders agree on the importance of having clearly defined roles. McEwan remarks, ‘The pitfall for dual leaders could be if roles and responsibilities were not defined.’ It’s particularly important that staff are clear on who to approach with particular issues, she notes.

One dynamic duo who admit to learning the importance of clearly defined roles the hard way is Andrew Crawford and Daniel Taylor, who set up sales agency Corporate Jungle in February 2008. Together the pair have grown turnover from zero to £4.5 million in four years and have gone from just the two of them to employing around 100 staff. ‘At the beginning it sort of fell into place thanks to our individual personalities and skill sets but as the years have gone by, we have defined our roles more,’ says Taylor.

He notes that in the beginning when they were finding their feet, and learning who did what, it wasn’t always easy. ‘Because our roles are split now, our staff generally know which one of us to go to and are clear on who looks after what. But in the early days the staff had the opportunity to go to the other if they didn’t like the answer they got from one – almost pitting us against each other. That was a learning curve.’ Crawford chimes in, ‘It was a nightmare at times.’

At online business OneClick, Shipton takes control of operations while Rawel superintends the strategy. Shipton admits that their differing natural aptitudes have been the deciding factor in who does what, not a formal drawing of boundaries. ‘We didn’t really lay the roles down,’ she says. ‘For example, Priyesh is excellent at [web development] where as I would not have a clue so it fitted for him to take charge of that.’

Kay from JCA acknowledges their roles, too, fell into place at the beginning. ‘By just natural divide we took on the tasks to do with what we were more interested in and lines were drawn.’ He adds, ‘However, there is no point having a partnership if those lines cannot be blurred. Sometimes you cross over into the other’s territory to make the decisions and come to conclusions.’

Dealing with disagreements

Of course, there must be a worry that it may not work. McEwan admits that she and Bird had not discussed disagreements and decision-making in great detail in the beginning. ‘After a while, we sat down and hammered out a shareholders’ scenario, dictating what would be done in the event of a disagreement,’ she explains.

Corporate Jungle’s Crawford and Taylor have a looser formula to deal with disputes. ‘There will be arguments and disagreements, it is only natural,’ concedes Crawford. ‘But if one of us has a true gut instinct and says “look we really have to go with this” and feel in their heart of hearts that it’s the right thing to do – that is the meeting stopper. It is not a card we pull out all the time.’

In fact, the pair disclose that each of them has only used the card a couple of times; the rest of the time it’s down to good old-fashioned debate. ‘We are well practiced at talking decisions through. The basis of everything is honesty and we are honest about what is at the heart of the discussion,’ states Taylor.

Related: Five reasons why partnerships fail

Bird and McEwan feel that the qualities joint leaders must possess, or develop, in order to share authority can permeate an entire organisation – to greatly beneficial effect. In 2011, the firm topped the Sunday Times Best Small Companies To Work For ranking, and placed third in the category in 2010 and 2012.

Says Bird, ‘We often send surveys around about worker satisfaction and two words that repeatedly come up are supportive and collaborative. Collaboration is built into the DNA of the business because of our management structure.’

McEwan concludes, ‘The character and the culture of the company would not be the same if there were not two of us.’

See also: Partnership tax – an end to the favourable tax treatment of partnerships?

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie

Alan was assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc (previous owner of before moving on to a content producer role at Reed Business Information. He has over 17 years of experience in the...

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