Monday, November 30, 2009

Choosing a Business Partner

Over the course of about 3 weeks from the end of October to about half-way through November, we passed a nasty cold through our family.  During that time, I didn't shave at all, so when I was feeling better I thought I'd cut off most of the beard I grew and leave a goatee.  When one of my sons saw me the next morning, he said, "Whoa, Dad,  you and Tim both like games, and you both have goatees.  You guys are practically the same!"

I thought that was funny.  We also have noses and two eyes, but other than facial hair configuration (I've since shaved it all off), common human features, a desire to make fun games, and a common vision for our company, our similarities don't extend much past those things.

That's what I want to write about today.  The success of a start-up business depends heavily on one's choice of business partner(s).  Gabob is my second attempt at a serious business venture with partners.  The first never got off the ground because of my choice of partners, and this one is working quite well because I chose wisely.  However, it wasn't until after Tim and I started working together that I realized that I chose wisely and why.

There are two critical factors to consider, IMO.  First is determination.  How determined is your prospective partner to "make it happen"?  Is he/she as determined as you are?  Will he/she see the project through to the end?  If not, then it doesn't matter how smart or talented he/she is: that person is not a good choice.  That was part of the problem with my first business attempt.  We'd talk a lot and plan a lot, but when the meeting was adjourned, I was the only one who got working.  I was the only one who had anything to show at the next meeting.  After a couple meetings like that, I just didn't schedule the next one.  None of them did either....[1]

Without determination, no start-up will succeed.  The second factor, of which my son inadvertently reminded me, is to pick someone different than you.  The primary reason is this: there are a lot of things that need to be done in a start-up, and if you both like doing and are good at doing the same things, then deciding who will do the rest will be drudgery at best and a source of conflict at worst.

Because Tim and I are so different, we don't compete for tasks.  We do game design and make business decisions together, but when it's time to work (which is most of the time), I do my thing, and he does his.  I write code and keep the books, and he does most everything else.  I'm good at focusing on one thing, and he's good at juggling several things at once.  I'm good at planning projects and organizing data and assets, and he's good at managing our contractors and negotiating with portals.  We each see things the other doesn't.  I mean, my skillset is so specialized (I write code) that if I partnered with someone like me, we'd be doomed. [2]

The ironic thing is Tim and I met at a company where we both worked as programmers.  The difference is that I was doing what I was born to do, and Tim kinda just fell into it before he found what he was born to do.  He has now found it [3], and our business is benefiting from having two very different, complementary co-founders.

Notes

[1]  There were many other reasons the project was doomed to fail, but I didn't see the other reasons then.  I bailed on the project because I was the only one working on it.  The project was way too big for the team we had.  That's another thing we've done better with Gabob.  We also had a hard time agreeing on what product to make.  There were strong opinions on certain issues that were at odds with each other.

[2]  Seeing things differently and having different tastes has the potential to cause conflict.  If a person is too stubborn to listen to another viewpoint or change his/her own thinking, then that person will not reap the benefits of partnering with someone who is different and will likely cause the relationship to end.  I'm more interested in doing the right thing for our business than doing the thing that was my idea, and so is Tim.  In the past 2.5 years we've worked together, we've only had a couple discussions that caused one or both of us to take some deep breaths (at least that's all I know about...maybe he has to exercise more patience with me than I am aware of :) ).  But each time, one or both of us let go of one or more of our own ideas in order to accept one or more ideas from the other.

Usually our final decision is a combination of our ideas and is better than either of us came up with on our own.  I can think of multiple times when he has persuaded me and when I have persuaded him.  There have also been a couple of times when he accepted something I proposed without questioning it, and that made me a little nervous.  I count on him to see the holes in my thinking, and when he doesn't see any holes, I know it's not because there aren't any—it's because he doesn't see them either.  In those cases I can't help but wonder what kind of "surprise" will come up later.

[3]  Tim is a hustler.  By that, I mean that he is really good at getting other people excited about what we're doing.  Whether it's contractors, publishers, portals, or fans, he gets people on board.  While we wouldn't have a product if I didn't code it, we wouldn't make any money if he didn't sell it.  Both are necessary for a business to work, and I'm glad he can do and enjoy what I can't, because that frees me up to do what I enjoy.