My journey of “heart-breaks” in choosing business partners and associates

by Teboho Seretlo

In my line of work, as a sole business owner of my consulting business, I often rely on a professional network of associate consultants to get some of my work done. Example – if there is a specific project that I want to work on, be it responding to a published tender or putting together a proposal for a specific project, I often prefer to gather professionals in my networks to ensure we put our best foot forward and we offer a team with as diverse skills as possible. I also welcome other consultants approaching me to work with them on their own projects, especially if I can add value to their projects.

However, I have often found it tricky to choose projects that I would agree to working on, and/or to choose partners for my own projects. I would often feel despondent after a partnership did not rise to the occasion and be tempted to throw in the towel. This until I realized that collaboration and tapping into professional networks was key to my business growth and success. I needed to find the magic “formula”, if ever there is one. 

I then embarked on an exercise, listing all past projects and partnerships I have had, and started to see a pattern emerge. It would have been easier for me to throw in the towel and blame the lack-lustre performance of the projects on others; totally excluding my own contribution or lack thereof, to the situation. But, taking responsibility and accountability for my role in situations, no matter how hard or uncomfortable this may be at times, has become part of my journey to personal growth. The exercise surfaced some hard truths about my own lack of self-confidence. What do I mean by this? Sometimes I would be working on a particular project with an all-male team and naturally I would be expected to take minutes, making sure the team is fed, making travel arrangements for the team, preparing the presentations PLUS doing some technical work. During the period of this project, I was still wet behind the ears in the business world and wanted to learn as much as possible. The team also did not have enough liquidity to pay for a resource to run with the project admin. I allowed myself to be relegated to these tasks because I did not have enough self-confidence to put my foot down and ask for these tasks to be done on a rotational basis by each team member. I allowed myself to cower to societal norms of patriarchy of some sorts (a woman’s place is in the kitchen mentality, otherwise why was I the one always making tea and ensuring the team was fed during meetings?).

So, having completed the exercise, I asked myself what I would do differently going forward when choosing a partner/associate for my next project. What are the most important things to consider? This is what I came up with.

  • A shared or similar value-system is one of those things. What I mean by that is, somebody with similar values to mine, such as business ethics and credibility. Respect, authenticity, honesty, excellence also make the list. More importantly, trustworthiness is a big one for me. I need to put it out there that trying to cover our bases, there is some paperwork like Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), Non-disclosure Agreements (NDA) etc. that needs to be put in place to govern the relationship. My experience in some cases has been that, if there is no trust to start with, are the signatures even worth the papers on which they are written? Furthermore, I am very pedantic about timekeeping, so something like showing up for meetings on time, well prepared and organised, is something that I cannot compromise. It seems to send a message to potential clients that my business is not serious or professional enough, so if we are to work together, then let’s be punctual, let’s be more organised and let’s deliver quality work.

  • Diversity of skills and experience – Example, personally I am not good at knocking on doors to look for business. My business has mostly relied on word-of-mouth. Therefore, if I were to partner with somebody who is good at knocking on doors, who shares my values and is hungry to make a difference, then that’s the person I am happy to consider working with. Someone with skills and experience that compliment mine, who shares my vision.

  • Friends – (and boyfriends, if I may add) doing business with friends can sometimes be tricky because rules tend not to be followed especially regarding making things formal, in writing and legal. I remember being roped in by a friend and ex-colleague to work on a project to launch a business idea that she and her best friend had for years, but never really had the time to get it off the ground. Needless to say, from the onset, I felt like the third wheel in this equation, although at times I genuinely believed that was not their intention. There would be meetings that I would not be informed of, and the following day, when our scheduled meeting would take place, I would discover that so much ground had been covered and decisions made before my inputs were considered. Eventually, after promises of getting compensated for the work I had put in, which compensation was never forthcoming, up to today, I decided to terminate the arrangement because I valued the friendship more. Had I carried on, I doubt the friendship would have survived. So, being friends, does not necessarily translate to being good business associates/partners and I need to recognise that without any hard feelings.

Looking back at when I started my business, I was very distracted and would chase any business idea that was put to me by other people I knew or who knew people I knew. This is one of the biggest mistakes I made. In the process, I got involved with business associates that I did not properly vet, whose business ideas were not even aligned to my initial vision. I burnt my fingers many times, I call it school fees for my business. Valuable lessons were learnt in the process, and I am now more cautious, I am more selective, and I am less distracted, sticking to my vision.

Choose wisely, like you would do when choosing a life partner or investing in your dream home….

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