Over the 30-plus years I’ve been self-employed, I’ve teamed up with other professionals many times. We’ve collaborated on creating new programs and products, or worked as partners to serve clients as a team. A key piece of my experience has been that some partnerships or joint ventures work well and some don’t work at all.

Win-win partners

After a couple of misadventures in partnering, I decided that for any new potential collaborators, we would “date” before we “got married.” What I do now is ask any prospective partner that we identify together a way in which we can collaborate with minimum risk to try each other on. We agree that if either of us feels the fit isn’t right, we won’t proceed.

For example, to explore co-creating a group learning program with a colleague, I often suggest that we first co-design and present a one-time workshop of very short duration —- perhaps a one-hour webinar. That way, I can get a feel for how my potential partner works, and whether her material and style are a good complement to mine. In negotiating the business end of this “road-testing” program, I can also get to know how my partner is as a businessperson.

There is minimum risk in producing a brief, low-cost program like this, even if everything goes wrong. And, neither of you has any obligation to continue.

For a writing collaboration, I suggest that we write something short, like a blog post or tip sheet, before taking on a longer project like a journal article or a book.

It may seem like a lot of extra work to add to your plate a partnership road test which you hadn’t originally intended. But the way I look at it, this is a necessary step in the process. When I’ve engaged in partnerships that didn’t work out, they caused a great deal of wasted energy on both sides. I’d rather do a little extra work up front to avoid a lot of lost effort later on.

Requiring this road-testing step has helped me significantly, because now I only enter into partnerships with people I have already worked with and feel I can trust. This makes writing a contractual agreement between us so much easier. I still make sure all the elements of risk get addressed in our contract. But I don’t have to worry as much about sticky issues of interpretation, intent, enforcement, etc., if I’m working with someone where some mutual trust is already established.

During road-testing, you can evaluate your potential partner’s personal style, determine his or her business savvy, and learn more about what assets your partner brings to the table. This will help you a great deal in making what is often one of the hardest decisions — who gets paid what?

Partnerships and joint ventures don’t have to share revenue on a 50/50 basis. One of you may have more experience than the other, and be acting as a mentor to the other. Or, one of you may be putting up more seed money. Or perhaps, one of you has access to a larger network, and will probably bring in the majority of the clients. All these factors should be considered when deciding how to divide up the profits from your venture, and share any expenses you may incur.

Another of the messy issues in a creative partnership is who owns the resulting intellectual property. The way I typically handle ownership of jointly developed material is that we both own it. My partner can do something else with the material without me later on, and vice versa. That seems fair to me if we both contributed to its development.

You can also add a clause to your contract invoking a royalty payment to one partner if the other partner earns something on the material independently, but I haven’t found it necessary in the type of road-tested partnership I’m describing. I’ve found that the balance has been pretty even in terms of how often I use material without my partners vs. how often my partners use it without me.

I would, however, include a contract clause that says ownership reverts to one partner 100% if the other one dies or becomes incapacitated. That way you don’t end up with your partner’s spouse or child as your not-so-silent partner, against your wishes.

Whatever you decide about how to share profits, expenses, and ownership, make sure you come to an agreement before you get started creating material or serving clients. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you can sort all these issues out once there is something to share. That approach can be a recipe for disaster.

Instead, consider negotiating an agreement as the last step in your decision-making about whether this is the right partner for you. Partners who will work well together usually have no trouble creating a business agreement. But if you can’t agree about the agreement, you probably won’t agree about the work either.

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