Partnerships: Seven Lessons And Implications From The Best For The Rest

Recently, a group of very successful partners of law, accounting, investment, and M&A firms met me for lunch and explained why their partnerships worked so well. I was most taken with how their success in partnerships contrasted with the partnership pain suffered by so many small businesses. Why do partnerships work so well with professional services firms and are so challenging for the rest of small business? Whether it is several individuals, a venture capital, private equity firm or an angel investor, small business partnerships just seem to struggle more and certainly make up a smaller proportion of successful entrepreneurships than do lawyers, CPAs or financial money managers.

Here are some Professional Services Lessons and Small Business Implications that I took away from the discussion:

Lesson I: Partners with the same professional degrees and training form tight, loyal and like-minded groups.
Implication: Small business partnerships are founded by experts with unique and complimentary skills. Don’t expect different owners to think or act similarly. It will be harder and take longer to achieve the same esprit d’corps among small business partnerships.

Lesson II: The real definition of any Partner is to be a Rainmaker, who can land and grow clients, regardless of whether they have managerial duties in the firm.
Small businesses require strong operations, finance and sales/marketing in equal measures, so different Partners proficient in different functions are needed.

Lesson III: Successful partnerships do not pay compensation to equity partners based solely on their shares but on their performance and contributions to their firm’s profits.
Implication: Regardless of ownership percentages, small business Partnerships would be well-served to set up compensation plans based on their partner’s job descriptions and performance

Lesson IV: Professional services firms make new partners, regardless of their experience or financial buy-in, work in their firm for a couple of years before bestowing formal partnership titles. This ensures they “fit” with the Partners regardless of how they “look on paper”
Implication: Small businesses would be well-served to similarly “date before marrying” instead of rushing into the arms of new partners, VC’s or private equity firms.

Lesson V: Professional services firms recruit talented individuals by offering partnerships, especially to those with books of business that can produce immediate revenues for the firm. Partnerships also provide the firms with the ability to institute and enforce non-competes’ on Rainmakers, protecting the firm’s long-term cash flow and revenue streams.
Implication: Small business partnerships are usually created when partners bring different resources to the table including technology/inventions, operating ability, money and sales/marketing. As a result of these divergent contributions, it is not as easy to protect the firm from the power or departure of any one Partner.

Lesson VI: Partners in professional services firms build long-term client relationships which are leveraged through having less experienced/expensive professionals perform most of the actual “work.” Having the right amount of these professionals is critical to the Partnerships’ profitability.
Implication: Despite the personal relationships small business Partners build with their customers, much of the actual delivery of their firm’s value cannot be done by the partner. Consequently, maintaining the same level of trusting relationships is difficult. So is the actual delivery of consistent “work” in the form of products, especially through distributors or inexperienced professionals.

Lesson VII: The recurring nature of relationship sales allows Partners in professional services firms to wield extraordinary marketplace power by closely managing their clients.
Implication: The transient nature of most buyers and customers makes building relationships much more difficult, especially since sales are usually more transactional than they are relationship-driven. Few Partners in small business know their customers as well as their counterparts in professional services do, despite spending more time and money on formal sales and marketing.

Partnerships in professional services firms have been around for centuries and laws and business practices ensure many of these will continue for decades and centuries to come. The goal of the small business Partnership should be to learn and apply the characteristics that can work in their businesses and not try to imitate what cannot be applied to their businesses.

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