Overcoming The Darkest Days of Small Biz Ownership: Kate Northrup 

As any small business owner can attest, growing and nurturing a fledgling business takes a tremendous amount of time, focus and energy. More often than not, these business owners realize that the journey will go a bit more smoothly if they have a partner.  But, what criteria do you use when determining the individual(s) with whom it would be best to partner?  You gave life to this idea and you need to work with someone who respects your place as founder and the value that you bring to the business; that will not compromise your company’s mission and ideals; and who is willing to put in the same time and energy as you to grow the business.

Navigating the intricacies of choosing a partner is complicated and overwhelming and many owners rush into a relationship simply because a particular person makes them feel comfortable.  Kate Northrup, owner of Team Northrup (a member of the Usana family of businesses), a group of wellness experts in the network marketing industry, is no exception.

After deciding to start Team Northrup, Kate’s decision on whom to partner with seemed like a no-brainer.  With an award-winning, well-known author for a mom – a woman who had already experienced the hardships of establishing both herself and her own brand – who better to have Kate’s back? And with that expectation in mind, Kate entered into a business agreement with her mom – a decision that would be the catalyst for the biggest obstacle she would face as a small business owner.

By approaching this partnership based on the expectation that she and her mom liked each other and her mom would have her back, Kate ignored the fundamental rule of any business contract:  it is business and your expectations cannot be based on your personal relationship with this individual.

As a famous, successful woman, Kate’s mother had her own established ideas of how a business should be run, and she was very adamant that things be done her way.  As a new business owner who had never had to make business decisions, Kate continually conceded to her mother’s demands.  With each concession, Kate’s frustration increased and her confidence in her own abilities dwindled.  It was as if this business had become two separate entities – the one Kate had envisioned and the one her mom was now running. But neither woman was addressing the reality of the situation or taking responsibility for it, causing resentment to grow between them.

If in a situation where a partnership has taken a bad turn, when and how do you decide that enough is enough?  The breaking point for Kate was when they began renegotiating their financial agreement.   It was here that it became clear just how far they had deviated from Kate’s original ideas. There had been a fundamental breakdown in communication that was the direct result of the fact that Kate had never insisted a formal agreement be constructed. It was now time to either try to fix the partnership or get out of it.  Kate chose to get out.

“It had become evident to me that it was not possible for me to grow in the ways I needed to grow in this relationship,” said Kate. “And, as we renegotiated, things became so uncomfortable and painful, that I decided this was not the right partnership for me.  No amount of money was worth me losing my relationship with my mom”

With everything that can go wrong in a partnership the best way to determine who would make the best partner? According to Kate, the most important thing to look at is your reasoning behind wanting to establish or maintain a partnership.  Do you want to work with this person because she compliments your abilities; OR are you bringing them on because of your insecurities?

“You should never import anybody else into your business because you think you’re not enough.  You want to establish a partnership because you believe that by working together, the whole of your endeavor will be made stronger,” said Kate.  “Not everyone has a famous mom, but plenty of people who under-value themselves go into business partnerships thinking, ‘this person knows more than me so they’ll be able to keep me from screwing up’.”

The reality is there are two constants in small businesses: 1) Every person has their own strengths.  So when looking for a partner, remember the value you already bring to the table and find someone who is knowledgeable in the areas you are not.  2) There will always be screw-ups and unforeseen issues.  When building a team, bring together a group of people who, when working together, can best navigate these issues and minimize the damage of these screw-ups.

As long as you keep those fundamentals in mind, the steps to building and strengthening a partnership are straightforward – understand and appreciate both your value and your partner’s value; take your time negotiating; and put EVERYTHING in writing.  Like many other small business owners, Kate had to learn this the hard way.  Now, as she is moving into a business partnership with her boyfriend, she’s being much slower and more deliberate on establishing the purpose of the relationship.

“I’m making sure we’re both very clear on who is doing what and how they will get compensated. I’m also being really candid about every little concern.  Regardless of how small or ludicrous it may seem, I bring it up. I believe it’s better to address everything now then have something come up later and have to say, ‘Oh. Shit. I didn’t think of that.  Or, even worse, I did think of that but never said anything!’”

As Kate has come to find, life is better when you have a partner, you just have to do your due diligence. Take a close look at your current partnerships.  Do you have any that are currently undefined?  Are you in any partnerships where you are being undervalued?  Are there partnerships that you’re avoiding because you’ve had a terrible experience? If you’re in any of these situations, remember: It is in your best interest to say “no” to and be willing to let go of any partnership that is not working.  Being completely honest with yourself and your partners allows you to get your business to where you want it to be much more quickly.