Whether just starting out in private practice or considering expansion by taking on a partner, finding the person who is the right “fit” may not be as easy as you think. Oh, sometimes the stars do align and the perfect partner is found with little or no effort. But most of the time, finding someone with whom to share the business of doing business requires careful mutual investigation of values and skills.
Choosing a business partner is in many ways as big a decision as choosing who to marry. You will be spending many hours together each week. You will be entangled financially. You will be looking to each other for mutual support and counting on each other for back-up when either of you has to be away from the practice because of illness, vacations or conferences. Probably most importantly: You will each be known and judged by the reputation of the other. As one of Aesop’s Fables states: “You are known by the company you keep.”
What to Look For in a Business Partner
- Look for a partner who shares your vision for the business: If one of you has ambitions to be the top practice in town while the other is content to dabble, you will soon be disenchanted with each other, regardless of how much you like each other personally. Make sure you have similar goals, a similar work ethic and the same standards for excellence. Talk about how much energy you each have for the entrepreneurial side of working for yourselves. That probably means doing pro bono work and networking at least half the time during your first few years together.
- Find a partner whose professional ethics are above reproach. Make double sure you share a commitment to professional ethics. Be specific about the many ways that values level issues will play out in terms of personal behavior both on and off the job. Your community will judge the each of you for your character as much as for your skills.
- Look for someone with complementary skills: One of the primary reasons to go into business with someone else is to fill in your own professional gaps. Of course, you both have to be competent and caring therapists. But that’s only half the story in a successful business. Look for someone with complementary business skills. One of you, for example, may be terrific at the details of billing, navigating the various insurance companies and keeping accounts. The other may be a whiz at networking and marketing. As long as you both agree the other’s skills are essential and are of equal value, it doesn’t matter how you divide tasks. But you do have to have the same level of skill in the skills you bring.
- Make sure you can count on each other to do the business side of the business: Therapists who go into private work are often trying to free themselves from onerous paperwork and agency policies with which they disagree. In fact, being in business means being even more attentive to practice policies and paperwork. With no big agency lawyers to defend you if a case goes badly, you need to count on each other to maintain pristine documentation to support the validity of your work. Success in private practice requires acceptance that there is no one else to do it and it still has to be done – and done perfectly, if not cheerfully.
- Look for a partner who is emotionally stable: You’d think this is self-evident but I’ve consulted to a number of practices where one partner overlooked or discounted the instability of the other when they agreed to work together. It was done with good intentions. People who like each other don’t always look squarely at red flags. But overlooking personal problems is a set-up for problems in the business. The stability of your practice depends on the stability of both of you.
- Find someone who is financially stable: It is likely that you won’t be able to draw much of a salary in the beginning. You’ll need to capitalize the business to get it up and running. Make sure that you are both able to contribute equally to your venture and that you have shared ideas about money management. A person with considerable personal debt may not be the best choice for your business. He or she may not be skilled in budgeting or may be too financially needy to make good financial decisions for the sake of growing the business.
- Don’t forget to consider how much you like each other: Mutual respect is essential but it’s not enough. You are more likely to survive as a business if you genuinely like each other. The ability to help each other see the lighter side of things, whether a computer crash or even the stress of managing difficult clients, can make all the difference in whether your business survives and thrives.
Those who are drawn to the helping professions often have difficulty with the demands of being an entrepreneur. They see their work more as a calling than a money-making venture. In fact, it is both. Yes, we therapists are healers. But to make a private practice successful enough to support a couple of families requires that we also define ourselves as small business owners with all that it entails. Choosing the right partner can ease the burdens and provide support for that dual role.