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Partnerships: Do They Work?

From time to time, practitioners ask me my opinion about partnerships – specifically,should they enter into a partnership arrangement with another CPA or accountant? I think there are definite plusses when it comes to partnering up with someone else, whether it is an individual for a project or even joining one firm with another. However, there are just as many negatives as well.

In my own experience of being a sole proprietor for almost 20 years, I’ve partnered up with others. I’ve worked with communications professionals on various engagements, brought on employees who promised to bring in, eventually, their own clients and even outsourced to contractors, but more on that in a moment. I also became an employee of a PR firm for about 11 months, bringing with me a book of business, but also structuring my contract so I could take my clients with me if the arrangement didn’t work out.

Years ago, I received some sage advice from a CPA friend who said, “It’s easy to partner up with others, but very difficult to unravel the partnership.” Of course, if you signed papers to join up your firm with another, then you’re looking at a legal mater that would, hopefully, be amicable on both sides. If you have a handshake arrangement, your relationship may be at risk. Either way, your clients or customers will likely suffer the most.

Are you a good candidate for a partnership? Here are some key points to keep in mind:

What kind of personality do you have? Those who know me well will admit I’m a Type A personality who wants to be in complete control of my life, and certainly, my business. I don’t smooth out the fringe on my fake Oriental rug, but I do like things to be in order.

When you partner with someone else, be prepared to give up total control. If the partnership is an equal, 50-50 arrangement, then you have to reach a consensus on everything, from the kinds of clients you want for your practice to the way you bill for services, and even to the type of paper towel you’re using in the kitchen. As ludicrous as that sounds, you don’t want to argue about the small stuff.

If you’re in an outsourced partnership and you’re the lead on the project or client – which some will say is more of anarrangement – you have more control, of course. Still, however, you can’t be too demonstrative with your authority. Just like having an employee, you want the partner to feel valued, but if the account is going south, you need to be transparent. I’ve found it’s much better to have the conversation up front rather than wait, especially if the other person is going in a direction you don’t like.

What will you gain? This is pretty easy in most partnerships. You’ll gain what you don’t have in talent, experience and knowledge. Let’s say you have a tax practice and you have a client who has asked you for help with their employee benefit plan. Rather than say, “I don’t know how to do this” and risk losing the client to another firm that offers both of these services, you can find another practitioner to bring in just for this engagement. It’s cliché, but it’s a win-win for both of you.

Now, there’s a precaution I bet you’re already thinking about. How do you prevent the partner from stealing your client? You could have that conversation up front with the partner and rely on the handshake understanding that this won’t happen. I may be Type A, but I’m also a bit of a Pollyanna, and perhaps, a bit too trustful.

There are two situations going on here. First, if you are going to partner up with someone else, I hope you have thoroughly vetted this person to make sure they are 100% honest, trustworthy and anything else that resembles a good Boy Scout. How long have you known the person? Do you know others who have worked with him or her? Do you have a gut feeling that you can trust the person to be honest?

Second, if you are paranoid and think the client might be at risk, you haven’t done enough on your end to demonstrate your abilities and solidify the relationship with your client. When was the last time you asked the client how you are doing as their tax and accounting advisor? If you leave this to guesswork, then you may have larger problems.

Be specific about the work. I’m not saying to put this in writing, but you want to be specific as to who is doing what. Again, another simple concept that could go haywire very quickly; the last thing you want is to step over one another. Besides being a time waster, the client is going to question the communications between you and your partner. In layman’s terms, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

What’s in it for you? If you are partnering your firm with another firm rather than being acquired, then it’s very likely you’ll make more money. However, there aresome considerations:

  • Does the other firm complement your firm? If you’re partnering up just because it sounds good, then it’s a waste of time and a considerable time/money investment. You want to find a firm that adds to your own niches, skills and services.
  • Should besties be partners? I say no; best friends should not be partners. You may fantasize about being in business with your best friend – kicking your feet back on a Friday afternoon at the local watering hole – but the first time you disagree on a matter, the relationship will suffer. I talked about this earlier, but cannot emphasize it enough. By design, I don’t do business with friends or family. I’ve tried this several times with not-so-good results.
  • Will you learn from each other? You’ll want to believe that you’ll learn from each other’s skills and pick up knowledge you do not currently have. This runs the gamut from learning more about certain accounting services, but it also applies to the way you work with clients, for example.

Don’t dismiss a potential partnership – full-time, outsourced or otherwise – as a total negative experience. Do think through your potential partnership carefully, and as silly as it sounds, make a list of positives and negatives. Unless the potential partner is desperate to partner up for a certain reason, I guarantee he or she is doing the same.

Partnerships can work – if you work them properly.

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