Picky Partner

by Doreen Simmons

Business partnerships, like marriages, can easily get derailed without toleration, cooperation, and mutual understand of the partners’ intended roles. Aunt Eva casts a seasoned eye over the hazards, and shepherds us along the path of harmony.

Dear Aunt Eva,

My friend Adam Ant and I recently formed a partnership to do translation and editing work. Already, however, we’ve nearly come to blows. Adam spends a great deal of time reworking and perfecting his projects, even the low-budget ones, insisting that we be associated only with top-quality work. I, on the other hand, return the low-budget projects to clients much more quickly. My reasoning is that we’re not a charity, and if we expect to stay in business we should only give clients what they pay for. What advice can you offer to help us work out a mutually acceptable policy?

Betta Moovit

Aunt Eva answers:

This will probably sort itself out as you get more work coming in, so your basic need is to make your clients happy.

Aunt Eva recently attended a conference on setting up small businesses, and was impressed by one anecdote in particular: One person planning to start a little company was looking for a staff of wildly disparate individuals, so that each could contribute something completely different. Another said, “No; what I want is a group of people who are like me, so that we will work together toward the same goal.”

Partnerships are difficult to manage. As in a marriage, we quickly start discovering things about our partner that never surfaced in the course of day-to-day acquaintance. Unlike marriage, however, a business partnership lacks the rosy glow of sex, which blinds us to our partner’s foibles—or at least enables us to forgive them.

A partnership of two is no different, though it may be harder to pull together when there are only two of you than when there are more, and when you are sharing equally than when a core person has gathered a staff but remains in charge. Obviously you already find your partner congenial, able and trustworthy, or you wouldn’t have set up in business together; and it’s only now, when you have actually started up, that you are finding out a few things that you hadn’t taken into account.

One way to set up a partnership is to find someone who complements rather than duplicates your skills and talents. In this case, a division of labor is indicated: for instance, one person handles the business and practical side while the other does the bulk of the translation, although the business half can pitch in and cover for translation when there’s a rush, while the translator will, of course, play some part in the business. Since a translation company is there do do translations, however, too strict a division of labor is unlikely to work in a company of two.

Alternatively, both people translate and, if time allows, proofread each other’s work before it goes out to the client. It helps if you have different but overlapping fields of expertise.

All this, however, is advice to those contemplating a partnership. You already have one, and you have a practical problem. You and your partner both have a point, of course. Sloppy work will bring in the money fast, but it will not get you repeat business. Taking forever to polish one job when others are backed up, however, will earn you a reputation for slowness and unreliability with the clients who are being kept waiting. And the present client may be unable to distinguish between good and excellent—or may not care.

Aunt Eva suggests that you find out from the client, if you can, who the end-user is. Is your translation going to be published without further work on it? It could become a useful form of advertising for you. Is it, on the other hand, something that the client will edit before using? Is it merely a working document that is source material for someone’s further study? If the client wants the work done in a hurry, warn him/her that, although you can meet the deadline, you will not be able to polish the work as you would like. Ask the client if he/she wants a quick job (which will naturally be done accurately) or a very careful one (which will be a minor work of art).

When the client gives you an answer, then lay down the law with your partner. Agree on a time-flow chart for when each stage is to be completed—and stick to it.

Aunt Eva recalls her first French teacher, whose classes were taken over without warning although she could still be seen lurking in the staff room. Years later the story came out. The lady’s nervous breakdown (an occupational hazard in the profession) had taken the unusual form of perfectionism. She took in a set of homework from each of her classes, but was unable to finish marking even one child’s exercise book, bedeviled by the thought that she wasn’t perhaps being quite fair—that there might possibly be some scrap of merit in what she has marked as a wrong answer. She continued to teach her classes for a month or so, but our written work never came back. In the end all the other teachers, regardless of their specialization, shared out the piles of exercise books and marked them. But even then they found it necessary to do this charitable work when she wasn’t there, for she would come up behind them and beg them to reconsider each red mark. Tell your partner this little story, Betta, with a gentle warning that even perfectionism, taken to excess, may lead to nothing more rewarding than a spell in the funny farm followed by a breakdown pension.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 82 (August 1998)