Building an Ecommerce Business, Part 1: Choosing Partners

I am the founder of Beardbrand, an Austin, Texas-based ecommerce business that focuses on beard care and men’s grooming. I’ve contributed articles to Practical Ecommerce, and I recently addressed the topic of selling (or not) on Amazon.

Practical Ecommerce’s publisher asked me to host audio interviews for the company’s “Ecommerce Conversations” podcast. The topics, he said, could be anything that helps fellow merchants.

I’ve opted to produce an extended series on launching, growing, and selling an ecommerce business.  For each episode, I’ll interview an entrepreneur or industry colleague. I’ll explore topics such as raising money, choosing a platform, hiring employees, marketing tactics, and, ultimately, selling the business — roughly 20 episodes in all.

This initial installment will address the process of choosing business partners. My two partners at Beardbrand are supportive and knowledgeable. Our relationship has been critical to the company’s growth. I asked one of them, Lindsey Reinders, to offer suggestions and tips for selecting partners.

What follows is the full audio interview and a transcript of it, edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Please talk about my relationship with you as a business partner.

Lindsey Reinders: We met at a networking event. We both had our own businesses; we were there to meet prospective customers. We both had the drive to make our business successful. You were doing some freelance graphic design, and I had a small business that I was in the process of rebranding and building a website for. We spoke, told jokes, enjoyed ourselves, and then connected over Twitter.

You ended up helping me redesign my website. We did a nonprofit beard and mustache club together. It was eight or nine months later that we ended up at that startup weekend event, where we came together to lead a team. And that was when we decided that we wanted to work with each other and with another business partner, Jeremy McGee.

Bandholz: What attributes were you looking for in a business partner?

Reinders: There are some objective things that you want in a business partner, regardless of your personality. For me, one of those traits is honesty. One thing that was clear in that networking event was that you were genuinely offering your help and didn’t have ulterior motives. It was clear that you were generous and honest with your time. That honesty, when you’re interacting with someone who is willing to give you what they have to offer without any expectation of something in return, is really important when it comes to looking for a business partner. You want to be able to trust that the person you’re talking to is not motivated by his own gain.

Bandholz: Have you had experience working with partners?

Reinders: I worked with small teams at companies, for new projects and similar things. I had experience with people not pulling their weight or not showing the same initiative. And that’s another thing that’s important [in choosing a partner]. You want to find someone who matches your commitment to the work you’re doing, to drive the business forward.

Bandholz: I’ve had many failed solo projects that never got off the ground because I had no one to lift me up when I hit the doldrums. In those cases, business partners can be hugely helpful. What makes for a bad business partner?

Reinders: There are some philosophical things to look out for. If you’re keen on structure, system, and process, it’s best to have a business partner with the same respect for those attributes. Conversely, it can be frustrating if you’re more philosophically aligned with action and a partner needs to spend a lot of effort preparing the game board before you start making moves.

Your goal to build a business and run a company should align with the type of company your partner wants to build. So if her ambition is to build this multinational corporation with a corporate type of environment and yours is to simply stay lean and create a good lifestyle for yourself, there’s a fundamental difference in what each of you wants in the partnership.

Bandholz: Pundits frequently suggest that business partners should be complementary, with different skill sets and outlooks. Do you agree?

Reinders: I agree that you want complementary skill sets in the mix. We’ve addressed that early on by hiring people that are different than us. But I’ve appreciated partners with similar personalities. There is such a need to vent and support that is inappropriate to do with employees, even if they have the same personality. But it’s acceptable and healthy with your co-owners.

Bandholz: How should business partners address conflicts with each other?

Reinders: The healthiest thing that we’ve done is to address conflicts immediately. We agreed early on to give each other the benefit of the doubt. I believe you and Jeremy are good guys and that you have the best intentions for Beardbrand and for us as individuals. Misunderstandings are generally at the core of issues. If you’re willing and committed to having those hard conversations with each other, knowing that you’re coming from the place of mutual respect, you get conflicts out of the way quicker.

Bandholz: How should founders determine equity percentages?

Reinders: This varies from company to company based on the circumstances. We had a generous approach with an upfront agreement on how the equity would be structured, and how it would be earned, and when it would be vested. We all had an opportunity to try on the relationship before the company incorporated with a bank account and all that.

Bandholz: We as a group have contrarian views on this matter. Most outside advice is all about contracts, getting it in writing, getting the lawyers involved, and signing everything. In other words, you’re getting married before you’re going on dates. But we believe in these dates, so speak, when choosing business partners. Each of us discussed our views of the business relationship. We wrote it in a Google Doc and put it in an email. We can go back to it as needed.

Reinders: I remember vividly the conversation. It was frank and honest about how we each perceive the value to be as it stood then, and what we believe the possibility was. It’s a healthy way to try on the partnership and to move forward.

Bandholz: We did have a fourth partner at Beardbrand. We’ve split ways. What’s your advice for breaking up with a business partner?

Reinders: He is someone that I have a lot of respect for. I stay in touch with him. But it became clear to all four of us that we didn’t align. We weren’t willing to put the same energy and passion into Beardbrand. We had several conversations that addressed it. We mutually decided that it was better to separate. Having those conversations face to face, no matter how uncomfortable, is important. Because you can get caught up in subtext and minutia if you’re trying to have those conversations over email.

Bandholz: Where should early entrepreneurs find business partners?

Reinders: Where they’re comfortable. You and I met at a young professionals networking event. I met Jeremy at a beard and mustache networking event.

Bandholz: Anything else?

Reinders: A lot of good businesses don’t make it off the ground because the partners don’t put the energy into their relationships. The main reason businesses fail is their product or service. But having good business partners is second. That relationship is what makes or breaks your business.

See the second installment of this series, at “Part 2: Selecting Platforms.”

Eric Bandholz
Eric Bandholz
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