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Help me deal with a difficult business partner
July 26, 2011 3:04 PM   Subscribe

I've started a company with someone that I have trouble dealing with. What should I do about this business relationship?

More details below. Anonymous because he reads this forum and might figure out that this is me.

About six months ago, an acquaintance, M, approached me about starting a company related to some work I am doing in graduate school. We incorporated, and both put money into legal fees, software, getting a domain, etc.

We both have a few other projects going on, so things have been moving slowly. I'm still in graduate school and have some side projects; he just finished his (unrelated) masters' degree a month ago. He also has a consulting business on the side.

We are now building momentum. I have the technology based on my graduate school work, he's a salesman type, and now we have a possible third partner (an old friend of mine) who can do the programming.

I'm struggling because I'm having a lot of trouble getting along with M.

Being around him is emotionally demanding. I'll email him and say, let's talk this afternoon about xyz. And then he'll call me right away, because he knows I'm online. If I don't answer the phone, he gets upset. He wants to talk for hours about his ideas, and I can't get any work done (for school, which I still attend) or on this project.

His concerns have to be worked around, but mine are negotiable. He has some hobbies that he spends a significant amount of time on. When he is busy with them, the time away is non-negotiable. If I have a conference for graduate school, he says things like "You can still work during the conference, right?" He has a consulting business and has to travel for work, but isn't willing to change his travel schedule.

He's very touchy and defensive about his competence. He pretends like things are his idea when they are not. He gets angry when his ideas are questioned.

He's a salesman type, very persuasive, very good at getting his way. He's from an extremely wealthy family and has had everything he wants in a material sense. He also says very snobby things that annoy me, like "Who would wear that awful suit?" or "Ibiza is so last year -- you have to try x instead".

To me, he's demanding, narcissistic… just exhausting to be around.

On my side, I tend to avoid him when I get stressed out. I sometimes can't deal with talking to him and I'm hard to reach.

I've talked with M about this, and he doesn't seem to get it. He tries to empathize and is nice about it, but nothing changes. He is from a non-Western culture, so I try to be sensitive to those issues, but he was raised in Europe... so it's not entirely a cultural thing.

It's a great business opportunity and I'm excited about the prospects for the company. I'd hate to miss out on the opportunity due to interpersonal issues.

Another question is whether I should leave graduate school. I am a bit frustrated and tired of my program, but leaves of absence are not well thought of. I could leave, but I might not be able to come back. He has said nothing on this point, other than "do what you have to do".

My questions:
- How do I get along better with this person?
- I have a lot of other projects going on… graduate school, side projects, etc. Should I do this at all?
- I'm afraid that he will push me out of the company as this new person gets more involved. I'm also thinking it might be perfect to put them together and then leave the business.
- Have you been in a situation like this? How did it end? What helped? What do you wish you had done?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
He lacks a basic respect for you and is exploiting you. This isn't going to be a good partnership. Can you take the technology and go?

Either way, this isn't something you want to commit yourself to for years and years in the hopes that you'll get rich. Because what then? Will you leave? You may be even more invested in the company at that point.

If you came up with this business idea, you can come up with another one later and grow it with a partner that you can respect and deal with every day. Failed businesses are just part of the career of an entrepreneur, and no one idea is the be-all, end-all.
posted by ignignokt at 3:23 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll email him and say, let's talk this afternoon about xyz. And then he'll call me right away, because he knows I'm online. If I don't answer the phone, he gets upset. He wants to talk for hours about his ideas, and I can't get any work done (for school, which I still attend) or on this project.

I don't think talking to M generally, as you have done, is working because of the cultural differences you touched on above.

I would make some concrete boundaries and ask M to respect them.

For instance, let him know that you are available between such and such hours, and other hours are by appointment. If the two of you need to talk about xyz, it has to wait until those times. Dedicate a separate phone line, if you need to, just to work calls, and don't answer it unless you are prepared to spend the time that M appears to need to go over everything with you.

You do know, though, that starting a business requires the kind of zealous behavior he's exhibiting, though, right? In the first few weeks, especially, it will be incredibly time-intensive and demanding on everyone involved. You have to be willing to put in the hours to get the business off the ground.

I'm afraid that he will push me out of the company as this new person gets more involved. I'm also thinking it might be perfect to put them together and then leave the business.

As far as the third partner pushing you out, your post says this is an old friend of yours. If you are upfront with him, can he be trusted not to try to take over your role? Consider that if you cannot trust your "old friend", you really should not be doing business with him in the first place.

And make it clear to M that you are around to stay and that old friend coming on will help cut down on some of your workload, as right now you have grad school and other projects weighing down on you, but in the future you will be able to give more to this business--unless this is not the case and you don't see a time when your responsibilities will be as demanding, in which case you really should make a choice between grad school or the business.

I think, based on the trouble you are having with M, it's pretty clear that if it comes down to a choice, you should stay with grad school.
posted by misha at 3:27 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Being around him is emotionally demanding. I'll email him and say, let's talk this afternoon about xyz. And then he'll call me right away, because he knows I'm online. If I don't answer the phone, he gets upset. He wants to talk for hours about his ideas, and I can't get any work done (for school, which I still attend) or on this project.

If you're going to run a business with this guy, you have to be able to be candid with him.
posted by jayder at 3:35 PM on July 26, 2011


Yes been there.

Take your experience, your technology and jump. Be prepared to get a good lawyer to handle the dissolution. Lawyer. Lawyer. Lawyer

You're right, he will cut you out. Don't throw your friend under the bus here, either. M. Has no loyalty.

Lawyer to extricate cleanly.

Time to bounce.
posted by jbenben at 3:38 PM on July 26, 2011


Finish grad school. Likely you're not thinking straight from the stress. Finish this important personal goal.
posted by jbenben at 3:40 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Get out before you spend any more money or lose any more of your sanity. Take jbenben's advice - lawyer up if you have contributed anything to the company besides time and money.
posted by JXBeach at 4:06 PM on July 26, 2011


Yes, extricate as soon as possible. You're being treated with disrespect. Not worth it, life's too short, etc.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:06 PM on July 26, 2011


I'm a near-founder in a tech startup right now, and I credit the good relationships we all have with each other with being one of, if not the, key elements that's made us successful so far. A bad relationship won't improve in a business setting. You're starting with a rotten core if you can't get along with this guy.

Either extricate yourself now, or do the following:

1. Start being incredibly direct with him and as non-negotiable as he is. "you can work at this conference, right?" "No." "Why not?" "Because I'll be at the conference, in conference mode, doing conference things." Act like he's stupid to even question this. Some people simply try to get away with as much as possible. Stop letting him get away with anything. Don't apologize. Basically, start treating him the way he treats you, not the way you want to be treated.
2. Figure out what you own in the business and can protect if he screws you, and start protecting it. A lawyer will help with this.
3. Prepare to burn it all down if he screws you. Be ready to threaten lawsuits by having all the information from 2. Be ready to pull the plug on the enterprise if he keeps trying to steamroll you. Know that salesmen are a dime-a-dozen. A fast talking huckster is a valuable addition to any enterprise at the beginning, but they're not hard to find, and any one huckster in particular is replaceable.

Either way, finish grad school. It sounds like you got sucked in by a manipulator, and the only way to deal with people like that is forcefully and with no subtlety whatsoever.

In the end, you'll probably pursue another idea in another business, and realize that no one idea is very valuable, it's the execution of the idea by building the business around it that matters. And you'll thank this person for teaching you that sometimes you need to play hardball. Going through an experience like this is like learning martial arts: knowing it means you rarely need to use it.
posted by fatbird at 5:53 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


Sunk costs. Move on. Much like having a child, running a business is much, much harder if you're doing it with someone you can't get along with.
posted by davejay at 6:02 PM on July 26, 2011


Get out! You've seen his true colors. Is this really a person you want to be stuck dealing with for - potentially - the next 20 years? If he's causing you this much stress now, it will only get worse.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:51 PM on July 26, 2011


I'm am currently in the exact same position as you. Right now. I chose to leave, and it has turned out to be the right decision, because that was the point when the unmitigated crazy really showed itself.

Get out. Get out now. If you can't deal with him now, you won't be able to deal with him when the business is running. Once the business is running, it will be harder to disentangle yourself.

He's being a jerk, and you have many better things to focus on.

Extricating yourself will be difficult, but it will be worse if you wait.

I'd be happy to talk about my experience in further detail - memail me if you want.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:43 PM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


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