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March 28, 2011
Partner Up and Grow Your Business
I, like many graphic designers, work alone (mostly). It's generally a productive arrangement, especially for those of us who are particular about how we work. You know who you are. You don't need to explain yourself to anyone if you work best in Superman PJs. There are, however, some downsides to the sole proprietor arrangement. Inevitably, assuming you push to further your business's success, a project will arise for which you will need a partner. And, once you work through your first cooperative project, you'll be looking forward to the next opportunity.

Broadening Your Horizons
I came to an epiphany years ago. While I CAN code websites, I don't want to. And by that I mean I hate it. By extension, I realize there are programmers out there who love it and I respect their passion for it. My area is print. I learned my trade in it. I love almost every aspect of it. It is tactile, 3D, interactive, permanent, and flexible. I enjoy hanging out at commercial printer and learning that side; the technical details of printing. I even worked as a pressman for a span.

Prior to that epiphany moment, way back when, I could have delved headlong into coding, choosing to be a Web guru. I chose another path. I sought out a partner to do it instead. This accomplished two things: It freed me to do what I do best and it also broadened my “company” presence. In the many years I've been working independently, other businesses I've encountered have shown me how the definition of a “company” has been redefined. With the Internet, no longer are we bound to a physical location. Virtual versions of us can be all over the world instantaneously. Virtual offices, virtual “teams” can meet and discuss projects, even though the participants are on different coasts—different continents, even. My clients don't demand to see my full-time staff physically in my office. They do, however, take comfort knowing that I am not alone.

Choosing a Partner
As a single entity, a larger competitor will likely overshadow your company. A corporation’s sheer size, exposure, and influence will be a hurdle, to say the least. Thankfully you have friends—approximately 29 million of them. They all want the same things as you. They want their businesses to succeed. In a partner, you'll have a mutual contender to help you further your business as long as you reciprocally respect their same desire. The ideal partners are those who share an approach to a balanced workflow. They benefit from offering additional services through their business by way of yours, as you will through theirs. When looking for a partner, ask yourself:
  • Do their skills complement your business short-term? There are many sites to post the job and fish for prospects such as GoFreelance.com, Freelancer.com, Odesk.com. These are fine for getting quick assistance. I would use another direction for your more committed partnership.
  • Do their skills complement your business long-term? Potential partners should complement not only the particular project in front of you, but your business as a whole. As a designer, I'm asked about copywriting services. Business owners have enough on their plates without having to tackle the task of writing their own ad or brochure copy. It's a very natural fit that designer and copywriter would be mutually beneficial services.
  • Who are the people in your neighborhood? I favor a more personal approach when trying to establish an ongoing business partnership. Join your local Chamber of Commerce or attend small business seminars. One of the beautiful things about putting your feelers out is that you never know who you will meet. Sometimes even a client can open the doors. One of my best connections stemmed from a client who had hired us both to cover different aspects of her vast project. Through this client, I obtained the other proprietor’s information, and found he also worked independently. I approached him cold, conveying to him both my empathy for what he's trying to do with his business and how I felt working together could be of mutual benefit. He could extend to his clients more expertise in printed promotions through me, and I could sweeten the deal with my clients by adding in his Web services.
After you have worked with another professional once or several times, you’ll want to assess the experience before possibly moving into a more formal arrangement (co-branding your marketing, for instance). Ask yourself:
  • How often do I need a partner? Several months may pass between projects that require both of you. It's important to touch base with your partner periodically. Typically they are just as busy as you are and lose track of time. A brief call or, better yet, meeting once a month helps to build the relationship, hash out ideas, and get an all-around progress report on what you both are doing. Sometimes you'll have a project that you want to “get around to,” only to find serendipitously that your partner has an opportunity to make it happen soon. Life's weird that way.
  • Is this a good fit? Break it if it doesn't work. You are not going to gel with everybody. If your partner thinks solely about what's best for their business, without taking your partnership into consideration, they're not a good fit. I don't, however, condone burning bridges. A complete severing of the connection may not be necessary. Instead, find another partner who is a better fit and relegate the previous partnership to a more cautious arrangement. Opportunities may still arise from them, but your main focus will be on a more balanced partnership.
Going Forward
Working with a partner, especially for those who can and do work solo, is an invaluable component to broadening your business. If you haven't considered it yet, I would encourage you to think about what other services would complement your business, then find someone whose work you like and approach them. The two businesses will likely benefit each other. Then everybody wins.

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Brian Boehm works as an independent graphic designer in Maryland with the help of his fantastic wife and his two children. He's recently won several national design awards. He designed Gyleen Fitzgerald's Quilts: Unfinished Stories With New Endings, which won the 2010 Lifestyle Book Awards. Boehm's design for Fiction20Down's album, Comfortable Fools, won a package design award.   
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