What “I Love Lucy” Taught Me About Business Partnerships

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One of my favorite episodes of I Love Lucy is where the Ricardos and the Mertzes decide to go into business together, and buy a diner. Halfway through the episode, they’ve argued so much about how to run the business, they’ve divided the place down the middle with tape, and are so intent on beating each other, they get into a heated competition over their sole customer—a drunk who thought he was in a bar.

The whole thing ends in a classic pie fight before the four of them make up, as they always do. But the real kicker is when we learn they were taken by the man who sold them the diner in the first place, who makes a habit of selling it to people who want to go into business for themselves, and then buying it back for less than they paid when they inevitably discover they can’t hack it. Fittingly, he ends up with the final pie in his face.

I’ve actually cited that episode as a cautionary tale about going into business with friends. And having witnessed partnerships fall apart to the point of getting lawyers involved and the former friends no longer speaking, I figured when I was ready to start my own business, I’d go out completely on my own and not invite the headaches and potential lawsuits that business partners can bring.

Things don’t always work out the way you planned. I now do have a business partner in Claire Jackson, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And that episode of I Love Lucy contains a few bits of good advice about entrepreneurship, if you look a little more closely.

Choose the Right Partner

I know, this bit of advice is very subjective, and extremely difficult to follow through with. How do you know you’ve chosen the right partner? A business partnership is much like a relationship with a significant other. Are you sure they won’t cheat on you later? Are you sure they’ll always treat you with respect and do what’s right for both of you and not just for them? How can you ever really know until you dive in?

Well, you can look for signs. When they planned to buy that diner, the Ricardos and the Mertzes were relying on Ricky’s name and Fred’s know-how.

If your potential business partner is offering you some kind of immediate stature because of their already-established name, you may want to think twice. Stature is good, but a business doesn’t function on stature. It may bring in customers at first, but you’d better be able to back it up with actual hard work.

Spell Out Responsibilities

The “I’ve got the name and you’ve got the know-how” refrain was the beginning of the end for the Ricardo-Mertz diner. It very quickly translated to the Mertzes doing all the work while the Ricardos sat back and took all the credit. Choosing the right business partner will require a lot of open, honest discussion, and it should even perhaps include some things in writing that spell out responsibility.

Any task taken on by more than one person requires at least a little division of labor to avoid duplication of effort, and to make sure everything gets done. Think about it—if you’re planning a potluck, and just tell everyone to bring “something,” you may end up with 20 bags of hot dog buns and no hot dogs.

Yay, that’ll be a fun cookout.

If you’d assign tasks for something as simple as a potluck dinner, then you’d damn well better do it for your business. Start by inventorying your strengths and weaknesses.

Claire and I have discovered that while she’s excellent at writing sales copy, I would rather stick a hot poker in my eye. And while I enjoy writing blog posts, she’d prefer to handle a snail bare-handed. (Side note: Claire irrationally hates cute, little snails. I don’t know why. And let’s not even discuss the slug incident.)

The point is, this knowledge helps us to not only divide labor fairly, it keeps us both happier in our work, and allows us to create better content for our clients. While I can write sales copy, it’s not going to be as good as it should be because I don’t enjoy writing it.

Enjoyment of a genre or topic is of paramount importance in the creative realm. And part of owning your own business is to be able to do what you enjoy rather than being forced to do what you hate in exchange for a paycheck.

Have a Contingency Plan

The Ricardos and the Mertzes didn’t consider what would happen if they failed. It never even entered their minds that their joint venture wouldn’t work out. I mean, they were friends after all, right? What could possibly go wrong?

This is what made them jump at the previous owner’s offer when he came back to buy the diner back from them, and what caused them to lose 40 percent of their original investment.

One of the most difficult discussions you can have with your potential or existing business partner is, what happens if one of us decides to leave? What happens if one of us gets hit by a bus? What happens if, two years from now, I hate your guts? Hey, it happens.

Claire and I have been lucky to enjoy a really good business partnership. In fact, Claire has coined the term “business friendner” to describe our relationship. But people change, things happen, and the day could come when one or both of us wants to move on and do something else.

Although it’s not required in the state of Texas for forming an LLC, we drafted an operating agreement. That document spells out everything from our shares in the company to what happens to the business if one of us is disabled or dies an untimely death, perhaps at the hands of evil, evil snails.

If you’re considering going into business with a partner or partners, get an operating agreement. It’s best to have a lawyer help you draft one, but you can also do one yourself with the help of sites like RocketLawyer. If you go that route temporarily, have one drawn up by an attorney as soon as you can afford it.

A Few Final Thoughts

What could have made the Ricardo-Mertz diner a success was if they’d not only been honest with each other about what they envisioned, but if they’d been honest with themselves. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and business partnership definitely isn’t for everyone.

Be honest with yourself—can you really work with a partner? Or do you work much better on your own? Either way it’s fine, but don’t embark on something that’s going to make you miserable, and also make your partner miserable by having to deal with your misery.

And if you do decide to go the partnership route, always, always, always be honest with your partner, from day one and onward. If you can’t be honest with each other before the business is even formed, don’t move forward. You’ll save everyone a lot of grief and attorney fees.

But if you hit it right—you find the right person, you can be honest with each other, and your skills complement each other well—you may find business partnership can be just as much fun as it is work.

Image Credit: TVGuide.com

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  • http://blog.jimdo.com/ Jesse Modoono

    Yes! Michelle, this is a fantastic piece. It’s creative, unique, honest, and it brings in the best of a classic program. Many thanks. Can you point me in the direction of some of your other writings that you’re proud of?

    • http://passionfruitcreativegroup.com/ Michelle Lowery

      Thank you so much, Jesse! I truly appreciate the kind words, and am so glad you enjoyed this piece. It’s become a favorite of mine. Anytime I can work “I Love Lucy” into my work is a win! :-) You can see more of my writing and other work on my bio page here: http://passionfruitcreativegroup.com/about/michelle-lowery/

      If you’d like, you can also sign up for our newsletter. We haven’t launched an official one yet, but will begin using it to let subscribers know about new content from us soon. http://eepurl.com/Fhkt9

      Have a great day!

  • http://www.susanfinch.com/ Susan Finch

    One of my FAVORITE episodes and I think of it often. All the more reason to relate to you, Michelle. Thank you for pinging me on this and the smile on my face this morning.

    • http://passionfruitcreativegroup.com/ Michelle Lowery

      Anyone who loves “I Love Lucy” as much as I do is super cool in my book, Susan! 😀 Thank you so much for reading and commenting, and I’m so glad this made you smile!