My business partner is too nutty

She's lovely and a bright spirit but her life is out of control, and it affects the business

Published May 28, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have a business partner. We started our small business 12 years ago, after working together in another company for five years. We each work from home on our own projects, but collaborate as needed, back each other up for vacations, and generally lend support to one another. We regularly use a half-dozen freelancers who have been with us for many years, also working from their homes. We all communicate via e-mail and phone. My partner and I see each other once or twice a week, and we also see the freelancers occasionally. It's not a big business, but it keeps us busy and provides a decent living (usually a high five-figure income for each of us, with an occasional really good year with low six-figure incomes).

My business partner is the nicest person I know. She is happy. She smiles. She gives great hugs. She has a joie de vivre that's infectious. She has taught me so much about how to be happy, how to see the good in most people, how to be patient with human weaknesses. She has been a huge influence on my parenting -- she is very child-focused and sees the wonder and fun in raising children. She comes from a big, happy family, and they have "adopted" my husband, son and me as part of them. She is a good person.

But I think I may have to part ways with her. Why? Because she's the most disorganized, scattered person I've ever met. I knew that to a certain degree when we started the company, but as the years have gone by, it's gotten worse and worse. Her personal life is chaotic and difficult. She never has enough money. She and her husband are in trouble for back taxes, both local and federal; there are liens on their home. They support themselves, two adult children and their assorted partners, and many grandchildren. They have dozens of pets. Their house is a wreck. Their yard is in shambles. They truly live paycheck to paycheck. They have at least two car accidents a year. Unplanned pregnancies abound. Grandchildren get sick. They shop and shop and shop. She has multiple health problems. Her husband was recently fired from his job. They teeter on the brink of collapse always -- the drama is constant.

And now our industry is being greatly affected by foreign competition. My partner's skill set in particular is now regularly outsourced to India. My skill set, however, can't be outsourced that way. So for the past two years, I've been generating far more than half of the company revenues, but we split all the profits. That worked fine for 10 years, when we generated equal amounts of revenue, but the disparity is continually getting worse.

In some ways, she manages her work well. Most of our clients really like her. Some truly love her. But our freelancers, who really like her personally, call me regularly to vent about how disorganized she is. She hands over to them random, messy projects with little instruction, expecting them to figure it out no matter how long it takes. We've discussed this problem many times, but she says we work in different ways and her way works for her and she's not changing her ways.

As you can probably guess, I'm organized. I'm nowhere near perfect, but compared to my partner, I'm Martha Stewart.

While I'm nice, and many of our clients really enjoy working with me (and I with them), I don't inspire the love that my partner does. So her high EQ is quite valuable to our company (as well as to me personally).

But her personal problems are wearing me down. For instance, in our little business, one of my tasks is the bookkeeping. She bombards me with requests for small amounts of money: she needs groceries, or new tires, or diapers for the grandkids. She uses the company credit card for personal needs when she's in a crisis -- at least a few times a month. She always pays the company back, but it makes me crazy. We've talked about it, and she stops for a while, but then there's always another necessity. One of her children used the company credit card without permission, and when we saw the charges, we assumed her card had been stolen (because my partner couldn't find her card and because no one would admit to having used it), canceled the cards, and got new ones. No big harm was done, and we were paid back, but fixing the problem was time-consuming and annoying. I'm sure my partner has forgotten all about that incident -- it was a tiny blip on her radar. But I found the situation disconcerting, and it still bothers me a year later. Another example: She recently lost an envelope containing hundreds of dollars she had saved to help her daughter with car repairs. It was in her bedroom, but her preschool grandchildren ransacked her room, and the envelope can't be found. There were three children and three adults in the house when the mayhem occurred, and no one noticed in time to prevent the disaster (and they live in a very small house). So of course she needed an emergency infusion of cash, which the company provided.

But I can't bring myself to end our partnership. I'm her closest friend, really her only friend outside of her family. She would be devastated. And I don't want that for her. I would have no trouble continuing the business on my own, but she would find it really difficult to find work in a bigger company or to get enough work on her own to stay afloat. And I certainly don't want to see her even more destitute than she is now.

I've made lists of pros and cons. And they keep coming out even. So I stay on, enjoying the friendship, but gritting my teeth over the business.

Can you shed some light? Help me to make a decision?

The Well-Organized One

Dear Well-Organized One,

I think it's time you brought in a business consultant who can help you solve this. It would be a shame to destroy what is a mostly wonderful situation. There is a lot that is very positive here. It may only require some minor fixes.

A good business consultant could help you come up with a plan.

I don't see the exact shape of it yet.  I don't even know what business it is. But I feel confident from what you say that you have a great and happy business and a wonderful relationship. You need help dealing with the strain that her outside life brings to the business.

There are people out there with the necessary skills to help you make the necessary changes. You may need to do some exercises together so that you and she can see how  you are playing out certain scripts and acting on certain assumptions that have deep meaning for you but are not understood by the other party. You may have to come up with a written plan and negotiate it with her. You may have to involve some of the freelancers where appropriate -- for instance, in solving the problem of their getting material that's not sufficiently organized.

Each of you will need to make some changes. For her, if those changes are practical and concrete, she can probably make them. For instance, if a bookkeeper comes in and goes through her office, or if an organizer comes to her place and sets up systems she has to follow, she will probably be grateful and will be able to follow them to some degree.

It won't be perfect, but it will be an improvement.

It also sounds like she has some skills she's not using, and she's doing some things she's not very good at. That can change. She may be useful as a salesperson.

So spend some of the company money on solving this problem. And you may need to renegotiate your proportional ownership too. That can be tricky but it can be done. You need to have these frank conversations and listen to each other.

Good luck!

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Business Entrepreneur Friendship Relationships Since You Asked Small Business Working From Home Workplace