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5 Secrets of a Successful Virtual Partnership

Tempted to join forces with a colleague remotely? Here’s how to create a partnership that thrives.

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by Elizabeth MacBride

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PR experts Tina Mosetis and Charlotte Tomic hardly ever see each other and don't have a joint website or formal legal partnership. But they consider themselves a great virtual team and have been working together for seven years. Mosetis lives in New York and Tomic in Miami. Each has the credentials to go it alone – but they prefer to work together.

“You have someone to share the work,” says Mosetis. “And two heads are better than one.” Though the duo gets together only once or twice a year, they pitch and service clients together, speaking on the phone about six times a day. They split revenues on all of their projects equally and rarely take on clients individually.

Experts say a growing number of independent workers are finding it helpful to team up in virtual partnerships like the one described by the two women. Enabled by new technology like cloud-based storage and accounting, these alliances are relationships of convenience and habit, with as much permanence and legal structure as the parties choose.

Virtual partnerships work especially well for experienced workers, who have years of well-honed communication skills to help hold a partnership together. Because many such partnerships are formed after people have worked solo for a while, it’s common for virtual partners to be at a distance from one another.

Partners come together for myriad reasons. In addition to gaining a sense of camaraderie, partners have someone to smooth out the inevitable bumps of freelance life. It helps immeasurably to know that you have someone you trust to pinch-hit if you or a family member gets sick, or if a project blows up just as another one is looming.

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One of the biggest benefits of a partnership is gaining an additional network from which to win new clients and referrals – and workers who've been at it a while tend to have more extensive networks, says Ed Rogoff, a professor in the department of management at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Mosetis and Tomis are a case in point. They’d known each other for more than a decade before they teamed up, and each has plenty of experience. Mosetis was communications and government affairs director for the American Cancer Society in New York City, and Tomic was media relations manager for the worldwide media practice of Golin Harris, New York. “We each know 12 ways to skin a cat,” Mosetis says.

The most important element in these partnerships is trust. Is this a person whose work you want to reflect on your own? If you’re swamped, can you really count on the other to come through on deadline?

Here are five characteristics that successful partnerships share, culled from interviews and my own experience. I’ve had a virtual partnership -- a website and content service called $200kfreelancer -- with journalist Elaine Pofeldt for the past year-and-a-half. I live in Virginia, while she works from New Jersey.

The same agenda. If one person wants to build a Fortune 500 operation and the other has in mind a low-stress job, the partnership is not going to work. If one loves to serve small businesses and the other likes working with big companies, there may not be enough common ground. Another potential area of conflict: If one person wants to deliver stellar quality and the other is focused on high profit margins.

My partnership with Elaine works in part because we agreed on our top priority: doing high quality work with no stress. We both had enough income from steady clients, such as magazines and websites, to sustain us, and wanted a side project that we enjoyed and brought in extra income. We publish advice and interviews to help freelancers grow their businesses, and we supply content on the topic to other, larger websites.

Our number-one rule – and the glue that holds our partnership together -- is keeping the workload manageable. We don’t take on too many clients, and we don’t hold ourselves to unrealistic standards for production.

“Our business is focused on helping people navigate a big, ongoing trend--the shift from traditional jobs to an economy built around freelance, contract and temporary work. Pulling all-nighters at the business and cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world, as we might at a venture-capital backed startup, doesn't seem like the right way for us,” Pofeldt says. “Why not enjoy one of the best parts of freelancing: the freedom to have an active life outside of work without apologizing for it?”

Barry “CB” Martin and Larry Gaian are food writers and marketers-for-hire who met via their common networks. “This year I started several new ventures,” Martin wrote via email. “I asked him to be a sounding board. On one of the ideas, he was thinking along the same lines so we decided to combine forces.” They’re working together under the moniker Guys In Aprons, asking food companies to hire them to write recipe posts and interview expert chefs.

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You actually like the person. This characteristic can be hard to define, but it’s crucial. A partnership lies somewhere between a friendship and a marriage. If you don’t actually enjoy talking to your partner, it’s not going to work. Do you laugh at each other’s jokes? Does he or she bring out the best in you? Is the relationship supportive and devoid of competition.

Laura Sankovich, whose northern Idaho consultancy is called The Human Resource, works as a virtual partner with a six-employee professional employer organization that helps small businesses manage human resources and legal issues related to being an employer.

She and the owner are good friends; their families exchange Christmas gifts. “I sent them a pack of sausages. They sent me a cool case of wine,” she says. “I wish we lived closer.”

Complementary skill sets or traits. Partnerships are easier if it’s clear who is responsible for which pieces of the work. Mosetis and Tomis had different backgrounds, the former in nonprofits, and the later in corporations. They’ve pulled clients from both worlds, including nonprofit Spay First and Sandra Carter Global, a television production company. The differences don’t have to career-based. An idea person and an implementer can be complementary.

Open lines of communication. What do you do in the case of a disagreement? Good virtual partnerships rarely have them, but when they do occur they’re quickly resolved. If one person is more passionate than the other on a particular issue, that person wins out. It sounds too easy, but if you’ve met criteria one, two and three, handling disagreements isn’t likely to be a big deal, especially if you talk through an issue before resentment grows.

Cloud-based services have helped make communication easier. Elaine and I use Dropbox, a storage service, and Freshbooks, a small accounting program, to share files. Those replace some emails, allowing us to use our regular phone calls and emails for more important kinds of planning.

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Good legal underpinnings. If you intend on developing a brand-name partnership, rather than just working together on a project basis, it probably makes sense to form an LLC. If your brand ever acquires a value outside of you and your partners, an LLC enables you to sell and split the proceeds. An LLC can also give you some protection if your partnership is sued – for libel, for instance, if you are producing content. If you are keeping separate ventures but partnering regularly, an LLC provides a structure for splitting the revenues and filing tax returns.

Going through the work of creating a basic LLC operating agreement is a way to make sure that you agree on your goals – and give you recourse in case things do go awry. (That sometimes happens even to the best partnerships.) LegalZoom and similar services offer LLC formation papers. Even if you don’t end up using LegalZoom, it can be helpful to run through the site’s questionnaire.

Lawyers typically charge a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for a simple LLC. Some states have high entity taxes just for being business in that locale. If you and your partner reside in different states, it might save you hundreds of dollars a year to check out which state has more advantageous LLC laws.

Elizabeth MacBride is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a site focused on helping independent professionals make a good living.