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Breaking Up is Hard to Do…

 It’s not you, it’s me. We are heading in different directions. We don’t communicate the way we used to. Breaking up a business partnership isn’t as easy as giving one of these lines and moving on but like a romantic relationship, these are some reasons that business partnerships don’t work. Involving a lawyer in your business breakup is a great way to ensure that assets are divided evenly and everyone’s best interests are protected. Here are some tips on how to have a better business break up.

Why do relationships end? Here’s a general answer to that ever-personal question, according to Elizabeth Bernstein’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal:

We are attracted to a person’s positive qualities, and then we come to resent their negative sides. The more we like a certain trait, the more we resent its dark side, according to Diane Felmlee, a professor of sociology at Penn State University, who started calling the phenomenon “fatal attraction” when she began studying it two decades ago.

Felmlee goes on to name a few fatal attractions. For example: You’re initially attracted to someone’s sense of humor, only to find out they’re incapable of being serious. Or you’re initially attracted to someone’s decisiveness, only to find out they’re a control freak. And so on and so forth.

Okay–but how does all of this apply to business partnerships? You can begin to see the correlation when Felmlee lists the ways in which fatal attractions manifest themselves. Two of them, in particular, are commonplace reasons for business breakups:

1. Sour grapes. In this scenario, one partner “is coping with problems in the relationship, or its demise,” writes Bernstein. You can find a great example in the breakup story of Roberto Angulo, CEO and cofounder of AfterCollege, a San Francisco company connecting college students and alumni with employers.

Including Angulo, AfterCollege had three cofounders. Angulo had to break up with one of them. “Diverging visions can break apart the closest partnerships,” he says. For his company, the diverging visions were about the ideal growth rate. For Angulo, 30% a year was too slow. He wanted to double the growth each year. Alas, one of the two other cofounders strongly preferred sticking with the 30% approach. “But I was the CEO, and this was my call,” Angulo says.

He brought in professional management to increase the growth rate, and the dissenting cofounder had to give up a few of his direct reports: “He didn’t hide his unhappiness, and I could see where the relationship was heading. But I didn’t do anything to stop it. It reached the point where my old friend and I weren’t comfortable being in the office together.”

About one year after Angulo’s changes, his partner left the company.

2. Rose-colored glasses. In this scenario, notes the Journal, “we choose to ignore the dark side until we can’t anymore.” A common example is when entrepreneurs find themselves ignoring the need to fire a loyal, long-term employee who no longer benefits the company. The key word? Denial.

A superb example of denial comes from an Inc. case study about a wedding planner who had to fire a longtime employee who had become her best friend. Though Susan Southerland knew her Orlando-based business, Just Marry, could barely afford to retain Michele Butler as a full-time employee, Southerland understandably had trouble summoning the terminating words. “They would work together for eight or 10 hours and then talk on the phone at night,” writes Jennifer Alsever. “Southerland especially appreciated Butler’s high spirits and love of life.”

Eventually, Southerland found the guts–and the words–to let go of Butler. But it wasn’t easy. “Southerland was in denial and waited too long to deal with the company’s problems,” consultant Lynn Diamond told Alsever. “She did not seem to understand the difference between friendship and leadership. These require different roles and responsibilities. Hoping Butler would resign was silly. Southerland’s insecurity was blurring the issues.”

Lessons Learned

Luckily, some of the lessons you can apply to vetting romantic partners apply to vetting business partnerships, too.

Most of those lessons, as any heartsick human could tell you, fall under the rubric of expectations. “We need to recognize that we can’t ‘have it all’ in a partner,” Felmlee tells the Journal.

In a practical sense, there are precautions to take. Serial entrepreneur Laura McCann Ramsey suggests writing a pre-nup for your partnership. “At the beginning, it’s great to be in love with your partner,” she writes. “They will undoubtedly be the person you spend the most time with, share secrets with and grow your business with–unless you grow to hate them.”

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