When Trust Just Isn't Enough

If your business lands a job that requires a specialist subcontractor, it's the height of folly not to keep tabs on your new partner

By Dan Leonard

Whoever in business said that it's the handshake -- and the firm look in the eye -- that's important when negotiating with partners was probably right. It's important to us, too, at Biznews24, the company I co-founded, which produces interactive Web-based video programming for clients, largely financial and technological companies and government agencies.

There's no denying the human element when dealing with partners -- those people with whom you will be working most directly, and even intimately, on matters that determine your company's future. However, we've also learned that partnerships are most apt to thrive when backstopped with a trio of concrete steps. Namely, you must know what you're best at doing so that you farm out only what others can do better. You must choose your partners wisely. And you must manage them at all stages.

Your partners are the people who tend to all the moving parts that get you from the client's go-ahead to the delivery of the product. But never forget that it is you -- the entrepreneurial company -- that has the relationship (and the signed contract) with the client, and thus, that it is you who ultimately must make good on it.


  When we started Biznews24 in 1999, we did most of the video production ourselves, with that work comprising about 50% of total revenue in our first 18 months in business. Now, as we've grown and evolved, we've concentrated on the engineering and the gathering of software tools, such as synchronization, that enable so-called "interactive" programming, which allows viewers to take polls or ask real-time questions during a live Web program.

The shift in focus wasn't easy. It took a great deal of soul-searching. It also entailed accepting that we would, on occasion, need to leave money on the table, turning away jobs that were better suited for the core competencies that we used to have rather than those we would be emphasizing going forward. It is always tempting to say, just one more job, just this last one. But today, we are a much more valuable company because of our focus and concentration.

The pain of introspection notwithstanding, this fundamental exercise is the necessary first step that paves the way for productive relationships with partners. In our case, at least, it has enabled us to establish a base line from which we could determine what aspects of projects we would handle ourselves and where we would need to turn for assistance.


  With your company's core competencies firmly established -- and with a universe of partners from which to select -- make a pact with yourself to choose only the best partner for each task you farm out. You didn't need me to tell you that, did you? You probably already select, as we do, from a group of vendors whose work you know or with whom you've worked in different capacities in the past. You look closely at reputations. You consider track records. That is all to the good.

A corollary tactic involves being careful to scope out the parameters of each project with the client, finding out what the client really wants so you can assign partners accordingly. On a recent project for a health-related government agency -- producing a Web-based seminar at which specialists would present papers -- we learned that, in addition to the Web viewing audience, the client wanted the ability to host a live audience in Washington, D.C. where the agency is based.

With those features in mind, we were able to determine we would need a partner that could provide accommodations with the production elements we require, as well as a studio large enough for the in-person audience. We were able, in short, to tailor resources to client desires, always a factor when delivering results that are on target.


  Next step: never let your partner stray too far from sight. While it is tempting to sit back, knowing that a portion of the job for which your company is responsible is being handled by someone other than yourself, it is essential to ride herd on those partners doing the work.

At Biznews24, we've built in quality control steps along the way, primarily by assigning an in-house person to oversee the work of both our engineering and Web-hosting partners. On production jobs, we also insure that the partner has the necessary supplies and personnel. When a program is to be aired live, we conduct a test run from start to finish, not only to make sure the equipment is working but also that the program is getting up on the Web without hitches. During live productions, an in-house person is always on site for the actual presentation.

The astute overseeing of partners always involves backing up verbal understandings with a written contract. A hallmark of our paperwork is that it is specific down to minute details, such as the number of cameras required and the number of chairs to be provided in the studio for the live audience.


  Whoever said that it's the handshake that counts is right. That is because, at least for us, it is our partners who are essential for the well-oiled workings of all of the moving parts necessary to drive projects to completion. To their credit -- and perhaps to ours -- we haven't had any of the ugly falling-outs that sometimes occur when parties work together under contract. While we may have outgrown some partnerships or the symbiotic nature of some partnerships may have changed over time, we've managed fairly smooth interactions.

And so, I do credit the handshake, yes, but I also acknowledge the careful introspection on our part, our wise choice of partners, and our willingness to manage their work. In short it is important when working with partners, as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "Trust, but verify."

Dan Leonard co-founded Biznews24 in 1999 with Jack Heath and Jay Lucas. Leonard has over 15 years of experience in corporate communications, political management, and broadcasting. Formerly, he served in senior management at the Washington D.C. public relations firms of Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates, and Edelman Public Relations.

Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of EntreWorld.org, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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