Lessons learned from a small business alliance gone awry

By Holly Gonzalez

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Isn’t that how so many relationships gone wrong begin?

A little backstory: Lisa and I shared a history. At different points in each of our careers, we had both worked for Shari, a demanding, but hugely talented public relations executive. Shari introduced us to each other, and we bonded instantly. It was a badge of honor that we had survived Shari’s, shall we say, “interesting” managerial style. We swapped war stories, but importantly, we became trusted friends and business confidants. Lisa had launched a small PR firm of her own, while I focused my energies on freelance copywriting, with the occasional event management project. As we were growing our creative businesses at the same time, it was terrific to have someone to talk about the nuts and bolts of clients, contracts and keeping sane.

I maintained a home office, while Lisa leased office space. She relied on college interns and entry level account executives to help manage her workload, but she soon realized the need to beef up her staff with a more senior PR professional. When she asked if I’d be willing to work for her part-time, I was thrilled. In my fantasy, I would just swing by the office, churn out a few press releases, spiff up a couple of editorial calendars and be out the door by lunch. Really, how hard could this be?

What I somehow failed to take into account was that while I was on Lisa’s dime, I really couldn’t call clients, work on my own projects, or schedule meetings. I know, this seems like a no-brainer. But I figured I could tackle some writing before I headed into her office, and return calls and emails in the afternoon. And that’s what I did, but it wasn’t easy, and I sure wasn’t happy. For someone who prides herself on responsiveness and quick turnaround, I was failing miserably. I had this tiny window of time when I could meet face-to-face with clients, and I ended up missing vendor and customer calls, and scrambling to make deadlines. It was stressful, and my clients got the raw end of the deal.

However, Lisa was appreciative of the skills I brought to the table and when she laid out her future plans, she wanted me as her vice president and eventual partner in the agency. I will admit that the idea of a steady paycheck, rather than scratching around for new business, was particularly alluring to me.

So I made the decision to scale back my own business, and stepped up to manage the agency and its clients, freeing Lisa to focus on drumming up new business. But as I spent more and more time in the office (and less and less time nurturing my own freelance projects), I discovered that while Lisa wanted—and needed—someone like me with solid experience, she wasn’t really ready to let go of the reins, leaving me with little flexibility to make decisions, interact with clients and manage her small staff. So my hours in her office were less than productive, since she needed to sign-off on every memo, rewrite every press release, and second-guess every decision. What I should have recognized as red flags, I instead brushed off as bumps in the road.

I began to sense some tension, and could feel Lisa pulling away—our meetings became less frequent, I was working on fewer projects, and it was hard to actually meet with her, since she seemed to be unavailable—even when she was in the office. We had been working on a community relations project for months, and when the client decided not to renew, that was the final tipping point. Understandably she was stressed, but I figured we’d roll up our sleeves and find some business to replace the lost revenue. Instead, Lisa told me that our deal was done: with the community relations project gone, there was little work that required my expertise—or my salary.

Here I was, not even five months into this alliance, and it had already gone bust. While I should have seen it coming, I was blindsided… and I was scared. I had given my clients the heave-ho, and work was scarce. I would essentially need to start my business from scratch all over again. Looking back, it probably took me nearly a year to build my business back up to where it had been before. It’s been more than a decade since this alliance debacle, but that experience taught me some lessons that still serve me well today:

Don’t let your business lie fallow.
I made the mistake of stepping away from a business that I had carefully tended and nurtured. It didn’t take long for it to wither on the vine (let’s see how many gardening and farming analogies can I cram in here!). This lesson holds true for any small business—don’t let a large, seemingly lucrative project take your attention away from your other customers. It can take a minute to lose them, and months, if not years to get them back, if at all.

Be wary of alliances with friends.
Sure, there are plenty that work out swimmingly. But in my case, because we were friends, I chose to ignore some clear signs that our arrangement was headed for disaster. Take a minute to consider if you would still partner with this person if they weren’t your friend. Are your work styles compatible and do they complement one another? Do you see eye-to-eye on critical business decisions? And does each of you respect the other, and trust their judgment?

Be true to yourself.
I’m a solopreneur. I love that I work for myself, call all the shots and can choose to work on those projects for which I’m best suited. And I entered into alliance that squashed the very freedom and independence that I relish. It’s no wonder it was doomed to fail! Before you choose to partner up with someone, ask yourself if you’ll still be “you.”

Listen to your gut.
Even when the contract looks great on paper, and the alliance seems like a winner for all involved, sometimes there’s a small nagging voice that’s telling you, um, maybe not. What that voice is saying may not be logical, or grounded in reason, but listen to it. Because every business alliance is still a relationship, and if you sense that you’re not going to click—talk openly and honestly about your concerns with your prospective partner before you take that leap.
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Holly Gonzalez is an independent copywriter and marketing strategist with more than 20 years of experience, specializing in marketing communications. A native South Floridian, she grew up in Coral Gables. Now based in Austin, TX, her clients include advertising agencies, design firms and corporate clients throughout Texas, Florida and New England. Prior to launching her freelance copywriting business, Holly served as director of special events and public relations for advertising and public relations agencies in Miami and Boston. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Smith College. For more information visit www.hollygonzalez.com.

1 comment

  1. johny says:

    talk openly and honestly about your concerns with your prospective partner before you take that leap.

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