How to Handle Partners Who Are Bullies

Bullying and bullies are in the news a lot these days. Usually these are kids who physically or mentally torment and intimidate their classmates. In business partnerships, we frequently see a different kind of bully – the partner (who never should have been a partner in the first place) who refuses to listen to other points of view, puts his own interests ahead of those of the partnership, and generally wreaks havoc on the business. So, how do you deal with these bullies?

The first and most effective way is not going into business with them in the first place. There are plenty of articles warning you to choose your partners carefully, so I won’t belabor that point, but it’s worth noting once more – there is virtually no business decision that will affect you more than the decision of who you go into business with – choose well.

Second, have clear, detailed and well thought out organizational and governing documents that all partners understand and agree to at the outset. These documents should cover such basic issues as: (i) who gets to be an owner; (ii) who participates in management and how management decisions are made; (iii) what your general business objectives are; (iv) what happens if the company needs more capital; (v) how you avoid or address disagreements; and (vi) how and when you will make the decision to sell, merge, dissolve or otherwise exit the business or the owners’ partnership.

The third strategy follows logically from the second – having those governing documents in place is not enough – follow them. The easiest way to handle a difficult partnership disagreement is to simply follow the rules that you’ve laid out for the business.

The final strategy is more of an admonition – do NOT allow your difficult partner to bully you into making bad decisions or otherwise treat you or the business unfairly or act unwisely and then claim to be a victim! I see this frequently, and it is NOT an excuse to simply say your partner is a bad person and made you do these things that were bad for you or the company. You’re the caretaker of your business, and no one said it would be easy. Stand up to the bully!

Some Burns Never Heal

I’ve said it many times – Iowa is an easy state in which to network and connect with people. I think this is due to the general nature of Iowans. They’re open, trusting, mentoring and supportive – in business and in life. They understand that supporting another businessperson striving to succeed benefits everyone – which is why it’s so easy to network and establish meaningful and mutually beneficial business relationships in this great state. And once you start establishing these relationships and a reputation for honesty, integrity, hard work and excellence, it snowballs and becomes easier.

This article is not about the ease of networking and connecting with people, however. It’s more of a discussion of the flip-side reality. That is the permanent damage caused to a businessperson’s reputation and ultimate prospects for success when you “burn” someone.

I know – a ridiculously obvious topic for a blog post. But, I also think it’s important. Simply put, you need to avoid “burning” people in business and in life – not just because it’s morally wrong (I’ll let you be the judge of that), but because it will come back to harm you in the end.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should be a patsy or that you shouldn’t be a shrewd negotiator or take hard stances in your business transactions. Those tactics lead to business successes and often the respect of your adversaries. Nor am I advocating for some sort of socialism where everyone shares equally in all opportunities. No, I’m a true capitalist. What I am saying is, do it the right way. Fulfill your promises. Meet your commitments. Be honest. Treat people fairly. And always act with integrity. Failure to do so and “burning” someone in the process will have permanent consequences and will not soon (if ever) be forgotten. And just like it’s easy to build a positive reputation in this state, it’s just as easy to build a negative one.

Is Your Lawyer Disruptive? Shouldn’t He/She Be?

When people think of the qualities they want in a lawyer, disruptive doesn’t always come to mind – in fact, it rarely does. However, this is one of the most important qualities in growth stage and entrepreneurial/start-up companies wanting to revolutionize their market segment and change the world. So why don’t clients (especially the kind mentioned in the preceding sentence) insist that their lawyers – in addition to being outstanding technical lawyers – be disruptive? After all, doesn’t it make sense that the most innovative and forward-thinking lawyers would relate best to the most progressive companies and clients? Sadly, I think the reason people don’t generally seek out these qualities in their lawyers is because they don’t know they exist. And, why is that? Because lawyers and the legal community have set the bar so low when it comes to innovation, creativity and client-centric business practices – choosing to require clients to conform to the traditional attorney-client model, rather than the attorneys focusing on what the clients want and need. In my opinion, clients should insist on more – and lawyers should deliver more.

So, I ask, is your lawyer disruptive, and if not, why not? The answer, of course, depends on what it means to be disruptive as a lawyer and whether/how that disruptiveness can benefit you and your company as a client and consumer of legal services. When I think of disruption in the legal world, I don’t mean reckless, hasty, rude or destructive. Rather, what I mean is not just the ability, but the desire, and in fact the affirmative goal, to think outside the box and provide creative client-driven solutions to your business and legal challenges – not canned or pre-scripted “one size fits all” responses from a dusty legal treatise.

With the foregoing definition in mind, you may say, “thank you but no, I don’t want my lawyers to be disruptive – I want them to provide the same “buttoned-down” black letter responses that their forefathers provided to my predecessors and leave creativity to me. If so, then this article probably hasn’t resonated with you. If, however, you like the idea of a creative, disruptive thinking lawyer and law firm, find one – they’re out there!

Understand What No Lawyer or Document Can Do For You

I was recently helping a client with a stock purchase in a deal that just felt wrong to me. Each time we asked a question or reviewed a document, it seemed additional issues, questions and concerns arose. Notwithstanding this fact, the investment bankers, company officers and selling stockholders assured us in each instance that there was no problem – usually with the excuse that it was simply bad record-keeping, a lack of attention to detail or a favorable related party transaction that would not adversely affect the company or my client going forward. In fact, they said, it was precisely because of these circumstances that my client had been presented with this amazing investment opportunity. I did not find these explanations to be persuasive or reassuring, even when the sellers agreed to provide a litany of warranties and representations, broad indemnification rights, and other contractual protections.

In this circumstance, I was compelled to explain to my client a very simple fact – while a lawyer can draft an all-encompassing contract in which virtually every possible risk is anticipated and addressed with detailed indemnifications, aggressive remedial provisions, escrows, etc., that does not turn a bad deal into a good one or provide the same level of protection as walking away from a bad deal.

The simple truth is, if your due diligence yields more questions than answers more uncertainty than certainty, and more risks than opportunities – and if you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to protect yourself from known and unknown legal risks and possible bad behavior or misrepresentations by the other party (versus ordinary course business risks) – no amount of lawyering and no legal document can adequately protect you. In that case, you really only have 2 choices – (1) walk away from the deal, or (2) draft that over-the-top contract with all of the bells, whistles and protections and “hang on for the ride.” And if you opt for alternative 2, understand that a good lawyer and a good contract do not make a good deal.

Does Your Business Need a Little “Spring Cleaning?”

Spring is an exciting time. It signals the end of a long, dark and sometimes dreary winter and the beginning of a new season of growth, opportunity, color and activity. It’s also the time when many of us make a long “to do” list filled with tasks that we tackle with energy, enthusiasm and excitement – knowing that truly the seeds we plant today will yield a bountiful harvest some time down the road.

Unfortunately, very few of us have a similar seasonal signal that it’s time to clean up, get organized and plan(t) for the future. Instead, we’re so wrapped up in the day-to-day activities of running our businesses that we never get to the “spring cleaning.” Since spring is literally upon us, I want to make a pitch for a seasonal sprucing up from a business and legal standpoint.

As business owners, you know far better than I what sorts of projects will most benefit your businesses – but I’ll take a shot at identifying some that might yield value (while sticking with my spring cleaning analogy):

• Reset the Clocks – businesses and their owners need to reset priorities and revise strategies from time to time, or you simply run out of time in the day.

• Clean Out the Garage – businesses develop “clutter” just like households. Take the time to clean up and eliminate it so that it doesn’t distract you from your mission.

• Plant the Annuals – annuals are like near term goals for a business. With a limited amount of effort they can blossom and yield immediate benefit, but only if you do the groundwork at the right time and in the right way.

• Plant the Perennials – perennials are more like long term business objectives. They require more planning and nurturing than annuals, but yield long term rewards.

• Do It Yourself and/or Hire the (right) Lawn Service – this is a big one. As the owner, you need to decide where your time is best spent and who the right people are to handle the rest. Do what you’re best at and enjoy most and hire the rest. BUT, don’t hire the first service that sends you an attractive brochure. Make sure your advisers understand you and your business.

Spring is a time of great energy and promise. Make sure you harness both for the benefit of your business.

Negotiating With Investors – Focus on What Really Matters

Negotiations with investors are tough – especially when you’re not accustomed to these kinds of discussions and the party across the table engages in them on a regular basis.  What’s the most important advice (right after hiring a good/experienced lawyer who understands your business) – focus on what’s important – economics and control.

Having stated that you must understand and try to aggressively protect, retain and preserve economic/financial upside and control, it’s also essential to understand that the investor has something you need – money – and it’s inherently reasonable for that investor to expect in return for providing you with that money that he or she will receive both (a) substantial economic upside in the event the company is successful and downside protection if it’s not, and (b) a degree of control in order to protect that investment.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a detailed explanation in a blog post of all of the terms and variables that arise in negotiating economics and control, but here are a few you must understand (Note – if you don’t know what these terms mean, find out before negotiating):

• Valuation – what ownership share will the investor get for invested dollars?

• Dividends – if the investor is to receive dividends, how much, when, who decides, and are they cumulative?

• Preference – assuming the investor gets paid first upon a liquidity event and that payment is more than the initial investment (i.e., a preference), how much more?

• Participation – after receiving the preference, does the investor get to “participate” in the remaining proceeds, and if so, to what extent?

• Dilution – how can various parties be diluted (including by an employee incentive pool), and what impact will this have on distribution of proceeds?

• Board Seats – who fills the Board seats, and what is the “balance of power”?

• Voting Rights and Protective Provisions – what issues does the investor get to vote on and/or veto?

• Conversion Rights – assuming investors receive preferred stock, when can they convert to common, and what impact might that have?

• Tag-Along and Drag-Along – under what circumstances can parties force others to participate in a sale or allow them to participate in a sale?

The above list is, admittedly, abbreviated, but it should give you an idea of the most important issues in negotiating with investors – everything else pales in comparison.

The Pros and Cons of the “Just Do It” Mentality

I’m showing my age with this one, but hopefully most reading this will at least vaguely remember the old Nike ads urging you to, “Just Do It.” They were filled with pictures of great athletes “giving 110%,” “going the extra mile,” and otherwise living the “no pain, no gain” mantra. I’m a big believer in that portion of the message and note that it would seem to have equal applicability and validity in the business world as well as the sports world. After all, it’s not easy to excel or reach the top (or even your own best) in any activity – without extremely hard work and complete focus and dedication, you’re not likely to get there in sports, business or life.

However, the other message that some people got from the “Just Do It” slogan is extreme urgency – the need to move immediately, take unreasonable chances and bet it all to succeed – throwing caution to the wind in exchange for moving quickly. While that may (or in fact may not) be a reasonable thing to do in your sports and fitness training, I believe this approach is both imprudent and generally unnecessary in your business matters, and sometimes leads to disaster.

The bottom line is, I think “Just Do It” is a great mantra for buying shoes – and even for bringing out the inner athlete, inner entrepreneur, or inner risk-taker of virtually any kind in all of us. After all, great ideas, great people and great companies usually start with someone discarding the status quo and opting instead to take a risk by introducing some sort of “disruptive” idea or concept. However, I don’t think it is a great strategy for running your business. In that regard, I prefer one of the famous quotes by the late John Wooden – “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”