By Susan Vaughn
You're no collaborator. You're a lone wolf. A solo artist. An independent professional. You're happy to be working solo -- and the idea of teaming up with another IP for a particular project makes you queasy.
Sooner or later, however, you're bound to encounter circumstances that will make an informal partnership with another IP seem an attractive option. Maybe you'll fall hopelessly behind on a project, or get halfway through a job only to realize you lack the skill or the time to complete it. Or maybe the job is simply bigger than you expected. What do you do then? Ditch the work, change your name, and sneak off to Cabo San Lucas? You could -- but it might be more professional to find an able amigo to help you through the predicament.
Robert Day of Disaster Solutions, a one-man data protection and business continuity firm in Parrish, Fla., recently formed his first IP partnership.
For a few years now, Day has had a lucrative "software and help desk" contract with Florida's Manatee County School Board, which oversees a school district of 4,000 employees and nearly 40,000 students. Day supplements the school district's full-time technical support staff, helping it to manage a variety of computer problems for the district's administrators -- hard drive crashes, data loss, virus infections, log-on difficulties, and the occasional episode of Internet abuse (i.e. dealing with employees who spend a little too much time surfing hotandheavy.com). As an expert in disaster management, Day also helps school district administrators prepare for the severe hurricanes and tropical storms that, in Florida, frequently threaten routine operations.
Due to the size of the school district's staff and a recent computer system upgrade, which required Day to install new software on thousands of computers, his workload became more than he could manage. He was devoting so much time to the school district -- a single client -- that he had little time left for managing his business. In particular, he sought time for marketing himself and finding more clients. "Having all my eggs in one basket made me nervous," he says.
Aware of Day's predicament, the school district's tech support manager, Steve Wright, suggested that Day take on a partner -- temporarily and on a contract basis. Wright even suggested a particular person -- Al Cox, an IP of five years who had a "break and fix" contract with the district (which meant that Cox would be called upon to repair the district's computer hardware when it broke).
Together at Last
Day didn't warm to the idea immediately. He had never before contracted with a partner, and he considers himself "kind of a control freak" when it comes to his work. He wasn't confident that Al Cox or anyone else "would treat his client(s) with the respect" that he customarily does. People skills were cause for concern, too. "Half the battle is dealing with the person, is hand-holding," says Day.
At the same time, says Day, "I also realized that, unless I cloned myself, [the work] wasn't gonna happen." Day overcame his reservations primarily because Wright, the tech manager, had recommended Cox. "I figured, if [the client's] suggesting it, I really have nothing to lose by trying it."
From Cox's point of view, a partnership with Day would offer more billable hours for his own business, Access Computer Services, based in Palmetto, Fla. Although Cox had the "break and fix" contract with the school district, he hadn't generated much income from it because the district's computers, all relatively new, were still under warranty. Simply put, says Cox, "I wasn't receiving any calls from the school." A partnership with Day, who had a surplus of work, would increase his income.
Cox says he had few apprehensions about the prospect of partnering with Day. "I knew that I was qualified to do the work properly," he says. "I just had to convince Rob."
And a partnership was born.
A Perfect Pair
Even after Day and Cox had established the partnership, Day worried that Cox, a hardware specialist, might not have enough software knowledge to join him on the job. Day was hesitant to delegate tasks, despite the client's high opinion of Cox's abilities.
"It was hard for me to let go," says Day. "I had this overwhelming urge to be there all the time."
Cox quickly allayed Day's fears, however. "He's good at what he does," says Day. "I don't even have to be around. I trust him to do everything as I would." Day notes that Cox performs his tasks ably, and receives compliments from people he has assisted.
"Not only did people love his demeanor, but when it came to fixing hardware like DVD players, or linking something to a SCSI drive, he was quicker and more efficient than I was, " says Day. Cox is especially adept at hardware installation and diagnosing the source of communications interruptions. Day, the software expert, says Cox's skills complement his own. "I might tend to play around a little longer with the software [than Cox would]."
The Legal Mumbo Jumbo
The business arrangement between Day and Cox was simple. Since Day already held the contract for the help-desk job (he had written and submitted the winning proposal for it), he remains the official holder of the contract. Day bills the school district for his hours and for Cox's, and receives a check made out to his business. In turn, Day makes out a check to Access Computer Systems for Cox's portion of the labor.
Before they began to work as a team, however, Day also asked Cox to sign a non-competition agreement, "just for this one client." The agreement -- the only document they signed -- stipulated that Cox would not respond to any RFPs from the Manatee School District for software and help-desk jobs for the duration of the contract and for at least three years after its termination.
Other than that, Day's only concern was the client's satisfaction: "If the client's happy, I'm happy."
The two men will review the partnership, which currently extends only to the Manatee School District project, when Day's year-to-year contract with the district is next up for review by school officials.
Day and Cox agree that the partnership has gone better than either could have expected, and they plan to join forces for a few future projects, although each will maintain independent businesses and relationships with separate clients. Teamwork, they've found, enables them to take on more work than either could alone.
"I learned to be able to let go, to take that leap of faith," Day says. "If you get a gut instinct that it'll be okay, you can confidently let the other person do his own thing without dreading a [complaint] call from the client." Cox appreciates Day's hard-won trust, and this mutual respect is an important component of their successful working relationship. "When you're working for yourself, everything can be lost in the blink of an eye," says Cox. "For Rob to trust me to represent his company as well as mine shows [the level of] his trust."
May 15, 2000
Primary Editor: Eric Gershon
Illustrator: Steve Smallwood
Production: Fletcher Moore
We'd love to hear your comments about this article!
Susan Vaughn is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles, CA. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.