Dear Captain Awkward,
Almost a year and a half ago, while I was in tenuous material circumstances myself, my partner of less than a year got sick. One minute they were having a biopsy and the next minute they were fresh out of what turned out to be cancer surgery. Shocked, I didn’t have the presence of mind to prevent post-surgery on my couch from turning into living on my couch.
Frustrated with my overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of epic shitty circumstances (which also later turned out to include partner’s mental health crash-and-burn), and failing to get caretaking support from their family, my community, and whatever social safety net ostensibly exists for someone like my now-ex,I started aggressively pursuing work.
I struck a deal with my friend to help with their small online business. Working for them for the past almost year has allowed me not only to address my recent and childhood traumas in therapy, but also to enroll in a course to learn their trade.
They offered me partnership, I took it. We’ve been splitting the revenues, but have yet to finalize our partnership agreement.
So here is the deal: my prospective business partner also struggles with chronic and mental illness. Sometimes getting them to do any work even on a flexible timeframe is like pulling teeth. Right now, the money coming in is by-and-large from a combo of their old work and my current work.
I am torn.
They extended a hand to me when I desperately needed it, and they really did help give me space to heal. Having experienced mental illness and loved someone who has mental illness, I have a hard time writing them off just because they’re difficult to work with. They were so patient with me when there were some days, and some weeks, when I just couldn’t work.
On the other hand, I *did* do a lot of work. I went to therapy, I got my ex off my couch, I revived their business, and I invested in professional development education which will empower me, if I choose, to work on my own. After everything I just went through, and from where I stand now, I am seriously balking at formalizing my commitment to this person who is reliably unreliable about doing anything besides paying me.
What should I do?
So Burnt Out (She)
Dear So Burnt Out:
YOU ARE CLEARLY AWESOME AND YOU KNOW YOUR OWN VALUE. GOOD JOB DIGGING YOURSELF OUT OF A REALLY HARD SITUATION.
Also, don’t sign that thing yet. Balking at it is a healthy sign that you are taking care of yourself.
In my opinion, before you sign anything:
You need…a vacation of at least a week where you take care of nothing or no one but you.
You need…to schedule periodic breaks for yourself through the end of the year so that you can take care of yourself. Put your winter holiday plans on the calendar. Put a brief September or October getaway on the calendar. Hell, you’re the boss, so put “I don’t work on Fridays over the summer” on the calendar if that can be done reasonably. Ask your business partner to do the same thing. “Let’s schedule some breaks so that we can stay on top of the work without getting burnt out.”
You need…to explore your field and investigate where you fit in. Maybe work with a career coach or mentor (who is not your business partner). Maybe set up some informational interviews with people who do the kind of work you do. See if there is a MeetUp or professional organization related to what you do. Join them. Attend events.
This is a project of a few months where you figure out what you really want to be doing with your professional life longer-term. This is where you also remind yourself that you have options and this partnership is just one of those options. This research will help you negotiate and make decisions from a position of strength.
You need…to hammer out some things with your business partner before you make a final decision.
Unspoken agreements, unwritten rules, and assumptions are morale-killers, partnership-killers and business-killers. Creating a partnership means putting things in writing and spelling them out so that the boundaries and rewards are clear. If things are not clear between you, either in general or in the current contract, then it’s time to make them more clear.
Reminder: I am not a lawyer or expert in how business partnerships work, and this is not legal advice. You should have your own attorney look at anything you sign before you sign it. This advice is meant to help you think through what you need from any partnership to make it function well for the specific actual people in this actual situation. Maybe these are discussion questions that you work through, maybe these go into a memo that gets added to your agreement. Make sense?
- What is your business partner’s best-case scenario for how this will all work? Have they spelled out a vision for how they want the firm to operate long-term? Is this congruent with what you want?
- Is your role going to be that of managing partner, where you are responsible for setting deadlines and “getting them” to do the work on schedule? Is this structure spelled out (and rewarded)?
- What are the expectations of how many hours/week or month each partner will work? What are the expectations of quantity and quality of work output?
- What accommodations do you need in a flare-up of your respective illnesses? Can you agree that during these times there is a protocol to follow?
- What are the terms if either of you needs time off or a lighter workload for medical reasons? What is the plan should one or either of you become unable to work for a significant period of time? Is there a structure in place for one partner taking a leave of absence? What short-term and long-term disability insurance can the company put in place for both of you?
- Even when things are good, what’s the plan for each of you to take adequate time off in the course of the year, to recharge and avoid burnout? Are there times of year when it’s ok to wind the business down or take turns taking longer breaks to pursue other interests and opportunities?
- Is there a continuing education budget so that you can both keep your skills sharp?
- What are the terms for dissolving the partnership if you decide to seek another opportunity later?
How you both answer these questions doesn’t have to look like how any other business would answer these questions, as long as whatever you agree is transparent and it works for both of you. You don’t have to build your business based what theoretical non-mentally-ill people “should” do in the same situation.
Think of it this way: This person built a business that sustained themselves all this time and that was able to grow to sustain you when you needed it. They are not your couch-living-ex! That doesn’t mean you owe this person continued service or that you need to hitch your wagon to their star forever, and you definitely shouldn’t continue working there if you don’t want to. But this is in no way an automatic “Sheesh, here I am, the unwilling caretaker, AGAIN” situation. You don’t have to accept this role, and you certainly don’t have to accept it without negotiation. If you can have some honest conversations, you have a rare opportunity to build a business together that builds in accommodations for burn-out and for people with mental illness from the start.
For example, instead of having a situation like you have now, where you feel like you’re the one keeping things afloat without recognition or an end in sight or a safe way to talk about it, you could decide to have a “Hey, partner, I notice you’re having trouble meeting deadlines right now. Are you all right? Do we need to activate Article 11?” conversation, where Article 11 is:
- Ill partner takes a couple of days off, as soon as possible, to regroup and start whatever medical care is necessary.
- Other partner helps triage their work so they are doing only what they can and what is necessary for them to do, at reasonable deadlines.
- The company budgets to bring in a temporary assistant to handle admin & billing issues and to take non-essential things off the collective plate.
- After a certain time period (2-3 months?) you agree that it’s time to discuss adding an additional staff member to the company full-time or making some other accommodation.
Obviously, I am making this up out of my head as an example of what you could negotiate in my beautiful fantasy about what a business that actually intentionally accommodates people with mental illnesses could look like. Adapt whatever is useful for you.
A script for the conversation could be, “Hey, before I sign these papers, I think we need to talk more about the way we set up our business so that it works for both of us. You were so wonderfully able to accommodate me when I was dealing with [sucky life situation], and I want to be able to accommodate you the same way now that you’re dealing with [sucky life situation]. Can we hammer out a structure that will help us stay profitable and grow, maintain parity in our workloads, and make this really sustainable for us as a company and as human beings?”
See also: “Hey, I know I still haven’t signed the papers. My bandwidth for doing xyz work is being exceeded right now, and I need some help brainstorming a way to handle that before finalizing our agreement.”
Or, “You’ve been having trouble with deadlines lately, and I am feeling overwhelmed and close to burnout. I need some time off next week. Can you step in?”
You don’t have to sign the papers, ever. If your time of working with this person is done, it’s okay to decide that, and telling them is a kind thing to do so they can make good decisions about their business. “I’m so grateful for all you’ve done, but in practice a partnership arrangement isn’t working for me and I’d like to [go back to freelance at $xxxx rate][strike out on my own][stay on until I find another job][be hired as a project manager at $xxxxxx salary][help you hire someone before I start new job on (date)][wind down my projects].”
If you don’t feel like you can raise these questions with this person, factor that into your decision. (i.e. Do not partner.)
If you raise these things and the answers are vague, defensive, full of expectations that you should be grateful for all they’ve “given” you, factor that into your decision. (i.e. Do not partner.)
If you taking time off for a even a week is impossible because you can’t trust your partner to keep things on an even keel while you’re out, factor that into your decision. (i.e. …)
If you honestly feel you’d be happier and do better if you strike out on your own, factor that into your decision. (Hence…)
Partnership and collaboration involve risk, and vulnerability, for both people. Can lovely, generous, imperfect you and this lovely, generous, imperfect person risk a little more to have the conversations that would make the things you do together not just work, but sing? I can’t help wondering. That doesn’t obligate you, but I can’t help wondering.
If you’re going to build a business, build the business you want to work in. You’re going to do and be great, whatever you decide.