20 Questions You Should Ask Before Starting A Business

Embarking on a business venture with partners is like entering a professional marriage. Much like a successful romantic relationship, a thriving business partnership requires clear communication, trust, and a mutual understanding of each party’s roles and responsibilities. One of the most effective ways to build this strong foundation is to ask probing questions at the outset. This exercise allows you to clarify expectations, prevent misunderstandings, and establish a robust framework for your business.

Equity & Decision-Making

How will equity be distributed among the partners?

This question is one of the first you should tackle, as it sets the tone for the financial structure of your business. Determining how ownership is divided among the partners will affect everything from capital contributions to profit sharing and even the balance of power within the company.

Why it’s important: An unequal distribution of equity could lead to resentment and conflicts down the line. The agreement should reflect not only the initial contributions but also the expected workload and responsibilities of each partner. Being upfront about equity distribution ensures that all partners have a clear understanding of their stake in the business, which fosters a sense of ownership and commitment.

What is the decision-making process for day-to-day operations?

This question helps clarify the practical aspects of running the business. Knowing who is responsible for what and how decisions are made can streamline operations and reduce friction.

Why it’s important: Without a clear decision-making process, your business could become mired in inefficiency or even paralysis, as partners debate or second-guess routine decisions. Establishing a process creates a more effective workflow and allows the team to adapt quickly to challenges and opportunities. It also minimizes the potential for conflict by setting clear expectations around authority and responsibility.

How will major business decisions be made?

This question addresses the “big picture” decisions that can significantly impact the company, such as mergers, acquisitions, or pivoting the business model.

Why it’s important: Major decisions can make or break a business and therefore require thorough deliberation and consensus among the partners. Setting a process for these decisions—whether it’s unanimous consent, a majority vote, or some other method—creates a roadmap for navigating complex issues. It also provides a framework for constructive debate, ensuring that all partners’ views are considered, and that the ultimate decision aligns with the company’s goals and values.

Finances & Contributions

photo of couple talking while holding laptop and ipad

The financial health of a business often determines its long-term viability. To avoid future disputes or financial challenges, it’s crucial to discuss the financial contributions and obligations of each partner upfront. This section delves into the questions you should consider to ensure a smooth financial journey for your business partnership.

What are the initial capital contributions from each partner?

Determining the initial capital contributions sets the stage for the financial structure of your business. This question addresses how much each partner will contribute to launch the business and what form that contribution will take—be it cash, assets, or services.

Why it’s important: Clear agreements about initial capital contributions prevent misunderstandings and potential legal disputes. It also allows you to plan better for startup costs and assess the financial commitment level of each partner. Knowing who contributes what also ties back to the issue of equity distribution, helping to ensure that ownership shares are allocated in a way that everyone deems fair.

How will future financial needs be met?

Every business faces unexpected costs or opportunities that require additional funding. Whether it’s scaling operations, entering new markets, or weathering financial downturns, knowing how you will address these future financial needs is crucial.

Why it’s important: Discussing this upfront enables you to create a financial safety net for your business. It also prepares you for various scenarios, from best-case rapid growth to worst-case financial crises. Having a strategy in place for meeting future financial needs ensures that you won’t be caught off guard when additional capital is required, thereby reducing stress and potential conflicts among partners.

How will profits and losses be distributed?

The ultimate aim of any business is profitability. However, the path to profitability may involve navigating through periods of financial loss. This question addresses how both scenarios will be handled within the partnership.

Why it’s important: Agreeing on the distribution of profits and losses aligns the partners on business goals and sets clear expectations. It also affects each partner’s personal finances, so it’s crucial for avoiding misunderstandings or conflicts later on. Whether profits are reinvested into the business or distributed among partners—and in what proportion—needs to be agreed upon in advance to ensure smooth financial operations and a harmonious partnership.

Conflict Resolution & Exit Strategy

While we’d like to think that our business partnership will be a smooth ride, the reality is that conflicts and unexpected life events are inevitable. Addressing these issues head-on can spell the difference between a partnership that withstands the test of time and one that disintegrates at the first sign of trouble. Here are the key questions you should consider to ensure you’re prepared for whatever comes your way.

What is the agreed-upon method for resolving disputes?

Whether it’s a disagreement over business strategy or financial decisions, disputes among partners are bound to arise. Having a pre-established method for resolving conflicts can save time, money, and relationships.

Why it’s important: Without a clear conflict-resolution mechanism, disputes can escalate, leading to legal battles, financial losses, and a toxic work environment. Whether it’s mediation, arbitration, or a simple majority vote, agreeing on a method upfront keeps emotional and reactive decision-making in check. It also preserves the integrity of the partnership by ensuring that disputes are resolved in a fair and transparent manner.

What happens if a partner wants to leave the business?

Over time, personal or professional circumstances may change, leading a partner to exit the business. Knowing how this process will be handled is critical for a smooth transition.

Why it’s important: The exit of a partner can have significant implications for a business, from operational disruption to financial strain. Having a clearly outlined exit strategy ensures that the business can continue to operate effectively, and it provides a fair exit process for the departing partner. Whether it’s a buyout agreement, finding a replacement, or dissolving the business altogether, a well-thought-out exit plan minimizes disruption and provides clarity for all parties involved.

people having conflict while working

How would the company handle the incapacity or death of a partner?

While it’s a grim topic that many prefer to avoid, the sudden incapacity or death of a partner is a scenario that needs to be addressed.

Why it’s important: The unexpected loss of a partner can throw a business into chaos, causing operational disruptions and placing financial and emotional strain on remaining partners. Having a plan in place—often in the form of a buy-sell agreement—provides a roadmap for how the business and its remaining partners will navigate this challenging time. It ensures that the business can continue to function, while providing financial security for the affected partner or their family.

By addressing these difficult questions upfront, you’re not just preparing for worst-case scenarios; you’re fortifying your business partnership against the uncertainties of the future. This proactive approach allows you to focus on growing your business, secure in the knowledge that you’re prepared for whatever challenges lie ahead.

Growth & Adaptability

Any thriving business is a growing business, but growth doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of strategic planning, market adaptability, and the ability to scale effectively. As partners, aligning your vision for growth and how to adapt to changing circumstances is crucial for long-term success. Below are the pivotal questions you should explore to set your business on a trajectory for sustainable growth.

What is the growth strategy for the next 1, 3, and 5 years?

Strategic planning is an exercise in foresight. Discussing your growth objectives for the short, medium, and long term ensures that all partners are on the same page about the direction of the business.

Why it’s important: Having a defined growth strategy provides a roadmap for the business, helping to guide decision-making and resource allocation. It allows you to measure progress against specific milestones and make necessary adjustments if you’re veering off course. Furthermore, it ensures that all partners are aligned in their vision for the company, reducing the potential for conflicts about the business’s direction.

How adaptable is the business model to market changes?

No business operates in a vacuum. Market conditions, consumer behavior, and even global events can drastically affect your business. The ability to adapt to these changes is vital for long-term survival.

Why it’s important: A rigid business model is a recipe for failure. Being flexible and adaptable allows you to pivot when necessary, capitalizing on new opportunities or mitigating challenges. Discussing this adaptability upfront ensures that all partners are prepared for change and open to innovation. It allows you to build a business model that can withstand market fluctuations and even thrive in the face of adversity.

What’s the plan for scaling the team as the business grows?

As your business expands, so will your staffing needs. Whether it’s bringing in new talent or developing existing team members, planning for this growth is essential.

Why it’s important: Human resources are often the most significant cost and asset for a business. Planning for team growth ensures that you have the necessary manpower to support business expansion. It also allows you to budget accordingly, avoiding financial strain from unexpected hiring needs. Discussing this in advance ensures that all partners agree on the type of team culture you want to build and the calibre of talent you wish to attract.

Addressing these questions on growth and adaptability not only prepares your business for the future but also strengthens the partnership. It provides a shared vision and strategy for navigating the challenges and opportunities that come with business growth, ensuring that your partnership remains strong even as the business evolves.

Legal & Compliance

While the dynamics of a partnership are often forged in the crucible of shared goals and mutual trust, a business also operates within a complex legal landscape. Overlooking this aspect can lead to severe consequences, from intellectual property disputes to regulatory fines. Here are the questions you should be asking to ensure that your business partnership is not only strong but also compliant with all legal requirements.

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What kind of business structure best suits our needs?

The choice between a corporation, partnership, or LLC isn’t just a matter of personal preference; it has far-reaching implications for taxation, liability, and governance.

Why it’s important: The business structure you choose affects everything from your personal liability to how you file your taxes. It influences how you can raise capital, the paperwork you need to file, and the regulations you must comply with. Agreeing on a business structure upfront eliminates ambiguity and sets the legal foundation for your enterprise. It also provides potential investors and stakeholders a clear understanding of your business organization.

How will intellectual property be managed and protected?

In today’s knowledge-based economy, intellectual property (IP) can be among a business’s most valuable assets. Whether it’s a groundbreaking software, a unique product design, or a recognizable brand, protecting these assets is crucial.

Why it’s important: Failure to protect your IP can result in loss of competitive advantage and can even expose you to legal risks. Conversely, properly managed IP can become a source of revenue through licensing or sales. Discussing how to protect and manage intellectual property ensures that all partners understand its value and are committed to safeguarding it. It also guides decisions on matters like filing for patents, copyrights, or trademarks.

Are there any potential legal risks, and how will they be mitigated?

Every business faces some level of legal risk, whether it’s contractual obligations, employment laws, or industry-specific regulations.

Why it’s important: Being unaware of legal risks doesn’t absolve you from responsibility should things go wrong. Identifying potential risks allows you to take proactive steps to mitigate them, whether through insurance, legal counsel, or strategic planning. Discussing these risks and mitigation strategies in advance fosters a culture of compliance and risk management within the partnership. It also prepares the business to respond effectively if challenges do arise, thereby minimizing potential damage.

A strong business partnership is built on a foundation of mutual understanding and shared objectives, but it also requires a keen awareness of the legal landscape in which it operates. By asking these key questions about legal and compliance issues, you’re not only safeguarding the business but also strengthening the integrity of your partnership.

Future Investment & Partnerships

Planning for the present is crucial, but envisioning the future is equally important. A growing business may require external investments or additional partnerships to reach its full potential. These matters can be complex and may significantly alter the company’s trajectory, so it’s essential to have an aligned vision among existing partners. Here are the questions to guide you in preparing for these future possibilities.

Is the business open to external investment?

As businesses grow, the need for additional capital becomes increasingly likely. This often leads to discussions about seeking external investment, whether from venture capital firms, angel investors, or through public offerings.

Why it’s important: Deciding whether to seek external investment is a pivotal moment for any business. It impacts not just the financial structure but also the governance and strategic direction of the company. External investment can accelerate growth but may also dilute ownership and control. An agreement among partners about openness to external investment sets the stage for how the business will approach growth opportunities and financial sustainability.

What are the terms under which new partners may be brought into the business?

Expanding the team isn’t just about hiring employees; sometimes, growth means bringing in new partners with complementary skills or resources.

Why it’s important: Adding a new partner is a significant decision that affects the dynamics of the existing partnership and the business as a whole. Terms for bringing in new partners should be discussed and agreed upon in advance to avoid misunderstandings or conflicts later. These terms may cover aspects such as the valuation of the business, the contribution expected from the new partner, and how their entry affects the equity distribution and decision-making processes.

By addressing these questions, you’re not only preparing for scenarios that involve external funding or additional partners, but you’re also building a business that’s agile, prepared for growth, and attractive to potential investors or collaborators. A solid partnership is one that plans for both the knowns and unknowns, aligning its strategies not just for the present, but also for the myriad possibilities the future may hold.

Your Partnership, Your Blueprint

Navigating the complexities of a business partnership is a bit like assembling a complicated puzzle. Each piece represents a different aspect of the partnership, from equity distribution and decision-making to growth plans and legal compliance. Addressing these intricate facets through thoughtful questions and open dialogue sets the groundwork for a successful and harmonious venture. It’s the blueprint that not only guides how you start your business but also how you sustain and grow it. While no one can predict every challenge or opportunity that will come your way, being thorough in your initial planning can be the difference between a partnership that thrives and one that struggles.

Bonus Follow-Ups:

  1. Have we considered all the tax implications of our business decisions? Taxes aren’t just a year-end concern; they’re an ongoing aspect of business that can affect cash flow, profitability, and even the feasibility of your business model. Discussing this upfront can save you from unexpected financial burdens later.
  2. How will we handle a partner’s underperformance or lack of commitment? While it’s uncomfortable to think about, there may come a time when a partner is not living up to expectations. Having a plan for addressing this sensitive issue can prevent it from becoming a festering problem that negatively impacts the business and the partnership.

By asking these questions—and any others that are unique to your specific venture—you’re establishing a solid foundation for your partnership and setting the stage for a business that’s built to last. With this comprehensive approach, you’re not just starting a business; you’re crafting a partnership that’s prepared for both the triumphs and trials that lie ahead.

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