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Partners Forever

It’s nice to we wanted, but on what terms?

I get 100 fresh emails on a slow day. On a busy day, 200-250. The curse of “reply all.” I’m also preternaturally neat, which means they can’t just sit there occupying disk space: they must be filed away or destroyed. So my brainless morning ritual, punctuated by sips of black coffee, is to delete the overnight solicitations from Emily and her compatriots at Red Star Long March Little Red Book Printed Circuit Boardland in Shenzhen (“Hello Dear. We give you good board not costly and never tarnish reputation so rather very much like other detestable board fabricator. Have nice day!”). Emily also wants to connect with me on LinkedIn, and helpfully sends the weather report from Shenzhen (Sunny! Always sunny!) and is curious to know what I’m doing this weekend (writing this column). Another regular part of the morning desktop constitutional consists of deleting that day’s earnest pitch from the 45th company this quarter offering to sell me their proven (by whom?) lead generation and meeting setup strategy algorithm. Wow, meeting-bots. Then there are the used equipment deals and liquidation sales, hawking a tasteless, multicolored, multi-fonted digikey-esque catalogue of oscilloscopes and protocol analyzers for the price of a slightly used cellphone, cash only. All sales final. Hurry now while they last. Such an abundance of riches that I never knew I needed.

This benevolent purge clears the decks for matters of substance. Like offers of partnership. Lots of them. Offers of mutual benefit, with and without strings attached. Some enticing; some repulsive. Kind of like computer dating. These overtures usually take one of two forms.

First, there’s The Wrong Way:

“We have decided that we want you to be our Partner.”

Sounds thrilling. It’s nice to be wanted. The seductive words of welcome intent made the shark fin soup and the slimy nameless stuff that slides down your throat at the seal-the-deal dinner that much more worth enduring, if not entirely digestible.

What does that mean?

“We want you to participate in all of our business opportunities as our Trusted Partner.”

Even more thrilled. Such flattery. Not just a partner, but a Trusted Partner. Higher up the greasy pole. Every Abbott needs his Costello.

Then comes the hangover.

Wait a minute. Define “participate.”

“We want you to do exactly what we want, when we want it, at the price we want it to be priced at. We want endless support. We want you to be endlessly available to install test fixtures on Saturday and Sunday graveyard shifts, and be ready and able to provide 24/7/365 technical support. You are to be our eyes and ears with the customer. Observe everything; report to us discreetly. Be available at all hours of the day and night, including weekends. Especially weekends, when one can learn much of value in unguarded moments. Report back to us anything that may be of competitive advantage.”

You mean like Mike from Bangalore, my IT Guy?

“Precisely. We know Mike. Good guy. But first, please sign this affidavit stating you do not purchase, nor do you knowingly use, or intend to use, in perpetuity, certain conflict minerals in your business operations. Please have the affidavit notarized. In quintuplicate.”

We’re test engineers. Simple human beings. We deal in ones, zeros and occasional waveforms. Boards come in; we test them. They either pass or fail. Either way, they leave our facility without political baggage. We do not knowingly engage in Congolese mineral exploration, much less exploitation.

“Partnership includes the occasional indignity, like filling out tedious forms. Your cheerful willingness to complete them is a sure sign of your fitness for our partnership with you. In that spirit, please complete them promptly and accurately, and be mindful of the higher purpose. Oh, and please complete this third online form, pledging you will use only our products in your test activities, and no competitors’ products, under penalty of dissolution of our Partnership should you violate this pledge. You can expect to complete these forms online annually, and as amended to match new legal initiatives whose compliance is mandatory. Never lose your sense of that higher purpose when completing these tasks. Do not think of this as needless drudgery. Think of this as character-building. Consider this a privilege to have been invited to undertake these tasks in the first place. Once the forms are filled out, please sell lots of our stuff, because we lack the staff to do it. Cutbacks, mergers, acquisitions and all that. That’s where the likes of you come in, our trusted partners.”

Some higher purpose. Test Engineer seeks enlightenment. Is this what is sometime referred to as golden handcuffs? Whose convenience is being served here? With friends like these…..

“Also bear in mind that all forms are subject to audit for truthfulness and for compliance purposes. You can expect to hear periodically from our Partnership Vetting Department.”

Trust, but verify. I heard that somewhere once. Who is trusting whom? Methinks we’ve partnered with the NSA.

No thank you.

Fortunately, there’s also The Right Way:

“We know your company well. We’ve done our homework. We’ve watched you both from a distance and up close. It is clear from our due diligence that you have skills we lack. We believe we have likewise. We think we complement each other. We also sincerely believe we can build something greater together than pursuing the same path separately. (We know: we tried. Repeatedly. We have the battle scars to prove it.) Let’s do something different, and hopefully unique, and collaborate so that, properly sold, the marketplace appreciates the uniqueness of our partnership. Let’s dive in and pool our resources and skills for mutual betterment, starting right now.”


“You have a facility and technicians. We have equipment. You want to offer services using our equipment. We want to sell more equipment. You have a large customer base around where you operate. We also want greater exposure to your geographic area, hopefully to that customer base, heretofore not well represented by us. We acknowledge our weaknesses and appreciate your strengths. We don’t wish to repeat past history. We see unlimited potential in your area and among your colleagues and customers. You provide the services, and demonstrate our equipment. We supplement your offering with high-level, highly-specialized expertise, as needed. In so doing, you create a market, you vouch for the quality of our stuff as active, vigorous users. You become the horse’s mouth, so to speak. On the strength of your favorable testimony, in part, we sell more equipment, you get more service revenue and a broader, more diversified customer base. You also, in turn, receive favorable treatment and services from us at a discounted rate. We market the hell out of this so it grows at a compounded rate. We deliver a needed service in a better way to our industry. Everybody’s happy.”

Makes sense. Makes money too. What’s not to like? What’s the downside?

“We overestimate the viability of the market. Tastes change. Demand shifts. We overestimate our joint abilities. We develop irreconcilable differences. Personalities may clash. People may insist on being human. Toleration of methods and participants wears thin.”

Those are genuine risks. Are they worth it?

“We think the answer is yes. We wouldn’t be here if we had not done our homework, and honestly assessed the risks. Your time is valuable; so is ours. We aim to be respectful of both. Therefore, after careful consideration, we believe that what we are proposing is superior to other business alternatives. In other words, this initiative is worth taking. Enough talk: Let’s do it.”

Sometimes you just have to launch into the deep. With the right Partner to help shoulder the burden and share the responsibility, and take the occasional flaming arrow, the burden becomes manageable.

As if it’s a snap to find the Right Partner.

Good luck with that.