“Hey, partner” – exaggerated and overused

The words partner and partnership should be used sparingly to avoid misunderstanding. These words have clear legal parameters that define specific sorts of business relationships.

Hey, partner – exaggerated and overused by Nancy Knowlton

My husband and I started a business with little equity, choosing instead to become the Canadian distributor for an American company. (We used the profit from that activity to fund the development of our own product in place of getting outside funding.) In the course of setting up a distribution channel for that American company, we learned much about technology distribution and resale. We established a lot of strong working relationships with many channel members that continue today. We also learned about channel management strategies and manufacturers’ programs. So beyond the money and the opportunity that it provided to create our own products, we learned a lot and enjoyed the process.

The impact of words

One of the things that I learned was that bad things were about to happen to me and our company when a key contact at the manufacturer started his conversation with “Hey, partner.” The hey was drawn out and it seemed out of place the very first time that I heard it. It only took one time for me to learn that lesson, and thereafter I listened hard for what was a dead giveaway of bad things to come. In hindsight it was clear that he knew all four times that he was going to do something that would impact us very negatively, and in his awkwardness before actually carrying out the dirty deed, he would nervously use the expression. Importantly, he never used the word partner otherwise when things were OK.

Of course, I knew the meaning of the word partner and understood the legal principles behind it. What struck me as so odd at the time was his use of the word to try and pull me into a feeling of a tighter, more aligned relationship when he was about to do something that would hurt us – something that showed it was no partnership at all but an imbalanced relationship with him holding the majority of the power. These many years later, I attribute his use to a sense of guilt.

Mutually agreeable relationship

It is impossible to not notice the use of the word partner everywhere today in describing channel relationships. Channel partner, partner program and other uses abound. I wonder if anyone actually stops to think about the use of the term in the context of two independent parties working together in a cooperative way for so long as the relationship serves them. There is no real legal partnership – in fact, many reseller agreements specifically disclaim a larger relationship than one between two independent parties involving the sale for resale with the manufacturer/developer selling product to a reseller who then sells it on to an end user.

The rationale

I also wonder if people and companies deliberately use the word to embellish relationships and give the other parties a false sense of being appreciated and being equal. Or are they simply blissfully ignorant of the deeper legal context?

In our early existence, Intel Corporation made an investment in our company at a critical stage and reinforced the need to strictly use partner in a very limited sense. We had the advantage of spending some good time with Intel staff who were very clear in explaining the reason why this was the case – being clear, direct and not exaggerating the nature of any relationship avoids later disputes and misunderstandings. By accurately labeling relationships, it’s hard for confusion and misunderstanding to proliferate. It is also understandable that a company the size and importance of Intel was very diligent in being clear with third parties who either accidentally or deliberately misrepresent the nature of a relationship. It was a lesson we took to heart.

Try it yourself

Want to test this out? Just ask someone who has been in a so-called partnership and see how they feel when the relationship sours. Then it becomes abundantly clear that it was not a partnership at all but a reseller relationship that would have been best described in less tight-knit terms.

While the word partner may carry a watered down connotation for many, it is not something that I easily use. I stay on the stricter, more legal interpretation preferring to call resellers what they are – resellers, channel members or dealers. And something else – no one will ever get a Hey, partner call from me.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.