Business Failures Lesson #2 – Pick the Right Partners

Image from

It is better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly. ~ Prov. 17:12

It was the summer of ’90, right before my senior year at Cal Berkeley. I was a business major and since the age of about 14 I had always dabbled in entrepreneurship. During that summer, my friend Christine (not real name) appraoched me at a party to meet a few friends of hers who were staring an artist management company. The two guys were Skillet and Billy Dee (not their real names, but descriptive of what they were like). Skillet was a smooth talking, wanna-be ladies man who loved to use a fake English accent to pick up on girls. He was actually a pretty funny guy with a whacked out Jheri Curl. Billy Dee was, well, kind of like Lando Calrissian himself. Coffee complexion, thin build, and conked out hair. You never really felt like you could trust what he was saying. My mutual friend who introduced me to them was a 17-year-old blonde emancipated minor. I was a Polo-wearing, financial analyst, business major who enjoyed watching the Wall Street Journal report on the weekend. We were quite the interesting quartet.

The company we started was called Atlantis Entertainment. (Maybe it was an omen that we named the company after a civilization that sank! Kind of like naming a cruise ship the Titanic II). Our first group was a trio of very talented rappers who called themselves Shot-O-Soul. I had seen them perform at Lower Sproul Plaza and they were magnificent. We were going to make a fortune!

One of the very first meetings we had with them involved meeting with another rap group. We met in the lounge Davidson Hall, of the Berkeley dorms (the dorm I had lived in my freshman year to be exact). I’m not exactly sure what happened, but at some point somebody from the other crew said something that got one of the guys on our crew pissed off. The next thing you knew, a fight was breaking out. Now, you have to understand the gravity of this. Two rival rap groups from Oakland going at it. I was pretty sure I was going to die. I don’t really remember what happened next. It was all a blur. But I’m happy to report…I didn’t die.

That was just the first in a long line of fiascos. A huge problem was that Skillet and Billy Dee never lived up to any of their promises. Often times they wouldn’t show up when they were supposed to. And most importantly, they never had any money. Christine and I were the only ones with jobs. (At the time I had taken a semester off from business school to bump-up my work hours as a financial analyst to full time to help pay for my college education. That was back when it was actually affordable to go to a public university in California).

All the money for Atlantis came from either me or Christine. The money issues came to a head the night we planned for the group’s big debut on the Atlantis “label.” (Can you call yourself a label if you haven’t actually produced a record?)  We sponsored a dance held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where S.O.S. would perform. Hardly anyone came. The money from the door was supposed to cover the bouncers we hired—three or four very big and scary guys who were not going to be happy if we didn’t pay them. I had to pay them the $200 out of  my own pocket (that’s $200 in 1990 money people. Not cheap for a college student paying his way through school).

The stress of running the company started giving me stomach pains. I think they were ulcers. They were really bad. Eventually, I just had to cut my partners (and my losses) loose. The last event I did with Atlantis was another party we sponsored. We rented a dance club in San Fran. Somehow Skillet and Billy Dee got the money. I had no investment in it. I think three people showed up.

As I danced on the platform to the sounds of Salt N Pepa, Vanilla Ice, and MC Hammer, there was an inexplicable peace over my soul knowing that I was finally free of this disaster. Atlantis had indeed sunk, but I survived.

When picking a business partner (even if it’s just a venture or a project between your company and somebody elses), remember these things:

  • Pick partners who share similar work ethics
  • Know as much about them as necessary for doing business together (no surprises)
  • Set expectations up front (e.g. how much and which resources will each person contribute, how long will it last, etc.)
  • Remember my lessons from yesterday…get it in writing.

Business is like a marriage my friends. You have to pick the right people. Don’t take it lightly. Pick wrong, and it’s like hell on earth.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this series of unfortunate events is the reason I’m a filmmaker today. It was my desire to make a comedy about this experience that prompted me to go to film school.

Retro Rewind

And now, let me take you back…back to that unforgettable era. (FYI, the outfits and dance moves at 1:11 are what I used to wear at the clubs and how I used to dance. Don’t hate!)

Man. They just don’t make music videos like the used to. Thank heaven!

6 thoughts on “Business Failures Lesson #2 – Pick the Right Partners

  1. This was a sad but hilarious blog. The part about the gang fight had me laughing-out-loud at work.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with “Pick partners who share similar work ethics”. Often times projects and partnerships leave one or two members of the team wondering ‘what just happened’ or ‘why is such and such not finished yet?’ What happened was simple, they don’t see the world the way you do. They don’t live by the same set of rules, ethics and have other priorities and distractions that do NOT involve you.

    Well written friend.

    1. Ha. That’s funny Brian. My list could go pretty long too. But then this blog would have to be called “The Art & Business of Failing Magnificently.” Who’d want to read that?!

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights, Ron – reminded me of a recent Internet Business Mastery podcast:

    Along the line of filmmaking, out here in the Bay Area, the “Scary Cow” Indy filmmaking group gives folks a taste of working with others on a cooperative arrangements.
    At $50/month it offers a good surrogate to see who works well together/plays nice, is committed to completing a project within four month, etc. Aside from the opportunity to do a “test run” like this with prospective business partners, it’s probably wise to start off with some kind of small test project before signing the dotted line.

Comments are closed.