When pals become (business) partners

Is it advisable to get entrepreneurial with friends? Many feel it’s a complete no-no, many feel it works beautifully. We hear it from both sides

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Sat 13 Nov 2021, 10:48 PM

Recently, I revisited a film that I had loved years ago but gleaned new insights from when I watched it again. It is about two college friends one of whom — let’s call him A — is a socially awkward genius and the other — let’s call him B — a bright but regular fun-loving guy. Friend A hits upon a brilliant idea to connect the world digitally which Friend B backs it to the hilt.

Together, they create a groundbreaking product, with A being the creative head and B acting as the business brain. But soon enough, differences crop up as A’s ideas clash with those of B’s. Heated words are exchanged, new characters create a rift, the friendship goes awry and finally the duo lands in court. Long story short, an uneasy truce is reached with A being credited as the founder of the product while B settles for a share in the company and walks away from his buddy’s life forever.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, the movie I am talking about is The Social Network and the two friends are Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and his erstwhile partner Eduardo Saverin. Over the years, Zuckerberg has gone from strength to strength and controversy to controversy, but not many are aware of the role Saverin played in setting up the revolutionary social networking site.

Personally, I feel Mark Zuckerberg has lots of lessons to teach young entrepreneurs but ‘how to work with friends’ is certainly not one of them.

The story hit home particularly because I have never been lucky with mixing friendship and business. On more than one occasion in the past, I have drawn close friends for projects and jobs, only to have to fight hard to retain both. Disagreements, confrontations, the inability to 
say “No”… there are several reasons why 
I am hugely sceptical of sharing office space with a friend.

‘It’s best not to work with 
someone you’d rather avoid 
misunderstandings with’

Needless to say, this phenomenon can’t be generalised. For every Zuckerberg 
and Saverin, there is also the example of Larry Page and Sergey Brin who founded Google without breaking into a fight. Moreover, be it business or a job, dealing with different personality types is a necessary skill, isn’t it?

Well, not entirely! The dynamics and equations change tremendously when one member is a dear personal friend who knows your secrets, vulnerabilities, strengths and weaknesses.

On the positive side, it can work beautifully because there is an already established camaraderie, trust and loyalty. But at its worst, it’s harder to establish boundaries, fire a friend or avoid professional disagreements spilling onto the personal sphere.

Rachel Dawson, a communications executive, learnt this lesson early on in life when, during a post-grad group project with a good friend, she initially divided her work equally and set deadlines. “My friend even submitted her work way before the deadline and I was happy with our pace. Being a high-distinction student, group projects often saw me take on the bulk of the work. When the time for assessment arrived, my professor informed me that half my project was plagiarised and she knew it wasn’t my work because of the writing style. I was shocked but my professor allowed me a few hours before deadline to ‘fix it’.”

“We’re still friends today because one group project is a very small situation to base your whole life on. However, we never worked together on anything else,” she says. Ever since, Rachel has steered clear of working with friends even in her job though she has formed some deep relationships in the offices she has been part of. “The boundaries of friendship are different, and in cases where there are deadlines to be met or grades to be achieved, it’s best not to work with someone you’d rather avoid misunderstandings with. I’m still searching for the right balance though,” she admits.

‘When you are in partnership with a friend, do not be emotional’

Unfortunately, balance is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve for it can go both ways: you may either get the much-needed support for your ideas or s/he may take you for granted and the intimacy you share may become a roadblock in the target you want to reach.

How do you, for instance, tell a friend that his or her work is not liked? How do you reject a close friend’s business ideas if they do not meet your goals? Can you really afford to trust a friend blindly? The answer, if you ask Nithin Prabhakar, an India-based businessman, is a firm “No”.

Nithin had three bad experiences which has made him wary for life. In the first one, he entered a business with a very close friend’s husband which went bust due to the latter’s mismanagement. In the second instance, he partnered with an old family friend but once again it missed the mark and he ended up suffering financial losses. The third time, it was a school friend he got into business with, only to have him siphon off money. “I have learnt a few harsh lessons,” says Nithin. “When you are in partnership with a friend, do not be emotional. More importantly, be prepared to lose the friendship,” he says. “Unless everything is defined in black and white, it is difficult to get your point across. Friendships — unlike other relationships — can be rather fragile and easy to break.”

Despite several such well-documented experiences, when it comes to work, 
the first tendency for most of us is to turn to a friend or family. Perhaps it’s the familiarity factor and the belief that sharing workspace with someone you are fond of might cause less stress than a competitive colleague or partner whose prime motive may be to upstage you and zoom ahead.

Many studies, too, support the ‘working with friends is great’ theory. According to research conducted a few years ago by Gallup, a global human resources company, having at least one friend 
at your job increases performance 
standards and allows you to be more innovative. Apparently, it can also lead up to 12 per cent more profits as employees feel a greater connection to their 
team members.

‘Specific people you think are close to you and have your 
best interests at heart are not your friends’

The problem begins when the personal and professional space gets mixed up. Says Arnab Ganguly, a former entrepreneur and motivational speaker, 
“Pertinent issues of business, whether related to the business model or financial possibilities, go askew if you are not able to keep the professional and personal space apart. As far as structuring and planning goes, it works well with a friend but being true to those plans and keeping that balance is important.”

These ideas sound fine in principle but in the practical world it requires a herculean effort to make it all work. 
Tara Sillery, owner of PR Passion, a PR and media boutique agency with offices in Dubai, is a great advocate of bringing friends into business but she has a 
word of caution: Pick and choose wisely. “Not everyone is a friend, and sometimes as you grow and develop in your career, specific people you think are close to you and have your best interests at heart are not your friends,” she says.

Tara herself has been rather lucky in the matter. Her business development manager is one of her closest buddies from Ireland who, she says, not only knows her inside out but also pushes her to achieve greater heights. “Of course, we have had differences but when you have a strong friendship, you get over them because you have the same vision,” notes Tara who also worked with another friend, a top retail CEO in the region on a project and ended up being closer to him and his family. “Basically, if you have someone who gets your personality, is open and upfront about fees, rates and expected roles, you are in for a smooth ride. It’s mostly when money gets involved that trouble rears its head,” she says.

‘It’s sad but don’t blindly trust a friend just because you are friends’

Expectedly, money can always be a clincher as many relationships go kaput due to financial or management issues being unresolved — Nithin’s experiences being the prime examples. “It’s sad but don’t blindly trust a friend just because you are friends,” he advises.

The only way to avoid jumping into an arrangement that you may regret later is to take time out to understand how the professional relationship will pan out. Pilar Barton, an Abu Dhabi-based businesswoman has a smart suggestion. “I recommend working together on a small project first to see how well you interact together; opt for something with low stakes to see if your styles are compatible,” she advises.

Next, try and draw the lines well before your friend or spouse becomes your colleague as well. Pilar has had largely good experiences collaborating with friends but it was not without its downsides. “Since we were friends, we already had a good relationship but the issue was that we didn’t have much to discuss apart from work.”

Thankfully, it didn’t impact their friendship as differences of opinion were handled swiftly. “Sometimes, we communicated calmly and, at other times, we would have heated discussions. We also had cultural differences in the way we treated clients. I felt the client should be top priority while he was focused on making money,” she says, adding that the blurring of work and personal lives can take a toll.

“When you are always together, it can be tiring to also spend non-work time together. I felt we needed more breaks from one another,” she says.

‘It could turn out to be a 
great synergy’

The relationship angle also gets whole a new dimension when the partners in question are a married couple. Should you work or do business with your spouse is a dilemma relationship experts have been trying to solve for ages! And the dynamics here require effort and some extra careful negotiations to bypass the minefield this scenario can lead into.

Kunal Rupani, founder of The Big Night, an events firm, decided to set up the business with his wife a few years ago when they were planning their own lavish wedding in Dubai.

Today, the couple jointly runs the company but Kunal admits their success is due to their willingness to learn from each other. “We have gotten to learn a lot about one another personally and professionally. I have become more of a creative individual and my wife has learnt more about the business side of things. We have found a new level of respect within the relationship and admire each other’s skill sets. I think this has a lot to do with us being best of friends prior to getting married,” he says.

Clearly defined roles have helped too. “She manages the creatives and concept creation and I focus more on sales, client servicing and liaising with suppliers. In all honesty, work is home and home is work. It’s quite challenging to separate that relationship but we do take time to ourselves,” says Kunal. “I believe if you have a clear line of communication and, more importantly, respect the other individual for who they are and value what they bring on the table, it could turn out to be a great synergy.”

‘Have strong friendships 
so that petty arguments do 
not escalate’

The most important ingredient, therefore, is communication and more communication. Tara reveals that she would insist on talking through her disagreements with her friend. “You can’t be on the same page with everything but if you both are mature and value your friendship and respect your career, you will talk it through. Also, I can’t reiterate enough how important it is to have strong friendships so that petty arguments do not escalate and turn into ‘never speak to one another again’.”

While Arnab recommends having a stranger or a consultant in place, especially during the launch phase of a business (“a few devil’s advocates and different sounding boards” as he puts it), Pilar advocates discussing things before embarking on a project. “It depends on the nature of the relationship. Are there good communication and conflict resolution skills? Can you handle working long hours together? Have you planned an exit strategy if things do not work out? Have a discussion about these things beforehand,” she says.

Is it feasible? For instance, when I worked with a friend, despite all the promises of “having fun”, it was challenging to put work behind while socialising with her, especially since there were problems cropping up left, right and centre.

What was worse, that I could not 
even make my stress or annoyance evident. As Rachel says, “Working with a friend is easy for the most part, but 
when you hit a rough day or situation, it’s hard to separate personal boundaries from the professional. I’d try my best to have these distinctions and keep the friendship sacrosanct but it’s easier said than done.”

Ultimately it depends on individual priorities, maturity, the ground rules and willingness to listen. If the bond is strong, business and work troubles 
may cause a storm but won’t drown the ship. But when it’s not, it’s time to cut the cord — either of work or the friendship. Either way, if you ever want to trust the strength of your relationship, work with someone you love!

(Lekha is a journalist and editor 
based in India.)

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