Working with a friend can be wonderful. Done right, it’s collaborative, creative and joyous. It’s also (perhaps surprisingly) very good for productivity. Despite all the time you might spend gossiping at the biscuit tin, research actually suggests that having a buddy at work makes us better at our jobs. According to a study by analytics firm Gallup, working with a friend can make us more productive, more innovative, more creative and happier in the office. People who have friends at work also take fewer sick days and report higher satisfaction with their jobs.
Going into business with a mate is a high-stakes move, though – you’re essentially risking both your career and a precious personal relationship. Conflict may be inevitable for most friend-run businesses, but if you communicate openly, talk about money sensibly and manage each other’s expectations, you should be able to resolve it and move on.
Sam “decided to get into the alcohol business with her friend, Phil Gillies, fittingly, over a glass of her signature naturally infused gin. They run Espensen Spirit together, but it hasn’t always gone smoothly.
“We had a lot of things that went wrong in our first two years, practically everything, in fact,” says Sam. “The pressure was enormous. We were getting fed up to the point of falling out, so we made a pact that the business would never be more important than our friendship, and if it was ruining that, we’d close it. Interestingly we’ve had very little conflict since then. It also helps that we massively admire and respect each other.”
Jess Sims founded freelance collective and brand consultancy The Doers with her mate Laura West. “We’ve seen each other through weddings, babies, make ups, break-ups, family tragedies, health scares, a global pandemic and everything in between over the years, and truly know each other inside out as a result.” For Jess and Laura, a successful working relationship is about using one of their favourite hobbies as friends – talking – to their advantage. “Because we are first and foremost great friends, we are comfortable talking about just about anything, says Jess. “Talking things through always helps find a resolution but, more importantly, it strengthens our business.”
Money has been their biggest cause of disagreement. “It was probably the only thing Laura and I didn’t really know about one another when we first started working together – I was in a more fragile financial situation than she thought,” says Jess. “During quiet months, I didn’t have the ability to stop taking a salary, whereas she had more of a buffer. We had to have a number of heated conversations before I really opened up about that.”
For Emily Perlstein and Alana Hadid, who run denim company La Detresse, it’s about choosing the right friend to work with in the first place. “The close friendships I have in my life are rooted in trust and mutual respect, which coincidentally are the two most important traits to look for in a business partner,” says Emily. “When your partner is also a close friend you have the added value of knowing that person inside and out.” Alana agrees, adding that you have to choose a business partner whose talents and skill you already admire. “Friendship isn’t enough to make a business work, there has to be a symbiosis,” she says. “But when you find it, it makes your business and friendship that much stronger.”
Nat Moores started marketing business Mac and Moore with her friend, Jess MacIntyre. “Oh, we’ve had many disagreements,” says Nat. “It’s safe to say that we’ve got much better at disagreeing over time, which is an unusual thing to be proud of. We used to butt heads a lot because we were each approaching the situation in completely opposing ways, so we’d quickly reach a stalemate and things would go on a lot longer than they needed to.”
She says conflict is natural, healthy and, if it’s managed right, could actually push you to be better. “Jess has always been a believer that bottling things up or sweeping them under the carpet is the worst thing you can do,” Nat explains. “I come from a very non-confrontational family so struggled a lot with that at first, but I am now a convert to the power of the difficult conversation.”
Career coach and consultant Hannah Salton agrees it’s so important to have those difficult conversations. “Most disagreements can be worked through if you communicate openly and honestly. Share your perspective and ask questions,” she says. “Be curious to learn more about where the other person is coming from. Explain your concerns factually with evidence or examples to back up what you’re saying, but avoid blaming or making the other person wrong.” She also says it’s very much worth bringing up any conflict quickly and calmly, particularly if it’s about something sensitive, such as your finances. “Air and discuss any challenges or issues openly as you experience them. Burying them will only make it more likely to cause a serious problem in the future.”
For anyone considering going into business with a buddy, Hannah says go for it – but proceed with caution. “The question isn’t just, ‘Can I work with a friend?’. It’s also, ‘Do I want to?’ Even if you and a friend have a solid relationship that you think could work, there is always a risk that it won’t. Discuss openly and honestly how you could sustain and manage your friendship before embarking on anything permanent.”
If Sam, Phil, Jess, Laura, Emily, Alana, Nat and Jess have one key piece of advice, it’s that you should operate your business (and your friendship) with respect, trust, openness – and maybe the occasional gin.
Choose a business partner who complements your skill set, not just someone you like. Ideally, go with someone who’s good at all the stuff you don’t excel in.
Get everything in writing, including what your roles and responsibilities will be. This is for legal reasons as well as expectation management.
Don’t be shy or awkward talking about money. If any financial problems arise, bring them up as soon as possible.
Know when to have friendship time. That might mean closing your laptops, going for a drink and talking about your personal lives.
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (£9.99, Prelude Books) is out now
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