These days, one of the things I am most commonly asked by small start-up businesses is whether or not I would recommend the owner going into business with a friend. My answer to this is always the same; “Yes, if you want to lose that friend.”
It is an unwritten rule of business that you don’t go into business with friends. The two don’t mix, and yet it always sounds so good at the start. Two people who like each other and trust each other, who have each other’s back, who won’t let each other down, who will understand the problems and have a conversation, not hide behind a contract or a piece of red tape. Nothing can get in your way, surely? – Well that’s always how it starts.
I hear this a lot, and I agree; it sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t last. I could cite a hundred examples of the same, and I do, and just sometimes I will mention my own experience of how I lost my best friend to business, to hammer the point home.
Most businesses based upon friendship fail for the same two reasons; those two deadly sins ‘Greed’ and ‘Sloth’. Typically one will end up doing more than the other, and then finally they will want more, or else one party feels like they don’t have the same opportunity and will look to redress the balance. I have found that it is rare where one party simply steals or intends to do the other harm; that isn’t how it works, but slowly the communication goes, the trust goes and it’s every man for himself. Of all the things you knew you never needed because you were such good friends, a good old fashioned contract outlining percentages, roles and responsibilities is exactly what you need.
My own case was different, I suppose. I was the one doing more, in fact significantly more than the other party. I was, in effect, the whole company, and I did over 90% of the work. Even then, I earned the other party more than I earned myself, but I didn’t really care. I loved my job, I was having back to back record years and I was earning a fortune. I don’t do jealousy. I was loving it.
But when the other party started hiding things and having secrets, started vanishing for days and then weeks on end, things started to go wrong. Where was my best friend? – I hear this line a lot from clients. Then when that best friend spends his days at the pub or doesn’t even bother turning up, what do you do? In your original plan you would talk to your best friend and you’d have it all straightened out quickly wouldn’t you? – Except where is your best friend?
Then your best friend demands more money and a greater share, even though you are doing the work. You are made to feel guilty for saying no or having an argument, but you work to try to keep your best friend – again this is a very familiar case for me.
Finally things will go wrong. They did in my case. Discussions become arbitrary decisions. Communication goes from phone to email and from friendly to official. There is no trust. I believe that money started to go missing or be reapportioned, but who knows? Two friends would have talked it out, but it wasn’t there any more – the trust, most of all.
Finally with clients calling me up and complaining about the other party, with business going down, with communication gone, with trust gone and with everything we had built about to be swallowed, I made a fateful decision. There was nobody steering the ship, and I had to, because the iceberg was coming.
What I did, I don’t regret. One half of the ship was below the waves and dragging the other half down with it, but I could save it for both of us. I could save my friend and my business, because I still believed in both; more fool me. Someone had to help us out, to share the burden and some of the profit, but it was now half or nothing. I chose half. My friend chose nothing and that was the end of everything.
This is the truth with business and friendship. It is a sad tale I hear so often. One gives and gives, the other takes and takes. One chooses friendship, the other business. The lines become blurred. A friend so close, we were brothers…it couldn’t have happened to us, but it did.
I don’t miss the business. I did everything I ever wanted to do with it and built it into something great, something vast, something brilliant. I achieved all I ever wanted to do and more. But I miss my best friend.
How I’d like to know what happened, to understand the other side of the issue and to see what made those decisions. How I’d like to explain my point and what I had to do to save us. How I’d love to think that if I went back in time, I could save it all in a different way, but the truth is, even with hindsight, I wouldn’t know how to.
Remember the old saying; “Better a friendship based on business than a business based on friendship” – I wish I had, and I tell my clients the same.