During our final year of university a few friends and I had the idea of starting a company. Given the lack of jobs in the real world, it seemed like a good idea. But it immediately raised the question – is setting up with your friends such a good idea?
At the end of university most graduates tend to go off in their own direction and the groups they’ve been working with over the past three years just disband. We thought that was crazy, and wanted to see if we could keep our group together.
There were apprehensions, of course. The whole idea of starting a company was unnerving given that none of us had any previous business experience. It seemed like a huge obstacle to overcome. However, we soon learned to do things bit-by-bit. It’s a gradual process and with every week you gain experience and become that little bit more familiar with the ins-and-outs of running a company.
The only decision we felt completely sure about was working together. We’d hear that starting a company with friends can have many pitfalls, especially as there were five of us and all recent graduates. But, we were confident we could overcome them, and to ensure any future problems would be minimised we took the precaution of a well-drafted shareholders agreement.
Having standards and rules outlined in writing from day one was a worthwhile investment.
You might start out as friends with the best intentions, but things can happen in business – what if somebody leaves? what if somebody isn’t pulling their weight? – and if you have signed agreements for reference then so many complicated issues can be avoided.
Personally, we didn’t see the risk of falling out with each other as any greater than any other business partners falling out – friends or not. We were getting on well at the time and were confident our relationship was strong enough to take the gamble.
It didn’t take long to discover that the benefits of working with your friends far outweigh the risks. For one, the feeling of being in it together makes starting the company exciting, and less frightening. We were also more likely to be on the same page when decisions had to be made and were able to start out with a shared vision that we each understood.
One thing we had to be conscious about was taking the business seriously and not allowing our friendships to detract from that. Thankfully it wasn’t difficult, once you are signing lengthy legal documents you quickly realise that starting a company is a serious undertaking. A lot of people worry about their work/life balance and that starting up with friends might blur those lines.
A potential recipe for disaster was that, in the beginning, the five of us all shared a house. We worked and lived together, not quite what they mean by work/life balance, but actually it was good fun. As a group we always enjoyed jamming ideas, so being able to carry that on at home fitted our style.
Living together made office space very important though, as working from home doesn’t provide any natural separation – and long-term can damage your productivity. With an office we could leave business in the workplace and the daily commute became a transition between mind sets.
There was a question of deciding who does what – which side of the business each of us needed to handle. None of us had any experience in director positions and so we just had to look at our existing personalities and figure out who would be best placed at what. The only time that ever caused issues was when roles began to overlap. The solution came back to having our roles clearly defined from the outset. Happily, we’ve also ended up with a democracy of five and so while we might not always agree there’s always a majority!
It all depends on the dynamic within your friendship group. We were fine working and living together in the early days but that might not be right for everybody.
The key thing that we’ve learnt is to separate business and friendship in our heads and not take issues home – which of course is easier said than done. Maybe the way we’ve done it is quite unorthodox. But so far it seems to be working out well for us.
Illustrated by Jake Applebee
- One Thing I Know