Business development 8 February 2016

Starting a business with a friend: Five ways to avoid friendship Armageddon

The founders of Pollpic, Alvan Whittaker and Ranjet Chohan, were good friends before setting up the business
The founders of Pollpic, Alvan Whittaker and Ranjet Chohan, were good friends before setting up the business

Alvan Whittaker, co-founder of Pollpic, uses his experience of starting a business with a friend to provide advice on how to make sure it is a harmonious and productive experience.

Friendship has been the starting point for some of today’s biggest brands – Innocent, notonthehighstreet.com, and let’s not forget the old boys at Marks & Spencer. Starting a business with a friend makes perfect sense, as you inevitably have shared interests, shared values, shared networks. And the experience of taking your great idea out to the world is great to experience with someone whose company you actually enjoy.

But nothing can test that relationship like the highs and lows of starting and running a business, growth headaches, investor demands. Twitter and Facebook’s fallouts are business school case study material now. So how can you run a business and avoid friendship Armageddon?  Starting up a business with my close friend Ranjet Chohan has taught me five key things:

Stay true to your original purpose

Ensure you and your partner have total clarity around why you’re starting a business together and your purpose. We’re all too aware of situations where friends have started businesses out of a misguided desire to help or insecurities around going it alone.

You need equal commitment to this – if one of you has ventures or distractions elsewhere, the business can become a hotbed of contention, rivalry and power struggles. Chohan and I are utterly in sync in terms of where the business is going, and we’ve built a strong team and culture around that. Being clear is what’s helped us stay motivated, attract a great team around us, boost investor support and create real brand affinity with our users.

Play to your strengths

Playing to each other’s strengths and weaknesses is vital. Chohan comes from a more tech-led background whereas my experience is fashion. So his role is very much that of CTO while mine is creative/strategic partnerships. We’ve also built a team of talent around us from social media, financials through to PR and are open to their guidance and direction. We know our time is best spent working on the business rather than in it at this critical stage.

We let our friendship breathe too. One of the best decisions we made was to move out of our offices into a co-working space where we can both feed off different ideas, relationships, and partnerships too.

Know when personal ends and professional begins

This is the tough one. Our friendship is part of our business story and our brand. It’s impossible to extricate the two. We spend so much time together and on a day-to-day basis know how to manage each other. It can get sticky at crunch times such as new versions of the app, investor-led decisions, and keeping a Pollpic conversation from becoming a personal confrontation can be difficult.

It’s a cliché but communication and honesty have to be your pillars – in work and otherwise. Hold onto your sense of humour too – fortunately that’s something else we share and helps diffuse trickier situations.

Keep friendship first?

This has been our intention from day one. Sometimes – in times of setbacks or disappointment – friendship can actually create an additional layer of stress. Neither of us wants the other to be disappointed and we can empathise completely with what the other has riding on this venture. The flipside is, I know he knows exactly what I’m going through.

It’s been said before but a business partnership is like a marriage – you have to work at it  and it takes commitment. We have regular catch-ups just the two of us to plan, review and reflect. We launched Pollpic as we had a great idea and we also believed in creating a better way to work for both of us. Making it fun has to be part of that.

Put Plan B on paper

Both of us have shared family friends, we pretty much grew up together so our lives are linked beyond this business. Everyone will tell you that a business needs more that trust, history and assumption that “it will be ok” to protect it. We have serious investment involved.

A really thorough operating contract currently safeguards Pollpic and with it moving as quickly as it is, we’re reviewing this regularly. Because we have this in place, I actually feel we’re bolder about our decisions and it’s been a key safety mechanism to help grow our business. We can fall back on our friendship but this is the black and white launchpad for our business’ success. When you are starting a business, every company needs one.

If you’ve enjoyed hearing how the Pollpic boys have managed to stay friends whilst running a business together, have a look at the eight lessons Ed Molyneux learned from growing his own company.

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