For many people, "never do business with friends" is just plain gospel. After all, misunderstandings or competing visions can not only cause business problems but also destroy long-standing relationships. (Remember, Mark Zuckerberg’s blowout with his former pal, Eduardo Saverin, about control of Facebook?)
But not everyone agrees—others have had a much better experience working with a friend. And if you go about it the right way, doing business with your friends can deepen your relationship and make work way more fun.
How can you make sure it works? Here are six rules to follow before joining forces.
1. Vet Them Carefully
It might sound like a good idea to do business with a casual friend. After all, you have a certain rapport, and it may feel easier than tapping an unknown vendor or partner.
But here’s the trick: You’re far more likely to do your homework when it comes to people you don’t know, asking around about them and checking their references. That's because you may assume you know all about your friend based on your experiences with them. But it’s likely you’ve only seen a slice—probably the most fun side—of their personality. They may be entirely different under high-pressure situations, as I realized too early in my career when a friend I was partnering with on a project snapped and sent a string of angry and inappropriate emails to a client because he’d requested to roll back the delivery schedule.
Be on the lookout for warning signs: If you’ve seen them discuss clients or employees in a problematic way (such as a pattern of blaming other people, or making choices you disagree with), be wary.
2. Follow the Golden Rule
You can actually strengthen your friendship if you treat people the way you’d like to be treated. That’s what happened to Susan RoAne, a speaker and author of the mega-bestseller How to Work a Room. Once, she recalls, “I was the ‘client’ and felt my friend undercharged me for the video work she had underestimated. I mentioned it to her and suggested she give me a new amount and could see the relief. She was thinking the same thing but wouldn't have asked for more money.” They’re still dear friends today, and, RoAne says, “We loved working together."
3. Only Work With People You Trust Implicitly
When your friend says she’ll do something, are you 100 percent certain it will happen? If not, she may not be the right partner for you. You’re going to be busy keeping up with your own obligations; you almost certainly don’t have the time or inclination to ride herd on someone who lacks your sense of personal responsibility. Make sure your future partner is reliable.
4. Look for Complementary Skills
If you and your friend have the same experience and skills, you may end up tripping over one another. Two copywriters could argue endlessly about the right tagline for an advertising campaign, and you’d still need someone to come up with the visuals. Two shy and reserved professionals may get along splendidly, but if you’re both hesitant to go to networking events and drum up sales, your business may languish. Look for someone whose strength falls squarely into your area of weakness, and you’re far more likely to be appreciative of each other’s efforts.
5. Set Clear Boundaries
Friends should respect you as a professional—but occasionally, some people will try to get special breaks based on your relationship. Meredith Knight owns a Boston-area housecleaning and professional organizing business. “I find that sometimes friends who are clients like to slip in their own rules, like cancelling at the last minute, thinking you'll understand every time,” Knight says. Moving forward, she plans to “make very clear parameters as to how to treat one another in a fair and businesslike way that preserves our friendship, as well.”
A written contract is usually a good idea. It doesn’t need to be a dense forest of legalese; even a one- or two-page document will suffice, as long as it lays out the critical basics, such as payment terms, who's responsible for what and the nature of the collaboration.
6. Make Sure They Understand What’s Involved
A lot of projects can sound fun or glamorous to an outsider. If your friend is eager to join in, make sure they fully grasp that it will actually involve work. A friend of mine in the film world hired a friend from high school, who had pressured him for a job on one of his movies. He thought it would be all glitz and glamour, and when he realized much of it was mundane, he quit, getting in text message fights with fellow employees. It cost my friend a lot of aggravation and time cleaning up the mess. If you’re working with your friend on the basis of your friendship rather than their skills or experience, you may want to think twice.
Working with friends can be a great experience that enhances your company and makes it more fun to go to work. But when handled poorly, it can create a disaster that harms both your business and your relationship. By following these guidelines, you can decide when, and whether, working with friends is right for you.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming Stand Out. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter.
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