Would you start a business with your friends? That’s exactly what Ariadna Pui MBA2021 did. Here she tells her story of how she balances business with friendship, all with the added challenges of working in a remote environment.
Remember those times when friendships were easy? You met at school, listened to the same music, hated the same classes and then voila, you were best friends! Sometimes, my friend Laura and I would stay up until late and talk about business ideas, sometimes even building a mock website. “Real-life” hit us quickly after graduation, and we ended up taking “serious jobs”, sometimes in faraway places.
As touching as that might have been, this is not a story about friendship, but rather what happens when three friends decide to start a business together.
The good, the bad, and most importantly, the lessons learned.
What are the chances you would start a business with your best friends?
Based on Professor Noam Wasserman’s book, “The Founder’s Dilemma”, approximately 40% of the businesses he studied were formed by friends. Not such an insignificant number. It makes sense for many reasons: your friends are the people you know best, they are the familiar faces in what is expected to be a challenging journey, and there is a perfect chance that you share common interests and values with them.
It’s not all good news, though: businesses with friends-founders are also more likely to fail, according to the same research. Each social connection on the founding team increased the likelihood for the founder to leave by 30%.
What it meant for us
Whilst working as a much-travelled management consultant, I felt the need for an elegant yet extremely functional laptop bag. Something you could securely fit under your seat in a plane, as well as confidently walk with into a board meeting. As I was not finding many good options on the market, I did what any good professional would do … I started complaining about this to my best friends.
Most of my female friends resonated with this problem (just as women also agree on the lack of work dresses or pants with pockets), but two of them happened to have the perfect complementary skills. Laura, my best friend from college, was by now a seasoned marketing professional, and Ruxandra, Laura’s friend from secondary school and my more recent acquaintance, was a serial entrepreneur and had experience in leather goods design. Together we founded AMZA.
1. Good understanding of each other’s motivations and starting positions
We quickly knew what we all had in common, what we liked and especially disliked (hello dear HR functions and unkept promotion promises). All three of us wanted a business they could genuinely enjoy working on, something that is mission-driven, as well as transparent and non-hierarchical.
While most co-founders would make these sort of promises to each other at the beginning of their journey, being friends was a significant advantage because we trusted each other to walk the talk. Trust takes a long time to develop, and we had that working to our advantage.
We also had a shared understanding, we would not want external investors early on, even if that meant taking things a bit slower. We each remained open to other opportunities, including staying longer in jobs that offered good financial security if that was needed.
This kind of agreement might not be the right one for every start-up (I actually believe it is not for most), but for us, it was fundamental to have this built-in flexibility. I think this gave me the courage to actually start.
2. Established communications channels
It might seem easy enough, but given how important communication between co-founders is in any start-up, it’s a big plus when you already know how to reach each other best. It came naturally for us to talk about AMZA, be it about more critical problem-solving sessions or just quick check-ins or calls for help.
As we were there for each other for all sorts of regular friends’ topics, we were there for each other to grow our business.
Pro tip: have two separate WhatsApp or Telegram groups / slack channels: one for serious business only and the other for the regular banter that comes from working long hours together.
3. No-surprises ways of working
Having known each other for so long, we knew well enough what behaviour to expect in times of stress or doubt. We could sense hesitation before it was spoken, so we could take a break and address any concerns before they became issues.
The way someone acts as a friend can indeed be very different from how that person is at work (remember all the memes at the beginning of the lockdown with the I am married to a “let’s circle back” kind of guy). But temperament, personality and attitude are things you know well about your friend. They come in very handy when you try to solve complex problems in highly uncertain environments.
Now, the bad
1. It is challenging to set boundaries between personal and business
One simply knows … too much about their best friend. You are the first to know if that person is going through a rough patch or has competing priorities. As a friend, you would also know the less positive aspects of your co-founder. You remember that one time when they would give up on a task, and your brain brings back this memory exactly when your business is going through a similar situation.
Sometimes you have just a bad day and want to tell your best friend all about it. But then you have a full business plan to discuss with your co-founder, and it just hits you that they are the same person. And as much as you try, once you entangle relationships, it’s impossible to make them simple again.
2. Avoiding tough conversations
As a start-up founder, one must face a lot of tough conversations. Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster of events: from the highs of the first paying customers and first positive reviews to the lows of server crashes, lost packages or missed investment opportunities. While many of them are out of your control (just take a look at us, we launched a laptop bag business at a time when people started working from their living room…), there will be a time when you think your co-founder could have done a task better.
I remember we were debating details of AMZA boxes’ in the early days, trying to balance out the cost and the “wow” factor that we were hoping our customers would get when they opened one. Two of us then proceeded to forget the discussion as soon as it was finished. Ruxandra, however, in charge of implementing the decisions with the supplier, was extra careful with all the details. When months later, we cluelessly asked her why we had agreed on these box details, her first reaction was to get angry. We received an email to the tune of “this is not the first time we agreed on something, and then you challenged me …”.
Oops, but understandable. You avoid as much as possible saying out loud what truly bothers you under the premise of “avoiding conflict”.Having conflict between friends is not good, but tough discussions between co-founders are necessary.
3. Risk of losing the friendship
As much as we are determined not to allow anything to get in the way of our long-standing friendship, the risk of ruining a good friendship for a moon-shot is always looming in the background.
It might not be something you actively think of, but we have evolved to be fairly risk-averse as humans. Having another thing “to save”, such as a friendship, can have detrimental effects on how bold you are in your business decisions.
A business owner has more questions than answers and often needs to experiment to get closer to the right answers. Some of those experiments will be risky. What if there are two competing ideas between co-founders? Would you give up on yours just to avoid the risk of hurting your co-founder? You might end up doing just that if that co-founder is also a friend despite the idea is not being in the best interests of your business.
Don’t get me wrong, after listing all these “bads”. If I would do it all over again, I would still choose to launch AMZA with my two friends. Laura and Ruxandra are such amazing, capable and inspiring women, and I think we make a great team together.
So how did we make it work?
Lessons learned from our one and a half years of shared entrepreneurship journey
Brace yourself because the first one goes against the grain.
1. Do mix work with pleasure!
I could understand why the standard advice would be the opposite (hint: see all the “bads” above), but this is not how reality works. You cannot merely pause a friendship for that strategy call. It’s unkind to pretend your friend is not having a terrible day just because you have some business deadlines.
Maybe this is also connected to the values you have as a business. We all know many examples of companies that proudly state that they put their employees first, but in fact, they treat them poorly. It was essential for us to first treat each other well, as worthy human beings, as friends, moms and sisters, as busy women with complex lives. We knew that only by doing this will we live to our mission to empower women in the workplace. There was no other way than to walk the talk, and for us, this meant acknowledging we are still first of all friends.
So how does this look in practice?
We always share some personal context when we give each other our weekly business updates. This practice is even more critical as we are very rarely physically in the same space, so a lot of the natural context is missing. I care about how Laura’s puppy is doing (and if he lets her sleep at night) and how Ruxandra’s baby is doing (and if she lets her sleep at night also). And then we have plenty of time to talk business.
2. Document your thinking process, your discussions, and decisions
It might seem like overkill for a small business. Especially one co-founded by three friends. Even in the corporate world, the word “documentation” does not have the best reputation. Personally, I believe it is essential. If for nothing else, then for the simple fact that we tend to forget our own decisions and thoughts.
We focused so much of our energy to get the perfect product, from design to functionality and then production, so only when we had the first full batch done have we properly started creating an online presence (by the way, don’t follow our lead! ). When we were finally ready to talk about the context in which our product would be a perfect fit: travelling to or for work, something unexpected happened. The COVID pandemic made travel or even thinking about going to the office taboo topics.
It does not mean our marketing and communications thinking was wrong overnight, and we should fire our marketing specialist. But it would have been tone-deaf to still talk about travelling back then.
Now when people genuinely start to miss travelling, even work travel, we can easily make use of our earlier plans.
Pro tip: we use Notion for everything work-related, and it’s working wonders for us!
3. Speak out
This is true in so many situations that you may wonder why this even needs to be mentioned. Because you think you know your friends so well, it is easy to assume you also know what they think. No one is a mind reader (breaking news, I know), so make sure to speak out when something bothers you. The earlier the better.
Speaking out has become even more critical with remote working. In face-to-face workplace, you might pick up on the non-verbal cues when something is off, one would go crazy nowadays trying to get the same richness of information from interpreting the emojis in a team chat. Sometimes it is as simple as saying your situation out loud (“I have three exams this week, and I will not be able to deliver on my commitments”). Sometimes you have to take the difficult path of explaining what you don’t like (“I know you put a lot of work in that creative brief, but I don’t think it quite fits our brand.”).
It is called a win-win when you become friends with your co-founders. But when your friends become your co-founders, people usually start worrying about the success of your start-up as well as your friendship. Like anything else worth doing, starting a business with your best friends is no walk in the park: it requires emotional maturity, good communication, and understanding with each other as you learn by doing.
I hope that my story of founding AMZA with my two best friends will inspire you to try it out with yours. Not because it’s easy, but because it is worth doing.
About the author: Ariadna Pui is a former management consultant and co-founder of AMZA Bags, the business she started with 2 of her best friends. She is passionate about empowering women to believe they belong in the workplace.