Harvard Business Review: can friends be successful co-founders?

Founding a startup with a friend is not uncommon. Successful power teams like Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page can really get that “smart and broke friends setting out to change the world” fantasy going.

The reality is often more complex than the image, with nearly every aspect of that initial friendship being put to the test. If you’re planning on starting a new venture with a brilliant friend, there are a few important things to consider before going into business.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER STARTUP TOGETHER.

Take a minute to think about what makes someone a friend. Shared values, common interests or relatable life experiences all make us believe that “this person is like me.” Resemblance draws us closer, instills mutual trust and respect, and gives us a sense that we are understood and can equally understand others.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page had similar upbringings. They were both born in 1973 and had parents who worked in academia. In their youth, they both attended Montessori schools and received their bachelor’s in computer science from universities in their home states. Their paths finally crossed at Stanford, where they were both pursuing the same doctoral degree.

When you find someone like you, it’s natural to gravitate toward them and trust them as a thought partner. You know and appreciate this person. You share interests or passions. You can vouch for them. This perceived closeness generates a deep psychological connection, resulting in a shared sense of commitment or responsibility.

These can often help founding teams find the necessary sentimental resources to rise above the demanding conditions of early-stage startups: the augmented stress levels, the heightened anxiety, the uncertainty. The risk, however, lies in one friend developing extreme dependency on the other. This can happen when one friend repeatedly voices their expectation to be consulted on every decision, or when one friend feels insecure (for example when presenting to the board or before funding meetings) and repeatedly looks to their business partner to calm them down. Such situations may affect efficient decision-making processes or daily routine.

CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS FOR THEIR SKILLS, BUT KNOW THEIR LIMITATIONS.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank, a founder of the Lean Startup movement, argues that a founding startup team should have a unique combination of skills. It’s great to have commitment and someone you can bank on, but technological, design, product and long-term vision skills are crucial in tackling the ever-changing day-to-day of a startup.

It’s rare to have any single person mastering even three of these skills, so pairing up with friends can broaden the company’s skill set, depending on what skills your friends bring to the table. Begin by acknowledging their skills and limitations, and accept them. Then hire for the other skills you need.

BE READY TO OVERCOME PROBLEMS WITHOUT BLAMING EACH OTHER.

While you and your friends may start off with similar dreams and ideas, you’ll quickly find that venturing together brings on many challenges that can affect relationships. Though some startups survive breakups and thrive, “not the right team” and “disharmony among team/investors” were ranked among the top 10 reasons on CBI Insights’ study as to why startups fail. This stresses the importance and fragility of interpersonal relationships when considering such high-pace activity. Plus, it shows that personal friendships aren’t a fail-safe mechanism for founding startups.

Think about it: You’ll have to deal with issues you haven’t dealt with before, be in situations you haven’t encountered yet, experience things that as friends you’ve never experienced together. Startup challenges such as pivoting or funding often require founding members to prioritize professionalism over friendship because hard conversations need to be had. This can lead to fundamental disagreements, threatening both the relationship and the company. Your ability to support each other and focus on the solution, without pointing fingers, is key.

Friendship can withstand hardships when founders acknowledge that the most important question to ask is not, “Is our friendship strong enough to sustain crises?” but rather “Can we put our friendship aside when we deal with hard issues?”

KNOW THAT FRIENDSHIP INEVITABLY CHANGES.

The dynamics of friendship change over time, whether you’re working together or not. But this can be especially tricky in a work setup. The Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recalled the friend who told him, “‘You’ve got to meet Steve Jobs because he knows this digital electronics … And he likes to play pranks.’ I was very much a fun humorist all my life … he came by, and we started talking and sure enough we hit it off … and we just became, you know, the best friends for a long time.”

But things changed when Wozniak felt Jobs sidetracked him and his team. Eventually he left Apple because the basis for their friendship had changed. Wozniak told Guy Kawasaki on his podcast that Jobs wanted to “be important in the world, though he didn’t have the academic or business background, he had me.”

He actually described psychologist Adam Grant’s model where people are seen either as givers, takers or matchers. While Wozniak was an ultimate giver, a person focused on what others want, Jobs was more of a taker, a person prioritizing their own needs.

Friends can make this relationship work as long as there’s no change. The giver wants to give as much as the taker wants to take. However, in an ever-changing startup reality, takers adapt quickly. They simply take from what they’re handed. Givers, on the other hand, tend to realize (with some delay) that they just can’t give anymore and don’t receive enough in return.

In my consulting practice, I’ve seen the difficulty giver-founders have in accepting the fact the friendly relationship they initially had changed. Those who weren’t agile enough found themselves with a memory of a beautiful friendship, but with no startup. Those who were able to accept that the relationship had shifted successfully made the transition from being friends to co-founders.

So, can friends be successful co-founders? Yes, but there are considerations. Founding a startup is complicated, strenuous and challenging. It’s great to have someone who complements your skills and is trusting and as motivated as you. Someone with whom you can share the workload, the hardships and successes. But it can come at a cost when the relationship is not navigated with honesty and care.

– Yariv Ganor is a psychotherapist. This article was first published in the Harvard Business Review.

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