Let’s be friends

It is a problem they don’t teach at business school. Creating, developing and maintaining friendships in the work place is a skill that can take people a long way when they set up a company.


Just ask Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page who struck up a friendship at Stanford University. Or for that matter the two who created Yahoo, Jerry Yang and David Filo. Google and Yahoo are two powerful businesses created out of deep friendships.


But when friends break up at work, like for example, two chefs who set up a restaurant, the relationship might be damaged forever. There’s also the potential for legal action.


Working with friends and people who are close is a risk. Problems occur when boundaries are crossed. Friends fall out, people get offended and storm off and the business loses talent. And yet, start-up companies need tight, well-knit teams.


In many cases, the friendship can outlast the job. Similarly, friends can attract us to new jobs and keep us there when times get tough. There are some who say a workplace friend or partner is like a spouse.


Striking a balance


Nonetheless, striking the right balance is not easy. Creating the chemistry that keeps the team and friendship going and the business focused is the big challenge.


How does the entrepreneur set those boundaries, but at the same time, keep the team humming and working happily? It’s all about goals.


Management consultant Kevin Dwyer, who runs the Change Factory, says the only way to deal with it is to be clear about why you are setting up the company, and what those goals are. Those goals need to be specific and regularly assessed, even changed.


“As an individual, you need to be totally focused on what you are setting the company up for,’’ Dwyer says. “You have to have that clear in your head and if you don’t have it clear in your head, you shouldn’t be starting up a business anyway.’’


“You can still be friendly with people but you have to know where the boundaries are and those boundaries are set by the goal. The problem is that what a lot of people don’t do is get very clear about what their goals are. They are waffly.”


When everyone is focused on those goals, the rules of engagement are different as less attention is paid to the personal stuff.


Changing goals


Different businesses will have different goals. For some, it can be about generating $1 million worth of sales in the first year. Other entrepreneurs might focus on slow and steady growth. For some, it might be about creating a niche where no other company exists. Some would look to establishing a strong reputation while others might focus on neverending creativity and innovation.


But in any case, Dwyer says, those goals can be changed from year to year as the company develops. “You say I want to work with a small tight knit team but the goals we have set for the first year or two set the boundaries, and I don’t care whether you’re my best friend since high school,” he says.


Entrepreneur Katherine Howlett, who set up her mortgage broking business Blooms three years ago, says focusing on the goals is the key to creating a professional distance, while keeping everyone happy. Blooms is an all female company, a five woman office located in Sandringham. Howlett knew all her staff members before they came to work for her.


“It’s quite tricky really but I keep it very professional,’’ Howlett says.


“The first thing I do is always conducting myself in a professional manner when we have staff functions. I do not drink at work for functions, or at least I have very little.”


“It’s about maintaining the authority and that role of being a boss but still engaging with your staff. All the staff are older than me so I make sure that when they come in, we don’t sit around talking about gossipy things. I always maintain that work is work, I don’t sit around talking about the weekend, or this or that.”


“First and foremost, I am the boss. I am in business not as a love job, I am in business to make money. Otherwise no one has a job.”


That does not mean not having any sort of personal conversation. Stuff does come out. She says there is a need to engage with staff and let them feel they can talk openly with her. But work still remains the focus. People might mention their kids, or what they did over the weekend or what’s happening in their private life but in the end, Howlett makes it clear that everyone is there to do a job.


“They become friends but it’s at work and I keep it as work, I maintain the conversations around work.”


Setting boundaries


She says boundaries are maintained by having tight deadlines and tough goals that keeps everyone focused. Deadlines are set every day and no one has time for personal stuff.


“It makes you work smarter, it’s like you have something to prove,’’ she says. “Okay, we are small and we are young but that makes the drive and motivation that keeps things going.”


“Every day we are under massive time pressures and deadlines and everyone is aware of that. Every day, we have clients with finance clauses, with settlements, with prepayments or going to auction. Every day, we have targets and deadlines we have to meet.”


“We set out our guidelines at the beginning of each day and what needs to be achieved at the end of the day. There is a no time for idle chit chat.”


Sharing a vision


Shannon Cooper, the “rental guru” who runs Rentoid, the eBay of renting, says it is all about striking a balance. Cooper set up the company several years ago with his friend Steve Sanmartino and the two still maintain a solid relationship.


“We have a shared vision and a shared value system that makes the evolution from a personal relationship to a business relationship quite easy,’’ Cooper says. “And because we are so passionate about our vision and because it links closely to our value system and ethos, it’s quite easy to make that transition.”


He says many people, including friends, get into start-ups thinking it’s going to be all fun and sexy. “The reality is it’s bloody hard work and that puts a strain on the friendship,’’ Cooper says.


Part of the success, he says, is that there is no office. People work from home. Rentoid has 10 staff. Five of them are local, the others are overseas, with coders in Russia and administrators in India. People talk on Skype or by email. He says this gives people the creative freedom, without being in each other’s face.


He says the key is to keep everyone focused on goals. “We are big on action plans, we are big on task, we are big on deliverables and because we have limited resources, it forces us to be creative and move quickly. We make sure our goals are specific, they have clear measures, they are achievable, they are relevant and there is a time line on them as well.”


The conversations therefore are all built around those goals. But the trick is creating a balance between the personal and the professional. “It’s not a conference, it’s a chat with specific outcomes,’’ says Cooper. “It’s about preserving the friendships and the relationships. We talk about limited resources, but our people are a limited resource as well.”


Similarly, Cooper and Sanmartino keep their relationship focused on work when it has to be, and on friendship at other times. Even if that means occasionally reminding each other that they are at work and wearing their Rentoid hat.


That really sums up the key rule for entrepreneurs. People often say don’t bring your work home. It’s just as important not to bring work into a friendship. In the end, it is all about goals, outcomes and balancing the right chemistry on and off the job.


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