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Earnings And Yearnings: Friends with Benefits

When a close confidant becomes your colleague.

Recently, my friend and I began discussing starting a small coffee bean roastery and café. As actual business meetings supplanted beer-fueled bar-stool conversations, I got nervous. Could our relationship survive the stress of accounts payable and employment insurance?

According to experts and buddies who’ve lived to tell the tale, the answer is yes—and there could be a wealth of personal payoffs. “The workplace can be stressful. Working with friends means you’ll have emotional connection and support,” says Nan Russell, author of The Titleless Leader: How to Get Things Done When You’re Not in Charge. Plus, friends make work more fun.

We’re still crunching numbers for our potential business, but friends who are already taking the coworker plunge can make the most of it with these strategies.

Define Your Duties

When it comes to relationships with his business partners, Peter Furia, head of strategy for Silicon Valley–based digital marketing firm Seedwell, doesn’t mince words: “We haven’t just been friends—we’ve been best friends since age 13.” Furia and his fellow founders—Beau Lewis, head of business, and David Fine, head of production—have been collaborating on creative projects, like making music together, for years.

This shared DIY experience proved essential as the trio deftly spun a one-off YouTube video that went viral into a thriving business developing digital campaigns for marquee clients such as Google, Pepsi, and T-Mobile.

“What makes our business unique is our creative chemistry,” Furia says. What’s made it successful, however, is outlining clear individual functions for each member of the team. “When we started, all three of us wanted to have a hand in all aspects of a project. We made quality stuff, but it was highly inefficient,” Furia says. “Focusing our roles helped us take on more work.”

According to Russell, doing this early on is crucial for friends starting a company together. “Responsibilities, deliverables, and expectations should all be defined up front in a business plan,” she says. “If you take the time to work through the collective vision for the business, including how things will happen and who will do them, you can all feel secure in the professional and personal results of the endeavor.”

Image: Seedwell founders The BFF founders of Seedwell top to bottom: David Fine, Beau Lewis, and Peter Furia" />

THREE'S COMPANY
The BFF founders of Seedwell top to bottom: David Fine, Beau Lewis, and Peter Furia

Image: Seedwell founders The BFF founders of Seedwell top to bottom: David Fine, Beau Lewis, and Peter Furia" />

THREE'S COMPANY
The BFF founders of Seedwell top to bottom: David Fine, Beau Lewis, and Peter Furia

Set Expectations

Cooperating as equals can be tough enough, but when one friend becomes the boss of another, adjusting to the new dynamic can be particularly tricky. If you’re in charge, communicate your expectations clearly from the outset, before problems arise. “It’s important to acknowledge the challenge of collaborating—as well as to set boundaries,” Russell says. For example, you might limit time spent together outside work, she suggests. This will give you space to recalibrate your relationship rather than your standards as an employer.

If you’re the one in the employee seat, cut your friend-cum-boss some slack—and don’t expect to get any favors. “Acknowledge that she’s in a difficult position,” Russell says. “Assume that there will be a temporary or even permanent shift in the relationship, including the need to over-deliver to reduce the perception of favoritism.”

Heather Marold Thomason, co-owner, along with her husband, of Brooklyn-based Web design firm Bad Feather, frequently hires her buddies as freelancers. Mostly, this strategy works well, but when things don’t go smoothly, “I can’t be as pushy as I need to be,” the design director admits.

Thomason has learned the hard way that shifting from friend to manager requires being up-front about expectations. During one project, she was dissatisfied with a friend-turned-contractor’s designs. “If it had been someone else I would have just said, ‘Sorry, do it again,” she explains.“But because our relationship wasn’t clear-cut, there was a lot of tension by the end of the project.”

Embrace Your Differences

According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, friends work better together on cognitively complex tasks than do mere acquaintances. Why? “Friends have a shared history and experience,” says Katerina Bezrukova, assistant psychology professor at Santa Clara University. “They aren’t afraid to challenge each other.”

Having a nine-year friendship has certainly made tough professional negotiations easier for grad school pals Jennifer Medina, a clinical psychologist, and Emily Miller, an assistant professor of neuroscience, who now work together at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Earlier this year when the friends disagreed over admissions decisions, “we were able to be open without offending each other,” Medina says. “We don’t have to tiptoe around potentially tricky political situations at work,” Miller notes. “Knowing her as a friend allows me to be more honest. It’s nice to have a sounding board too—I want to hear her opinions.”