Starting a business with a friend: the good, the bad, the beautiful
At a glance
- Choose a business partner you share common ground with, but with different areas of expertise.
- Stay true to your vision – even when the going gets tough and the to-do list seems endless.
- Don’t hold grudges – speak up and move on.
- Be prepared to pick up the slack – even if it means taking on an area of the business that doesn’t come naturally.
- Put an agreement in writing, but act with good intentions and goodwill.
Start with common ground, good instincts and trust
“Our daughters were best friends so Clare and I already knew each other pretty well, and we’re both big foodies,” says Lulu. “When she came over one afternoon to pick up her daughter and brought up the idea of starting a business together, I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t want to face the void of not working after my digital marketing work dried up because of COVID-19. Maybe I should have thought about it more! But I’m a big believer in opening a door and taking an opportunity. And I trusted Clare deeply and knew that we shared the same values and were very family-oriented.”
“Our daughters were really worried that our partnership might impact their friendship though,” says Clare. “They were more nervous than we were about us working together!”
Charlotte Downes and Camilla Weinstein of Straw the Line already had a background of working together at Air NZ but it was shared parental leave that would end up building the strongest connection between them.
“We were taking our weekly walk on Takapuna Beach when I mentioned the idea of the straw business to Charlotte,” says Camilla.
“And I was keen straight away. I had no doubts about working with Camilla,” says Charlotte. “We knew we’d be learning about each other’s very different styles but that our intentions were the same. And, importantly, we have an even playing field of commitments outside the business in terms of family and our day jobs.”
Set your vision and stick to it – but be prepared to adapt
“Early on in our partnership, my husband led Clare and I on a vision walk where we imagined our business three years from now then walked back year by year,” says Lulu.
“It was very powerful,” remembers Clare. “Even though I made fun of him at the time for being very ‘California guru’ about it! But it made us think about our business in a larger sense. And when things get tough, we return to that vision – together and individually.”
“We have a meeting every month to touch base and make sure we are aligning with our vision as well as making the right adjustments given challenges like COVID-19,” says Lulu. “When you have a small business start-up, the list of micro problems is endless – it’s easy to get lost in them. This meeting allows us to step back and look at the big picture more strategically.”
Their business vision is also a constant touchpoint for Camilla and Charlotte. “You have to stay true to your vision and check in regularly to make sure you’re on track,” says Charlotte. “For us, sticking to our vision means asking ourselves at every opportunity, ‘are we doing something that will help save the planet one slurp at a time.’”
“But you also must be prepared to pivot when required,” says Camilla. “And we’ve had plenty of experience doing that over the course of the pandemic.”
Play to your strengths, complement your differences and have each other’s backs
“It became evident very quickly that Clare and I had different strengths,” says Lulu. “Clare is a great storyteller, and good at talking and connecting with people – she takes on more of the sales side and I do more marketing and operations.”
“But even when you’re focused on your preferred area, you have to be ready to jump in and help out your partner,” says Clare. “If they go away or get sick or have family commitments, you need to be ready to pick up the slack.”
“And don’t forget to be each other’s cheerleader!” says Lulu. “In a traditional work environment, you get used to feedback and people telling you you’re doing a good job. When you’re running your own business, it can sometimes feel a bit thankless. So you have to cheer each other on.”
Camilla and Charlotte’s differences are also a big part of what makes Straw the Line successful.
“I picked up marketing, social media and external communications while Camilla is more across logistics and business operations, and getting the money in the bank, and we both play a part in developing new business and showing the love to our existing customers” says Charlotte.
“Camilla is a force to be reckoned with – I really admire her work ethic and the speed at which she gets things done.”
“And Charlotte has taught me a lot about patience and staying calm!” laughs Camilla.
“It’s great to have your particular strengths,” says Camilla, “but also to be flexible enough to take on anything else that comes up and to be willing to cross over and help out your partner when they need the support.”
Have permission to speak frankly, take a breather and put it in writing
“We are really straight up and authentic with each other,” says Camilla. “We respect feedback and agreed from the start that we’d speak up if something annoyed us so we could apologise and talk through it. Maintaining open communication in a business partnership is so important.”
“When you start a business with a friend, you are working non-stop together. It’s very intense. And sometimes you need a break from each other! Or at least the opportunity to socialise together without talking business,” says Lulu.
“We have an agreement that on weekends, we’re not allowed to text each other about business,” says Clare. “It’s not easy but those boundaries are important for our friendship.”
Camilla agrees that a work talk-free zone is necessary for the success of the business and the friendship. “We definitely need to sometimes just get together without talking about straws!”
Both partnerships agree that a written agreement is a sensible option that gives peace of mind and a useful foundation for sorting out any potential difficulties. “It’s not about assuming that things are going to go wrong,” explains Camilla. “It’s just about being prepared for any changes or unexpected events.”
And what about Lulu and Clare’s daughters? “They are still best friends!” says Clare. “It turns out that their mums starting a business together wasn’t so bad after all.”
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