What to Do When Friends Want to Be Co-Founders
If you're an entrepreneur with any track record of success, you've had those awkward conversations at parties that start with, "Wow I'd love to be where you are," and wrap up with, "any chance you could use a good… [salesperson, training manager, archivist, dentist] in your organization? Ha Ha Ha."
It's easy to laugh back and say, "I'm afraid we're full up right now, but if you're serious, send us your resume and we'll let you know if we need a dentist in the near future..."
It's much more difficult to turn the discussion if a friend wants/hopes/expects to join you in creating and running the business. She might have been there when you came up with your brilliant idea, listened as you honed it into the start of a business plan, and cheered you on when you came up with just the right product name. You've seen your friend as helpful and encouraging while your friend sees him or herself as part of the business.
Unfortunately, by the time you realize the situation, your friend is making plans to provide start-up space in his basement or her rec room and has been telling everyone about this great new business he's starting with a friend. There's no great way to handle the situation, but here are some thoughts as you move through the process.
Consider it. Maybe your friend would actually be a good partner. Ask yourself the following questions: Do your perspectives mesh while staying different enough to encourage discussion and debate? Can you spend a lot of time with your friend without getting bored or irritated? Can your friend fulfill many roles? Does your friend have all the desirable business partner traits: responsible, reliable, hard worker, good with people, rich aunt?
Be fair. Is it possible that all of those great ideas and plans really did come from both of you? Consider whether you're not unjustly taking all the credit. If your friend has already been acting more like a partner from the start, guess what, you have a partner!
Check your pronouns. Have you been saying "I" or "we?" How about "us" or "our?" Has your friend slowly been changing his pronoun usage to include "our" instead of "your?" If so, you might start changing those pronouns back to the first person and see if your friend gets the message without either of you having to face "the big discussion."
The big discussion. This is by far the hardest option. Feelings could get hurt, and you risk losing a good friend. But even if you bricked and you inadvertently painted an inaccurate picture of the situation, honesty is best. Have that difficult discussion about how each of you will proceed before you startup. In many ways launching a business is like getting married, you don't want either to end in divorce.
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.