Startup Survival 101: It's All About Relationships That Work

In designing a healthy, efficient workplace, your employees have more power than you think.

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By Martin Zwilling • Apr 20, 2013

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Most entrepreneurs, and members of any small team for that matter, naively assume that the key to their success is hard work, dedication and long hours at the business. In reality, their effectiveness is usually more related to how well they develop their work relationships with peers and business leaders.

First, they need to decipher correctly every relationship as a workship, friendship or foe.

Workships, according to workplace-expert Dr. Jan Yager, refers to those workplace relationships that haven't yet developed into full-blown friendships, but are closer than mere acquaintances. In her book on this subject, Who's That Sitting at My Desk? she explains the importance of mastering work relationships and provides specific guidance on building the right ones.

It behooves all entrepreneurs, and all team members, to recognize the positives and negatives of each type of relationship. More importantly, we all need to develop the right relationships and actively avoid those types that are not right for the business or not right for our career at a particular point in time.

Here are the various relationship stages you might fall into on the job and perhaps deem better suited to your specific business needs:

1. Acquaintanceship. Every business relationship -- peer-to-peer or inside to outside -- starts as an introduction and formal recognition of roles. Too many relationships never advance beyond this stage, resulting in poor communication, no cooperation, low trust and low shared productivity. Moving forward to workships is critical to the business.

Related: What to Do When Friends Want to Be Co-Founders

2. Workship, Mentor. This is a productive working relationship where one party, more knowledgeable and/or experienced, takes an active role in fostering the advance of the other. When both parties contribute, it's a powerful and positive relationship that benefits both careers, as well as the business.

3. Workship, Advocate. Unlike the mentor, who is a coach and teacher, the advocate inspires you to be the best that you can be. The best advocates do this because they care about you as a person, not because of personal aspirations. Your business will benefit from the increased productivity, high morale and skill growth.

4. Workship, Trailblazer. The trailblazer is not overly competitive. Yet this person is always few steps ahead and enjoys setting an example that you are inspired by or motivated to follow. As a result, you are incented to be a trailblazer for others, which leads to stronger relationships throughout the team, along with a stronger startup.

Related: 7 Steps for Choosing a Top-Notch Business Partner

5. Workship, Communicator. The communicator is always researching the latest info, and keeps you in the loop on what's happening in the business and why. Unlike the office gossip, information is always shared in a positive way, thus helping you to do your best at work and in your career. What goes around almost always comes around.

6. Friendship. There are three conditions that accompany the transition from a workship to a more intimate friendship: A shared wish to move to the next level, expanding the work-based relationship to non-work experiences and sharing on issues requiring trust and discretion. Contrary to popular opinion, friendships are not inherently bad for business.

7. Romantic. When the relationship is appropriate, condoned by the company and welcomed by both parties, it can be positive from a personal and even a work perspective. On the other hand, it can cause enormous emotional and legal problems, not to mention pain, suffering and business failure. Proceed to this level with caution.

8. Foe. A foe relationship between two startup team members is always toxic to the business, so quick action from the top is required to save the business. Some foe relationships can be turned around to a productive workship or friendship, but all require first a shared wish by both parties to change. Workships and friendships can't be forced.

Related: 4 Tips to Avoid Co-Founder Conflict

In summary, entrepreneurs need to be especially perceptive and sensitive to business and personal relationships, since they normally work with small, closely-knit teams, on innovative and highly unstructured environments. The quality of relationships with customers, investors, partners, and suppliers can easily be their sustainable competitive advantage or their death knell.

In my experience, even the best technology and business model won't succeed without successful relationships. That's why investors say they invest in people, not ideas.

How do you foster healthy relationships at your startup? Let us know with a comment.

Martin Zwilling

Veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and Angel investor.

Martin Zwilling is the founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners. The author of Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur? and Attracting an Angel, he writes a daily blog for entrepreneurs and dispenses advice on the subject of startups.

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