Like most of us, I’ve seen really good examples of colleagues becoming friends and then becoming business partners. And like many of us I’ve seen a few disastrous examples as well. It’s painful to witness a business’ failure. It’s even more painful to witness a business failing and taking a friendship down with it, or vice versa.
It’s the business vs. friendship ratio, in fact, that seems to be one of the best predictors of success or failure: Is the partnership more a business or a friendship? To learn more about that potentially delicate topic, I talked to Terri Nopp, a business strategist who has worked for global agencies and has also started two successful businesses of her own – one of which was founded in partnership with a former colleague-turned-friend. But, says Nopp, while the two were both friends and business partners, the equation tipped in favor of business partners. “We were about 70 percent partners, 30 percent friends,” Nopp says.
More than two decades ago, Nopp began her way up the tech PR ladder working on the launch of Microsoft Access. When the Internet came along she went to work at an analytics provider startup. But a stock market crash sent her back to the agency world, and once there she realized she’d developed a taste for working on business strategy with CEOs – a taste that inspired her to join forces with a colleague and friend in 2002 to launch TNT Communication.
When it comes to starting and growing a business together, Nopp says there is really no substitute for time: She and the colleague she ultimately partnered with worked on teams together for many years before starting their company. “If you have a good colleague, you’ve been through the test of time, and by that I mean stress,” she says. “That’s what will determine the strength of your partnership. We worked on really stressful projects together and we discovered that we can have fun together but we can also kick serious butt.”
While she believes that having differences is a good way to complement one another, she thinks it’s equally important to have characteristics in common.
First, the similarities. Nopp says that it’s important to have the same kind of spending habits. “We both have older homes and we’re both frugal about vacations,” she says. “Our spending is similar. If the way you approach spending is different I think your business would suffer.” Nopp thinks it’s also critical that business partners agree on each person’s role and responsibilities and on the time and financial commitment each is bringing to the venture.
Equally important to their success, Nopp says, are the ways in which she and her business partner differ. “I focused on clients and winning business while she became an expert on business infrastructure, things like taxes, invoicing and insurance,” she says. “My natural bent is toward sales, hers is toward managing. I knew how to win the business and she knew how to run it.”
Regardless of differences and similarities, Nopp says the best part of an effective friendship-turned-partnership is that both the good times and the bad times can be shared. “We split the pain of the more challenging clients and projects and we celebrate the good ones together,” she says.