With a little help

What do Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Google all have in common? Other than being the world’s leading tech firms, they were also founded by personal acquaintances. What, then, makes friendship such a powerful force in business?

With a little help

Whether or not it was intentional, many entrepreneurs become the face of their brand. It would be impossible to think of Virgin without an image of Richard Branson springing to mind. Likewise, how could one not envisage James Dyson when vacuuming the living room floor? 

These two pioneers are also distinguishable by the fact that they went it alone. Whilst they may have had a few close colleagues whispering words of advice in their ear from the start, both Dyson and Virgin are the result of one person’s vision, imagination and unrelenting determination.

Nevertheless, many of the world’s other corporate behemoths were founded by some mates with a great idea. The late Steve Jobs may be seen in some people’s eyes as ‘Mr Apple’, but the tech giant wouldn’t be where it is today without Jobs’ former workmate and co-founder Steve Wozniak. Moreover, one can only wonder where Bill Gates would find himself were it not for his childhood buddy, Paul Allen. Their friendship, along with a shared love of both computers and entrepreneurship, combined rather well to create Microsoft, which continues to make billions. And lest we forget that Mark Zuckerberg was one of five Harvard College roommates to found Facebook. Throw Twitter and Google into the mix as well, and you have got a rather impressive portfolio of enterprises that were created off the back of shared adolescent experiences and a common passion for building businesses.

Titus Sharpe, co-founder of MVF, the customer acquisition platform, is one person who can bang the drum for starting a business with buddies. Founded by Sharpe and four friends in 2009, MVF was recently named the UK’s fastest-growing tech company by The Sunday Times. Needless to say, that probably wouldn’t have happened as soon as it has, if at all, if Sharpe hadn’t become acquainted with his fellow founders. The fact that most of them had worked together before meant that the decision to combine forces on MVF was a relatively straightforward one, he explains. 

“For me, it was a total no-brainer,” Sharpe comments. “I knew what everyone brought to the table and I knew their strengths and weaknesses. Particularly regarding the guys I’d worked with before, we knew we could function as a team because we had been doing it for nine years previously. So it just seemed blindingly obvious that the team would work.”

As far as Sharpe is concerned, there are tangible benefits to sharing the load. In MVF’s case, the variety of skillsets and experience has proven invaluable. “I have talked to so many other founders and they say ‘the commercial side is great but we haven’t found the right tech guys’,” he says. “It has been profoundly beneficial to MVF having that strength and depth of team that we knew worked before we even started. That breadth of experience brings a nice rounded balance.” 

It is a similar story for Linde Werdelin, the renowned watchmaking firm founded by childhood friends Jorn Werdelin and Morten Linde in 2002. Indeed, was it not for their professional lives taking dissimilar paths to begin with, things would have turned out somewhat differently for the pair. 

“Morten started out as a product designer and had done product design for more than a decade before we started Linde Werdelin and I – although growing up in a watch and jewellery retail environment – was in banking and had some experience with numbers and accounts,” explains Werdelin. “I think that combination of creativity and business creativity makes it work. It is about realising that Morten can do some things that I can’t and I can do some things that Morten can’t.” He adds, emphatically, “I think if we had not been friends and trusted each other, Linde Werdelin would not exist today because there would be so many reasons not to do it.”

That’s not to say everything is rosy when it comes to embarking on a new venture with one’s nearest and dearest. Emotions can run high in business and disputes over a potential new investment or other matter can often boil over, threatening both the professional and personal relationship in the process. As is the nature of friendship though, such squabbles are often resolved more amicably and promptly than they otherwise would be. “Disagreement is where the friendship helps because even if we scream at each other, we know that we will have to speak again tomorrow,” says Werdelin.

That said, Sharpe admits that there is one issue that has the potential to cause a rift among mates like no other. Salary is an infamously thorny subject for entrepreneurs, but the difficulty can be heightened when there is more than just a single individual’s needs at stake. “One person has got to make the final decision on who gets paid what in the business and if it is your friends, it is quite a tricky decision,” says Sharpe. “You have got to weigh up making a profit in the business first against remunerating your friends as well as you can.”

Naturally, the dynamic is slightly different when a sole founder takes on a friend as their first employee. For one, a certain degree of authority is thrown into the mix, which can present scenarios that would not customarily have occurred when hanging out together at the local pub. However, as Toby Brand, founder of Br4nd, an online fashion start-up, testifies, such fears are ultimately allayed as a result of the trust between the individuals involved. 

Brand employed his friend Sarah Frankel as operations manager so that he can juggle his university studies with the demands of building an enterprise from scratch. In spite of their personal connection, Frankel just happened to be the best person for the job. “It was completely by chance that I was at the pub with some friends, I mentioned it, and Sarah was there,” says Brand. “We just had a chat about it and I realised she was perfect. She had a skillset that was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.” 

Suffice to say, Brand believes that Frankel’s professionalism and their ability to work brilliantly in tandem will continue to serve them well going forward. “We don’t really appear like we are close friends when we are in meetings with designers,” says Brand. “We just appear like any other work team.” So much so, Brand adds, that he barely feels like an employer at all. “We are just two people working together,” he says. “She jokily tried to call me ‘boss’ once and I said ‘never call me that’.” 

So long as a fine balance is struck, there is no reason why personal and professional acquaintances can’t work in harmony. As Werdelin concludes, “the challenge is managing the relationship so that you don’t lose the professionalism, but also so that you don’t lose the friendship.” 

Adam Pescod
Adam Pescod

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