Going into business with a friend: tips for best practice

Two small business owners talk about their experiences of setting up a company with a friend and how to make it through tough times.

Going into business with a friend is often fun and rewarding, but it can have its challenges.

Rather than tell you how to handle it, we thought it would be better to ask those that have been there themselves.

Polly Marsh, co-founder of Cuddledry

Ten years ago, university friends Polly Marsh and Helen Wooldridge, co-founders of family bathtime brand Cuddledry, appeared on Dragon’s Den to pitch their pioneering hands-free baby towel, and made the bold decision to turn down all offers of investment from the Dragons, deciding instead to go it alone.

A decade on, they have surpassed all their expectations to make the brand a global success story.

Polly (left) reveals how Cuddledry came to be and what you need to know about going into business with a friend.

Polly talks about going into business with a friend

When Helen and I first set up the business, we were completely new to retail. Helen had come from a career in PR and working in refugee camps, and I had been in the army. However, after becoming mums for the first time, we were both ready for a new challenge, and one that we could flex around family life.

Our ‘Eureka’ moment came while watching our husbands struggling to safely take our babies from the bath; with towels tucked under their chins, attempting to wrestle slippery babies from the bath, we both thought there had to be an easier way.

We decided to go into business together because we both saw the opportunity for a product to solve this juggling act that every single new parent we knew faced.

After initial market research, there appeared to be nothing on the market yet it was cited as being the most stressful moment faced by new parents. So we created and tested some designs, registered the best, took it to a trade show, and it was an instant success; Mothercare ordered several hundred on the spot, we called the factory and started production, and the rest is history!

The power of trust

The best thing about running a business with a friend is that there is a huge element of trust, total dependability, and an inherent knowledge about what they really think or feel about any decision. We talk all the time, and although we’ve both faced challenges, our friendship always comes first.

Working with a friend allows you to bounce ideas off each other, it allows you to celebrate the wins, and scream about the losses – to share the frustrations, the fun, the fears, the highs and lows – everything that is running a business. I wouldn’t want to do it alone.

Of course, the downside is that you live in fear of letting them down, and we probably both work far too hard in a bid to feel worthy to the other partner.

There are many examples of how our friendship has pulled us though. Our first trade show was one. We had got our design, our company, booked the stand, and had the banners made, yet the night before the show we were sat in Helen’s parents’ house waiting for the samples to be delivered from Turkey!

If those six samples had not arrived, we would have blown our savings on a stand we couldn’t afford that might never return on the investment. While no one was at fault, this was a hugely stressful time, and we could have taken it out on each other; instead we decided to open a bottle of wine. We were in it together and luckily our risk-taking paid off.

Dragons’ Den was also a test of our friendship. When we went to confer at the back of the room, the tension was huge – knowing we would never have this chance again, and knowing how much we were risking in choosing to say no. But we had decided not to give away more than 20 per cent of our business, so we stuck to our guns.

As we drove home afterwards, we were both completely silent for a long time – brains whirring round and round trying to work out whether our decision had been the right one.

Over the years our roles have gradually separated in that I run the team in charge of operations and logistics while Helen manages the marketing team.

Despite working on two different parts of the business, I know that I can take over from Helen, and vice versa, at any time. Families are unpredictable, and you never know when you may need to take the day off at a moment’s notice, or ask your partner to stand in for you at a meeting.

Top tips on going into business with a friend

Look at yourselves first. Is your friendship strong enough to make it through success or failure? There are so many stories about friends going into business, and when it fails they blame each other, and that friendship is lost. Be honest with yourselves and be prepared to work hard to make it work.

Being in the same situation helps. Helen and I are both parents, and have built our business to flex around family life. We keep each other sane, support each other, and that now goes for the entire team of over ten working mums who we employ.

Being geographically close to each other is a bonus. Whilst out entire team works remotely, Helen and I are about an hour’s drive apart, which means we can have those crucial face-to-face meetings that are a must when you work together. Technology is great, and allows us to work flexibly, but it can’t replace face-to-face meetings that ensure trust and honesty are alive and well in the partnership.

Continue to be friends. Have fun, make each other laugh, support each other, and be positive in everything. Together, you can be prepared for anything.

Remind each other of your core values. We try to ensure Cuddledry remains true to its beginnings, and as we grow we will make sure it retains the key assets which have made the brand so strong – ethical, high quality products; charitable partnerships; and supporting flexible hours for working parents.

And most importantly – making life easier and more fun!

Philip Braham, co-founder of Remedium Partners

Philip and business partner David run medical recruitment specialists, Remedium Partners. Phil (right) chats to us about handling differing personalities and starting the business in a shed.

Phil talks to SmallBusiness.co.uk about starting a business with a friend

So many people have come to know our story over the years and they are always drawn to the part where we began in a shed!

On a practical level, it was really tough. The winters were very cold even with our portable heaters and we were unbearably hot in the summer because we had no air con. However, starting from there has made us appreciate our new 3,000 square foot offices even more because we have such vivid memories of where we began.

We have been pretty fortunate because we’ve had some really strong growth over the past four years and our decision making has been generally agreeable between us.

The greatest challenge in our partnership is that I tend to be more inclined to have innovative and experimental ideas, whereas David is definitely more risk averse. As a result, we can sometimes get into long discussions over certain topics, but we do it in order to weigh things up and everything that we eventually agree is based on what is best for the business.

We’re a testament to the fact that having two completely different personalities and approaches works well when it comes to finding that balance in business.

“We’re a testament to the fact that having two completely different personalities and approaches works well when it comes to finding that balance in business”

Don’t bring your friendship into the office

The best advice I can give is to keep your friendship and business partnership separate.

Outside of work, you can be the best of friends but don’t bring this into the office. You need to be able to sit each other down and hold the other accountable for their area of the business.

It’s also vital to be prepared to take constructive criticism from your partner. Finally, I’d say trust is incredibly important in a joint venture. When your heart and soul is going into a business, you have to go into partnership with someone that you have utter confidence in.

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

Related Topics

Business Partnerships

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