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4 things every founder should know about starting a company with their best friend

Editor’s Note: This article was contributed by guest writer Jenny Saft, CEO and co-founder at Apryl.

In 2019, I founded Apryl (a fertility benefits company) with my friend Tobias Kaufhold. After my own experience of egg freezing fell short, I was driven to find a solution to improve access to affordable, inclusive fertility care. Tobi and I first met in San Francisco in 2016 where we both lived and worked at that time. When I was looking for a co-founder, I was initially looking for a female co-founder because I thought it made sense back then. But when I told Tobi about the idea, he quickly said “Does it have to be a female co-founder or could you also see me at your side?” I was concerned at first because I was scared that it would have an impact on our friendship (and it does) but Tobi reassured me that we will figure this out. So, shortly after, we joined forces to start Apryl.

Co-founding a company is an incredibly rewarding experience. It allows you to draw on your combined experience and expertise to enrich your startup and make the strongest decisions possible. But, it can also come with its challenges. So, for anyone who is considering co-founding a business with a friend, I’ve pulled together some of the key learnings from my own experience to share the 4 things that every founder should know about starting a company with their best friend.

Clearly defined roles and responsibilities are key

As a founder, you often find yourself wearing many different hats. Especially early on, you might find yourself in the role of HR professional, marketeer and CEO all in the space of one afternoon. Having a co-founder is brilliant because it allows you to split these roles and responsibilities and dedicate more meaningful time to the key tasks which require your attention.

However, all too often co-founders fail to formally define their day-to-day responsibilities in favour of a more relaxed, informal approach – and this is particularly true when co-founders are friends first. This frequently leads to confusion when both co-founders end up working on the same tasks and teams have no clear understanding of who is overseeing projects. To avoid a ‘too many cooks’ situation, it’s vital to define your respective roles and to evolve these over time as the business grows.

The good news is that the most effective partnerships will play to each person’s strengths, and as friends, you will have a much better understanding of each other’s skills and expertise from the outset. So, utilise this knowledge and define your day-to-day roles based on those abilities. For example, at Apryl, I look after all externally facing functions such as sales, marketing, and investor relations, while Tobi takes care of all internal matters such as product, operations, legal etc. This allows us to benefit from each of our unique skill sets and work together effectively. It can be useful to clarify your roles with titles like CEO and COO to create a focus for your responsibilities, as well as signify your roles externally.

You won’t agree on everything, and that’s ok

On the flip side, big decisions should be made together. I could (metaphorically) stand up here and say that Tobi and I have never disagreed. It would, of course, be a lie – quite frankly, if we always agreed it would be boring. Part of what makes co-founding a company so rewarding is that we both bring our own opinions and experiences to the table and by combining these insights we make stronger business decisions.

Founding a startup tends to be mission-led, meaning that you both bring heaps of passion to the project. However, when you both share this same level of drive and commitment, it can be easy to get swept up at the moment; it can also lead to conflict when you both believe that your way of doing things is best. And as friends, these discussions are often more candid – and for some can become heated. It’s important to advocate for your opinions, but it’s equally crucial to take a step back and consider the wisest course of action in each particular situation. Your way may be right some of the time, but not always.

Ultimately, remember that disagreements are normal, and they come from a desire to succeed. The key is to ensure that these differences of opinion are an asset rather than a liability by keeping discussions productive, respectful and entering into moments with an open mind. Coaching can help with this. Last year, Tobi and I began monthly coaching sessions to strengthen our working dynamic; we discuss how we work best, air any grievances, and set expectations about our roles and working relationship.

Build those boundaries

When your working relationship originates in friendship, it can be easy for the boundaries between work and life to blur (even more so than they already inevitably do as a founder). Making it can be easy to fall into the trap of talking about work whenever you spend time together – whether you are on the clock or not.

To maintain your friendship, it’s important to set aside time to connect outside of work. Block out time when you can catch up as friends, not as co-founders – and commit to not mentioning anything to do with work during that time. It’s easier said than done (and might not always be possible if something urgent comes up) but setting that time aside can help you to preserve your partnership. Plus, it also allows you to maintain those all-important boundaries between work and home life, too.

It’s equally valuable to set boundaries with each other at work. Your friendship can make it feel natural to drop in and interrupt each other’s workflow or to text in the middle of the night about a project. It’s essential to be respectful of one another’s time. Scheduling time for meetings can help. By blocking out time in your calendar to formally catch up with one another, you can come to the meetings more prepared and be more productive. It also means you have fewer interruptions during the day, allowing you to devote more time to “deep focus” (which is often hard to come by as a founder).

Don’t be fooled by what you see online

Founding a business can sometimes feel like you’re jumping off a cliff without a parachute. It’s scary, so it’s natural and helpful to seek out advice, connect with other founders, and follow them online. However, it is equally important not to take everything you read and see at face value. What works for one person may not work for you or your business.

This is especially true of your relationship with your co-founder. We all know that LinkedIn can often become a highlight reel. Yet, when you are stuck in the echo chamber, seeing post after post of successful founder stories, it can be easy to believe that this is reality. You don’t see the moments behind closed doors when things go wrong or people disagree. You can be left wondering what you’re doing wrong when your reality doesn’t match up. It’s vital to view everything with a healthy dose of scepticism and remember that nothing is perfect, even when it appears to be.

Furthermore, it’s important that you don’t attempt to mirror the relationships you see online. Find the style of working relationship which works for you. It might not fit the traditional mould of the ‘perfect co-founder relationship’ and that’s ok – especially because the perfect partnership doesn’t really exist. Your unique relationship is what will set your startup apart and help you succeed.

Jenny Saft
Jenny Saft
Guest writer Jenny Saft is CEO and co-founder at Apryl: a Berlin-based fertility benefits platform helping companies across Europe offer staff access to inclusive fertility and family forming services - everything from egg freezing through to adoption and IVF. She was inspired to start Apryl following her own experience of freezing her eggs. In addition to founding Apryl, Jenny is an an Angel investor, investing in early-stage startups through the Atomico Angel Programme.

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