Entrepreneur

How to work with your startup frenemies

“Frenemy” is a noun with nuance; its definition does not do it justice. A frenemy is a person who can never fully be trusted and must be approached with the utmost caution. This relational phenomenon is pretty much omnipresent in the startup ecosystem.

A Businessweek article stated frenemies in the workplace are common due to increasingly informal environments and the “abundance of very close, intertwined relationships that bridge people’s professional and personal lives.”

When I started a business with a friend, we soon shared an apartment that doubled as our office. Post-graduation, my MBA classmates subsequently became my friends, my employees, and sometimes my competition, and my former professor became one of my investors. Intertwined? Indeed.

In this ever-shrinking world, six degrees of separation dwindle down to just two, and fresh introductions are colored by the association of “mutual Facebook friends.” This combination leads startups to become a quintessential breeding ground for frenemies.

How to avoid enemies, keep friends, and benefit from frenemies


1. Realize that frenemies are unavoidable.

In the world of startups, the same faces and names quickly become commonplace; the community is small and made smaller by their technological prowess and resultant higher interconnectedness.

The nature of entrepreneurs makes them inherently more likely to fall into the frenemy category. We are generally type-A, competitive, and motivated to change the world. But people associate success with different costs. Take part in the collaborative nature of the community, learn from them, teach them, but be aware that the motives of others are not always pure.

2. Build trust circles that layer like Russian nesting dolls.

I had a former classmate work remotely for me as a research consultant, while I was simultaneously helping him secure a venture capital job. I had spent many months creating investor decks, lists of prospective investors and partners, strategy plans, and financial projections. When he fell off the map for a few weeks, he responded that he found a job. I was happy for him.

Two months later I found out he had become the CEO of one of our competitors; the copy on their site was taken directly from our materials. As a bootstrapping, lean startup, we didn’t have the resources to pursue the matter further than an email request copying our lawyers. Everyone working for you as a founder should sign a confidentiality and IP assignment agreement. Give limited access to employees who are not fully committed and trustworthy.

3. Know your strengths, and acknowledge strengths in others.

Like a sports team, every player has a role, but as new people come in, roles change. In the startup world, we as founders and first employees wear many hats, but must be able to know when someone is smarter. Inevitably, someone will be.

Insecurity breeds animosity. As part of a founding team in a startup, or in any professional setting, there will be internal competition. There will be co-workers, managers, investors, and employees who outsmart you, or are more skilled in certain areas. Regardless of whether you are the CEO, CTO, head of sales, or an executive assistant, you are in your role for a reason. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues, clients and managers to share their perspective on your strengths and weaknesses.

Own your highest value-add, and ask others to help you with your weaknesses. Realize that asking for help is a strength and will reduce the enemy/frenemy factor in your relationships.

4. Learn from the UFC: Enemies in the ring, friends outside the ring.

When Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters and friends Jon “Bones” Jones and Rashad Evans went head to head in a fight, Jones said, “It’s definitely going to be huge for the sport, teammates fighting each other. You know Rashad, we were friends, and hopefully we can be friends after the fight. It’s just business. You’ve just got to get the job done.”

This applies internally to a team and externally between companies. It is easier said than done, but try your best to separate professional and personal relationships.

This may be one of the hardest aspects of a startup, and is often a determining factor between success and failure of a business. As a manager, try to facilitate non-business events that foster friendships and allow people to connect on a personal level in a controlled environment, while sticking to a more regimented business relationship with your coworkers. After you work hard, don’t forget to play hard.

5. Support other startups: Pay it forward.

I am a huge supporter of innovation, sponsored challenges, and forward thinkers who can recognize future value before future revenue. When you can, pay it forward.

The “it” is often just your presence and costs nothing. When one of your startup friends invites you to celebrate his or her new office or soft launch, go! When you are asked to tweet out news of a company’s new product or news coverage, do it!

As a founder, I realize that small acts that help promote other startups go a long way. Support the ecosystem and try to be the friend over the frenemy.

Competition keeps you in check. Competition forces you to look at your business and the decisions you make in the context of others. We all want to focus on our product, but attention to the competitive landscape is inevitable. We will pay the fee to register for a competitors’ site to see every attribute they chose. We will learn from someone’s first mover advantage.

At the end of the day, we are entrepreneurs because we want to make a change in the world. We want to innovate, improve, and fix inefficiencies. Frenemies are inevitable, but everyone is in control of him or herself. The more we can support each other, the stronger we will all be.

Melissa ThompsonMelissa Thompson is CEO and co-founder of TalkSession, Inc., an online counseling platform in beta mode, that will connect users with highly credible professionals for on-demand, mobile therapy and counseling sessions using proprietary algorithm matching and artificial intelligence.

Top image courtesy of New World Pictures.


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