Can Friends Really Make Money Together?

TV presenters Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly have become a British entertainment institution. They have made the difficult transition from child actors in Byker Grove to teen popstars as PJ & Duncan and ultimately to prime time television stars, hosting the likes of I’m a Celebrity, Britain’s Got Talent and Saturday Night Takeaway. In 2011, they earned a reported £5m each through their exclusive contract with ITV whom they joined in 1998, and recently exited Gallowgate (the independent film company they founded) which produces and owns the rights to many of their back catalogue of shows. Their ability to connect with the audience is unique and unrivalled amongst current entertainers, a nod towards the likes of the iconic duo of Morecombe and Wise. But whereas the latter had successful solo performing careers, Ant & Dec’s appeal currently lays solely in their strength as a double act.

But can the same be said for entrepreneurial co-founders and is there a difference between friends that go into business and those who find friendship through a shared goal? The likes of Google and Apple fall into the latter category; would Google have been conceived and become the dominant search engine without Larry Page or would Apple have given the world the Mac without Steve Wozniak? Hard to know for certain but you would assume their contribution was telling. What I can say for certain however is that a company like Hewlett Packard wouldn’t have quite been the same in name (obviously), vision or culture had Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard not gone from being best friends at university to business partners. So for anyone considering starting a partnership with a recent acquaintance or best buddy, here are some lessons from Ant & Dec on making the tricky step to becoming a successful double act.

1. Understand Each Others Strengths and Weaknesses
Small businesses fail for many well documented reasons, often involving finances and cashflow but did you know that partnerships are up to four times more likely to survive long term than sole proprietorships?

Startup entrepreneurs may set out with an endless supply of great ideas and enthusiasm but having someone else to bounce and feed these ideas off can be critical, especially during the early days of the business. Much in the same way as our favourite comedy duo’s feed off each others creativity, partners also instil a level of discipline and provide a theoretical check and balance on the decision making of the business.

The key is to enter into a partnership understanding why you’re starting up and what value you both bring to the business. I’m going to skip the jokes about not knowing which one is Ant and which is Dec (mainly because I had to look it up) and get right to the punch line – it’s all about value and respect. If your future business partner doesn’t bring skills or talents to the business which you believe are valuable then you’ll struggle to develop respect which can fatally undermine even the brightest of businesses.

In the case of Ant and Dec after nearly twenty years of friendship and working together their ability to connect and engage an audience as a double act is unrivalled and down to an inherent understanding of each others strengths, comedy timing and a share of creative responsibility.

2. Develop Specific and Documented Roles for One Another
A major reason for partnerships failing is that the founders don’t understand the roles they should be playing in the partnership. It’ s important as well to realise that a power differential or significant difference in investment in the business frequently leads to conflict. Deciding who will perform which roles will largely happen once you’ve understood each others strengths and weaknesses but thereafter it is imperative to document roles and responsibilities.

It goes without saying that we’d expect every employee to have a job description and the same applies to co-founders, especially best friends, where the tendency to ‘wander’ between tasks and roles can be greater. Decide up front, who is responsible for what and set out clear employment agreements between the business and each of the founders. It is critical, as with any document to review your job description every three to six months, and ensure that you understand that working on your partnership is critical to your businesses success and therefore very much part of your job.

The unique thing about the Geordie-duo is that while conventionally most double acts trade on their differences, Ant and Dec make maximum use of their ‘sameness’. Their on stage banter may appear off the cuff, but despite presenting live shows it is usually scripted; setting up gags and one-liners, they take their responsibility to inspire one another, both creatively and to stay the course with their partnership very seriously. So, how can you define their different roles? Quite simple, Ant is always the one on the left!

3. Maintain Your Life Outside of Work
One of the greatest risks to a founding team is not understanding the need for balance. Spending all day, everyday working with a close friend makes it even more imperative to take time outside the office and of course there will be bad days, when you need space. But it is important to remember that before being co-founders, you were first and foremost friends.

Part of ensuring the balance and avoiding conflict is ensuring that you are adept at communicating and dealing with conflict. Before setting out on the venture you need to be up front about any concerns and discuss how you resolve conflicts and problems along the way.

For Ant and Dec, their relationship on TV is very much like it is off screen, unlike their heroes Morecombe and Wise who had great warmth on screen but who lived very separate lives off. Therein lies Ant and Decs USP. They have professionalised being best friends, turning it into an investable double act by bottling and selling their creativity in the form of an unbeatable relationship.

4. Have a Clear Strategy for When Things Go Wrong
Running a business is both dynamic and frequently unpredictable, throw into the mix the complexities of human friendships and the result is that even the most thought through founding teams can find themselves at loggerheads.

Whether life long friends or first time associates every successful partnership is built on solid paperwork and a documented strategy for when things go wrong. In the case of Ant and Dec and many celebrity talents, broadcasters are quick to tie them to lucrative deals, as much to ensure they don’t move to another channel as in their case to bind the duo firmly together. The pair signed their first “golden handcuff” agreement with ITV in 2000 and like clock-work recommit every 2 to 3 years to extended deals the latest an exclusive two-year contract which will take them into late 2013.

Whilst it’s unlikely to be the first or most pleasant thing you discuss it is essential to get the fundamentals written down and clearly agreed. The reality is that no business partnership can survive for long if the goals of the partners aren’t aligned and your documentation should spell out how disagreements will be dealt with and even how your partnership can be dissolved.

Part of the Family?
Starting a business is often likened to marriage. Early mornings, long days and late nights, mean you will often spend more time with your co-founder than with your closest family. For many would-be entrepreneurs experiencing the entrepreneurial journey with a close friend by your side is a dream scenario. But it is critical that you never agree to partner with anyone, let alone a friend until you are certainly both together and on paper about how the business will be structured.

For Ant and Dec, their enduring success is built on a remarkable personal and professional relationship. In recent years they’ve had to play down speculation of a split as rumours of a return to separate acting careers have mounted. Of course, going solo would be a big gamble as together they are household names, winners of the National Television Awards “Best Presenters” for ten years running and the most bankable presenters in modern British television. But like startup co-founders, the investment made in the shows they front is as much about them as it is about the product.

About Dean Williams
Dean Williams is an acclaimed business coach and author of the book ‘Creating Grade A Business Relationships’. He works with blue chip companies and SMEs providing 121 executive coaching, team coaching, leadership seminars and alongside Olympic Gold Medalist Jason Gardener presents motivational speeches. He has been successful in helping suffering businesses by increasing their profitability and is a regular contributor to a range of business press including the Sunday Times.