Relationships are one of the most important parts of entrepreneurship. In order to build or grow any business, you have to trust people. Think of the people you trust every day: contractors, employees, vendors, partners, advisors, customers. You rely on these people to communicate with you so that you can do your part- run your business and make everyone happy.
But sometimes relationships go south. Deliverables are not delivered on time or at all. Work product is poor quality. Someone misunderstands their role in the big picture, does not value the opportunity, or simply is unethical. And if there is big deal on the table and one of these things happens, you find yourself in a bad place with fewer resources to turn things around.
These situations can leave us bitter and jaded. Walls go up quickly.
And sadly it can take years for these walls to come back down if we are not careful. Trust becomes difficult which, in turn, impedes the growth of your business and your professional development.
But how is this different from a natural disaster or an unexpected event? What if your backup failed? Your office flooded or your office computers were stolen? Would it feel the same if an employee embezzled or stole your ideas?
Of course all situations have their own scale and consequences. And natural disasters and major technical issues can add incredible distress to a business. (Just remember how last year's oil spil affected small businesses in Louisiana.) But while situations like these can leave us angry, in a bad place, and feeling down on our luck, it is somewhat less personal than when we lose trust or feel burned by another human being.
I have been surprised by the number of these stories I have heard from small business owners this year - embezzlement, bad agreements, employee scandal. I get most worried when an entrepreneur has repeated stories of relationships turned negative.
As a young entrepreneur in my first startup, I experienced too many of these situations. I chalked it up to inexperience and immaturity (I started at 23) and was forced to stomach the lost momentum and money. And finally my last bad deal left me promising myself to not let this happen again. Since then, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience with bad relationships and creating an environment where these things can not happen.
- Write agreements from the get go - Hand shake deals are rarely successful. Think through the terms of a relationship and commit it to paper before working with someone- even if you are starting with a small project. You can always create a new agreement later.
This is most difficult for tech startups where determining value for business versus technical skills is challenging and boundaries of roles can be unclear. Be smart and get legal help with this from an experienced attorney. Each day you put it off, the more complicated and awkward it will get.
- Err on the side of overcommunication. Communicate your needs, concerns, and goals very clearly and make sure that you are heard. Let people know if you are uncomfortable with something, and if you feel like the other person is uncomfortable, ask them about it.
- Ask Why often.
- Learn how to call people out if you need to.
Most of all, realize that you can prevent these things from happening and decide not to be damaged by business relationships that have failed. This is a tall order, but it is important.
I usually add a "thank you" to every blog post. This time I will simply say thank goodness I am mostly past the "getting burned" learning curve in my life. Unexpected challenges continue to pop up on my entrepreneurial path, but I I know where more of the red flags are and how to avoid them.
Photo by Harshit Sekhon