Blog: Lauren London

How do you make a go of a seasonal arts organization during a recession? Attorney and performer Lauren London, co-founder of The Penny Seats Theatre Company, writes about rainy day survival and the ups and downs of outdoor summer theater.

On Friendship and Business

Everyone has a different opinion about going into business with your friends.  Some take the consummate businessman's advice:  A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.  – John D. Rockefeller.  This is cute, but no one believes that, coming from someone whose name is synonymous with business.  Some are more forgiving:  All lasting business is built on friendship. – Alfred Montapert.  I'm sure this is true in most customer-salesman relationships, but its usefulness may suffer in the generalization.  Some go for the pithy leather-glove-to-the-side-of-the-face:  In business, sir, one has no friends, only correspondents. – Alexandre Dumas.  *Smack!*  And some seem to have determined that the twain never should meet:  It's not show friends; it's show business. – Bob Sugar (from Jerry Maguire).  I'm very much hoping this last one isn't true.

We've heard it all before.  Over the last two-plus years, our company has had a lot to think about in this regard.  We were, after all, seven friends (now nine) who decided to go into business together.  And yes, in the beginning we did all have that pie-in-the-sky excitement about forming the perfect little arts company.  We did think, "we're all smart people.  We're not hampered by an aversion to hard work or an inability to conduct business.  We're business people, after all.  We have business lives! We know how companies run.  We know some law, and how to write things so they make sense, and how to treat people.  We're highly adept, well-educated, cross-functional people.  We'll break the mold of stereotypical artists' organizations that are only about the art."  And we established some guiding principles, and knocked out the early legal work.  We became a 501(c)(3) within a few months of existence (a choice I highly recommend, by the way).  We held that first, cute Kickstarter campaign, celebrated our existence and each other, and started our work.

But inevitably, we learned that we had seven different ideas about what that company would look like.  How it would be branded. What types of work it would do. How often it would do that work. Whom it would pay for what things.  What kinds of partnerships it could agree to.  What technology it would invest in.  How it would spend the money it made.  How fast it would grow.  What we would print on the T-shirts.  And, eventually, the questions got harder:  Who would tell what to whom? How would we preserve our respective marriages/long-term relationships while doing this?  What's our one-year plan?  Our three-year plan?  Our five-year plan?  How do we want to be perceived?    And things got complicated.  Each board meeting now has its testier subjects.  We have real disagreements.  We've said hurtful things to each other.  We've stopped having fun all the time.  We've discussed our long-term differences and how they play into a long-term strategy for the group.  No longer are we full of constant "yes" (see Post 2).

But I submit – and sure, I could be wrong – that fights amongst people with solid friendships can save a young venture from falling apart.  If the relationship is already strong, if you understand each other's outlook on life and you know the underpinnings of all of it – the family constraints, the time sucks, the reasons for this person's involvement, the priorities – you might actually give a darn what they have to say, even if you think they're wrong.  And that makes it harder for you to just push back from the table, stand up, and walk away.  You care about the venture, and your friends, and what happens.  You can yell and pound the table and cry and say terrible, honest things.  You come this close to quitting.  But much as you might like to do so, it's pretty hard to make a clean break of it.  And many times instead, you stay, and you get through it.

But yes, without question, the friendships change.  And that's the hardest thing.  You don't have the comfort of occupying a little, cute, shiny, untrammeled friendship niche in each other's minds anymore.  You're way more complicated.  You have issues that you can't suppress, and they all bubble up and everyone sees them.  

So trying to run a small business is a little bit like being sliced open and picked apart in public.  All your motives show.  You're exposed as the social fraudster you've always been.  But I think if you're trying to run anything, that sort of happens anyway.  It happens whether or not you're in business with friends.  It's a function of the business itself.  Because you don't know the answers to all the questions that come up, inevitably your weaknesses show.  And showing your soft underbelly to your friends is, at least, better than showing it to total strangers.  When a stranger calls you out on a weak spot, you're much more likely to get defensive about it, harrumph out of the fight, and write off both the comment and the person.  When a friend does it, you can still get defensive, but eventually you've got to own it and move ahead.  You can't just go to the comforting, small-minded place of I'm-right-and-you're-wrong.  So, you grow a little.  And as a result, the issue gets addressed. The company gets tested, but usually it recovers.  

For us, at least, so far, so good.

Many, many thanks to Concentrate for having me this week.  It has been wonderful.  For better or worse, I'm not as scared of blogging as I used to be.  And for more information about The Penny Seats, see  Our next project is a cooperative effort with 826 Michigan, called "Five Bowls of Oatmeal".  We perform a bunch of plays written by students in 826's writing programs.  They are hilarious and fun and we love it.  Watch for details and join us, Sunday, November 18th, at 2:00 p.m.