Ep. 42 – Don’t Hire Friends as Service Providers 


MAR. 15, 2021

Okay, let’s discuss an important, barely discussed, and super uncomfortable truth: friends who are service providers.   


  • Maybe you went to school together. Pretty weak.  
  • Maybe you both surf. Weak, but interesting.  
  • Maybe you worked together. Better. Tell me more.  
  • Maybe you met and developed a shemance at some founder round-up event. Potentially OK, unless the first conversation you had, and every other one, was about their area of service. 


The first three are ‘friends.’ The former colleague may even be a close friend as hard as that it is for me to admit. 


The last person, though, is simply a businessperson who networked into your heart. They’re not your friend. Think about it. Think about it again. Honestly, though, this friendly non-friend is your best foil with which to understand the enormous risk posed by letting ideas of friendship permit irrational levels of trust in a service provider.   


Why do so many founders just trust that their ‘friend’ a) can do what they promise to do and b) that they will respect you as a client?   


Intuitively, most of us are afraid to impose a screening process on our friends. It seems disrespectful. The reality underneath is that client-provider relationships are hierarchical. Friendships are not. It’s disrespectful to inject hierarchical thinking into a flat social relationship. It could easily end it or inject permanent bad feelings.   


Imagine you asked your friend to help you move out of an apartment. If they show up late and break some stuff, you still have to give them free pizza. You can’t really complain and expect anything to change in their service level.  


My analogy makes it clear that my warning applies primarily to solo operator professionals who happen to be your friends BEFORE you hired them. And less so to larger firms owned by your “friend.” In the case of the latter, you’ll quickly find that your ‘friendship’ actually doesn’t change the company’s internal hierarchy of clients at all. Friendship doesn’t add leverage. 


Therein lies the big confusion when tempted to hire a ‘friend’ with the skills you need. The social contexts in which you formed your friendship are NOT the equivalent of the one you’re now contemplating: a professional working relationship.   


One way to hire the friend is to bring them on as a partner, perhaps in an equity-for-service deal. Don’t get too excited, though, because very few service providers are wealthy enough to do this…or they would be investors. Think about it.   


Since the partner/friend alignment is very unlikely to be of interest to your service providing friend, you are left with saying ‘no’ to working with your friend.  


This is honestly the best default advice I can give regarding any service provider. Don’t hire friends with skills. The one exception might be family members.  


Why? Because you’re used to forgiving kinfolk for fucking up. Friends tend to get cut by most of us when they screw up. They’re not valuable enough socially to forgive. Sorry, but it’s how our minds tend to operate in the West. 


Don’t be surprised if your ‘friend’ doesn’t take direction well or starts challenging your assumptions without you inviting the challenge when you’ve hired them as a service provider. Look, friendship is a flat relationship. I’ve said it twice. And Deference ain’t part of the package.  


It’s much better to use a weak ties approach, if you want to network into a good service provider. Rather than hiring your friend with skills, ask your non-friend, professional network for referrals and vet as you normally would.  


Oh, and beware of the fakefriend-as-service-provider. They will blow hot air over the dwindling coals of an old friendship card to gain emotional access but then exploit this in order to try to assert control over your assumptions and business. This is simply a predatory service provider impulse using friendship theater to turn you into a case study for them. PR professionals are notorious for this conniving approach, but it’s not unique to them.   


Look, we all had that one college room-mate who was super fun to drink with but we’d never want to live with again. Well, hiring your friend with skills is a more adult version of the same issue. Find someone else to help and take your ‘friend’, quote unquote, out for drinks instead. You’ll thank me 95% of the time.  


You should be hiring ‘the best’ service providers nationally for your needs, not start with your own local social network. This may be more nerve-racking, maybe, but that’s why you should be thinking a year or so in advance about what expertise you might need in the future and networking/researching among the top national experts and providers 


Look, you wouldn’t rush into a co-man contract, right? Well, if you become one of the founders who just looks to friends first, you not only run into the problems I’ve just mentioned, but you also tend to restrict yourself to local providers. That makes no sense if the best people happen to live elsewhere.  


Invest in the best help, not the help you feel is easiest to tap. That is the trap created by friends with skills.