The first time I ever felt truly alone was in Haiti. It was May when I arrived. I had just turned 18, and I expected it to be the summer of my life. Instead, I was holed up on this crazy, colorful island and I felt hopelessly alone.
I was living with girls that were already acclimated to the country and could have taken or left me, really. They didn’t need me as their friend. In fact, I discovered, they didn’t need me at all. Alone with my feelings, and the discomfort of a new culture, I got my first dose of relationship reality. I learned that just because you need relationships doesn’t mean they’re going to come your way immediately. They take skill, patience and time.
Six years later, I felt alone again when I moved to New York on my own. Making a life in a place is different than spending a summer in a place and as I worked my way through meet ups and parties, I realized that I had to be very careful about simply jumping in to the first group(s) of people I met.
Those first months taught me that any difficulty experienced in relationship forming is a gift. It allows the right relationships to bloom, and the wrong ones to fall away.
No lesson has ever rung so true for me in my entrepreneurial endeavors.
There is an absolute necessity for relationship – and even a deep loneliness – while you’re building something. You need people to fill the right roles – the holes in a dream that you can’t fill yourself. But these relationships don’t come immediately just because you need them. Each time I have acted out of necessity instead of careful, accurate planning I have fallen on my face.
Here are a few questions that far too many faceplants and handful of invaluably wonderful business partnerships have taught me to ask myself, before I go running out to find my new best friends:
What do I need?
I was on the hunt for stylists to work with during our first year. We experienced a lot of interest, and I struggled with the decision of who to work with. In the end, it was paying attention to our most pressing needs that made everything come clear. I realized that we needed someone to help us pursue high fashion branding, both visually and in our product placement. After that, I knew exactly which stylist we needed to expand on our work with.
What are we basing this on?
When I started working with a temporary Ugandan manager, the lines between us were very clear. He wanted the experience of restructuring a social enterprise on the ground. I wanted someone trustworthy to help me re-work my business. Others have come to the business wanting part ownership or representation, or the promise of a certain role, and I have had to evaluate each opportunity in its own way. But the relationship this particular manager and I did together was an example of what I view as the ideal relationship: he had a professional need that experience with my business could meet. I needed a cost effective solution his work could provide. We both got exactly what we needed.
How long do I need this to last?
We often need friends for certain seasons. Perhaps its a college friend or a travel buddy, a friend for the year you have a dolphin calling obsession or need to constantly debate Middle Eastern issues. There are similar seasons while growing a business – roles that are needed at critical times but aren’t necessarily permanent. During our first year, I needed an expert in strategic planning to help me during a particularly confusing three month period, and a VP role to be filled for the first six months of my second. Both these roles were filled by individuals who had plans to temporarily contract or work with our company until it arrived at a certain point. While brief, their work was invaluable. Other relationships we’ve formed have been of a more permanent nature, depending on the needs of the business.
What can I offer this person?
Any good relationship is based on a two way street – both what this person can provide to fulfill your needs, and, conversely, what you can provide for them. No one can keep working with you as a favor, any more than you can create real friendships that way. It’s important to know your place in the relationship – are you offering money? experience? a position? the promise of future shares? I’ve learned to be very clear about what I bring to the table.
Oh, and PS? Over the past six years, some of the girls I spent that crazy summer with in Port au Prince have become my very closest friends.