A friend of mine has a business idea. He asked if I knew how to make (smartphone) apps, and I said yes. I recently graduated and currently have some spare time for a side project and could see this being valuable experience to present in an interview, even if the business doesn't prove to be profitable.

I met with my friend a few times to discuss the business and the app he wants for it, and at first things seemed reasonable, though now he wants me to help with side projects and the actual running of the business. I told him I said I could help make an app, not be his e.g. account etc. He just argues "we need to start small" and "it's nothing complex". He has also been messaging me and acting like he's my boss and has gradually been increasing the work load.

I find him enjoyable to hangout with, we both have the same taste of music and enjoy going to venues together. But I really don't appreciate how he's acting as if I agreed to do all this work and isn't listening to my concerns. It's really getting annoying, he's texting me "are you at work?" and when I reply "yes" he replies "does everything I sent you make sense?"

I've been ignoring his texts and call or telling him I'm busy but he doesn't seem to want to take no for an answer. How can I tell him I'm not going to build his business for him and still remain friends? How can I avoid arguing with him?

We live in North America and my friend is Filipino. I noticed some people are very good at wording things and making the situation very difficult for their request to be decline, and I've noticed Filipino can be like this.

If this were professional work there would a long legal contract specifying the exact nature. Normally with friends, is it really necessary to state before starting "I have the right to stop helping you at my sole discretion and may become busy with other work"?

Edit for answers given: I know if I ask to get paid he would just say "when this takes off you will get lots of money". Of course there's no guarantee of it taking off.

  • Are you getting paid? – paparazzo Oct 7 at 10:12
  • @paparazzo no I'm not – SamW Oct 7 at 10:15
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    There's also no guarantee that you'd get any money if it did take off. – David Thornley Oct 8 at 20:27
  • Actually now he's saying we could negotiate pay – SamW Oct 10 at 7:34
  • @DavidThornley what do you mean? I would get it in writing. – SamW Oct 11 at 9:44

As someone who works in IT, there's an old principle: the guy who built it supports it. I've run into things I've done years ago that are no longer in my job that people still ask for help on. You are kind of in this space as well. Especially with a app to program, that needs to be understood over the long haul.

The biggest issue you have is the proper setting of boundaries, which your friend apparently lacks and wants to exploit for their gain.

Both of these can be resolved with another IT principle: a Statement of Work. @Lawrence has a good idea about backing out completely but that may damage your friendship. Hence I recommend doing a SOW. Normally that's done before any work starts; there needs to be a meeting of the minds for what will be delivered, by whom, when. However, that still can be done here.

The next time your friend contacts you, I'd say politely but firmly, "I think that we have a disconnect about my level of effort. Let's you and I sit down and write up a Statement of Work so we have that clarified. Until we do that, I'm reluctant to do anything because we don't have a good meeting of the minds." Then, every time my friend contacts me about more work, I'd refer back to that need for Statement of Work and that, without it, I can't go any further. And that would include a point at which you wash your hands of the whole thing, unless you want to take on supporting the app you wrote.

That will do a couple of things for you:

  • Establish that you want to continue being friends, but need better definition around your level of effort
  • Ensure you both agree on your role and responsibilities
  • Ensure you both agree on his rights and requests for you
  • Establish boundaries so you don't wind up building the business for your friend, at no cost to your friend

If my friend would try to lay a bunch of guilt on me about this, I'd respond with, "As your friend, I don't have a lot of time for this. Normally my consulting rate is [x] (it should be at least double my current hourly rate at work), which I'm waiving for you already because we're friends. But I still need to have both of us understand how this works so we don't damage our friendship." Then, if my friend wants to demand a bunch of work for free, I'd make them aware that they are damaging our friendship with their demands (and I'm not by trying to establish our mutual goals).

  • Good idea about using a statement of work. Do you have any examples or resources on how one is made? My concern is, being at the early stages of a company, naturally there will be things that change along the way and we didn't realize was needed in the beginning. (as an exaggerated example with the app, there can be moments like "hold on a second, we don't have a registration page...") – SamW Oct 8 at 23:28
  • @SamW there are a lot of examples out on the internet; feel free to engage Google to help you find one that works for you. Change happens and is a part of any growing business. When that happens, then one of the two parties says "hey, we need to renegotiate the SOW". The other can either accept or reject; in that case the parties decide whether to continue with the existing SOW or discontinue the work relationship. – baldPrussian Oct 9 at 14:47
  • After giving it some thought I'm not clear on how a SOW will actually help. Basically it's just a contract. If a person can be unclear when they are speaking, they could be equally unclear in writing. – SamW Oct 10 at 7:34
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    @SamW I think you have the wrong idea, that your friend creates an SOW and then you just have to accept it. If the SOW only says something unclear like "SamW will not do so much work anymore", you can change it to "SamW will work on programming the app and administrating the server. SamW will not do accounting." And, as baldPrussian said, they are not set in stone either, if something annoys you later on, it can still be added. – R. Schmitz Oct 11 at 16:46

My experience with people who negotiate better than I do is that I have to draw a line and stick to it, because if I don't I can be talked into things I shouldn't allow. You need to pick a line beyond which you won't go, and this has to be clear and easy to explain. It should not involve vague promises or commitments. Make it clear that you will regard going beyond your limits as trying to take advantage of you.

You also need to consider whether he is trying to take advantage of you, and whether he is a real friend. His idea seems to be that you do most or all of the work, he tells you what to do, and he'll make vague promises of money. Explain that you think this is going beyond friendship. The possibilities are that he'll back off on demanding work, or he'll drop you as a friend. If he does the latter, you're better off anyway.

Be aware that, unless your friend is in the software business, he almost certainly grossly underestimates how difficult the job is. If he considers himself the idea man who doesn't have to do the real work, he's going to want a disproportionate share of the money.

I'd recommend telling your friend that, if this is going to become more than a hobby project for you, you need to have it set up legally. (Again, if he refuses, either he's not serious about following through or he's serious about stiffing you.) Your duties should be specified, along with your compensation (which can be either pay up front or a fraction of eventual profits - and if it's the latter I'd run it by a lawyer first.) You can make it clear that this will allow you to preserve your friendship.

Go straight to the problem:

I was happy to help with some coding for you as a favour, but this project seems to have grown and is now taking over our friendship. It's time for me to step away from the project so that we can go back to enjoying our time together.

You also asked about setting boundaries before starting. That's true: when it comes to business, it's helpful to agree on everyone's expectations at the start, especially what each party is willing to put in and what each party wants from the venture. It can feel extremely awkward discussing such matters with friends, but in my experience, it is a one-time awkwardness. Afterwards, everyone knows where they stand and what to expect. If the expectations aren't compatible, the deal will fall apart sooner or later.

You are a programmer, so I'm sure you want any bugs in your programs to be revealed as soon as possible. There's a similar idea at play here: if the deal will fall apart because of a fundamental incompatibility in expectations, it's much better to have it fail early on, before significant resources are expended. More importantly to your goal of saving the friendship without continuing the demands you feel are overbearing: if you will walk away from the deal anyway eventually, it tends to affect your friendship less if you walk away before having put in significant effort.

Returning to the suggestion at the start of my answer: incompatible expectations tend to breed resentment, and resentment tends to grow with the amount of effort put in. Now that you see that your friend's expectations are incompatible with yours, it is better to stop putting in further effort. It's not as clean a break as stopping right at the start, but it's better than allowing things to worsen.

  • Can you tell us more about why you think this is a good idea? Answers on Interpersonal Skills SE need to be well-justified and backed up with either evidence or personal experience or well-elaborated logic that shows the OP that this is a good idea. See this meta post for more information on how to write a good answer. – ElizB Oct 10 at 20:04
  • @ElizB Thanks for your note. I've edited accordingly. – Lawrence Oct 10 at 22:50

How can I tell him I'm not going to build his business for him and still remain friends?

This can work - but nor for free.

Ask him how he imagines you collaboration to fit into his company. Probably you want that to be soft but nevertheless expressive. So don't ask if you are part of this success - assume you are but you only don't know how exactly this will work. This takes his illusion of someone who works for free until he isn't needed any longer.

For example take this as a basis.
This business is about to become serious. What are your future plans for this business? We should fix my position too. Doing x and y takes a remarkable time for me so will I be employed in your company, will I become a co-owner or which way else will I be involved into this?

This still leaves space for you to stop working on the project if you see you can't do all that stuff for longer or you just don't want to.

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    How does this fix the problem? He would just say I would get money when the business becomes successful. It also wouldn't fix the problem of pilling more and more work on me. – SamW Oct 7 at 18:56
  • @SamW it sets a mark. You explain that the current way is coming to an end now. Addressing the situation starts a discussion which is a way towards a solution. If he argues "if we are successful..." you can either say it's his personal risk as company owner to pay you in advance but you want to get paid. Or you become co-owner and can't just get fired when money comes in. – puck Oct 7 at 20:00

My Experience

I work as a software developer for my day job, but I also work for myself making prototypes/products and other projects in my "off hours". Most times it's for myself, and sometimes for others. I do this as a side business, so people have a little more understanding of where I come from when I talk to them about their projects. I think most of their understanding is that I'm telling them about my business when they bring up an idea they want me to make for them, so the fact that I'm telling them I do things for pay "automatically" lets them know I have certain boundaries.

However, I have been approached by co-workers, friends, and family to make different things over the years. Usually they ask me if I have the capability to do something, with respect to what I already do, so again they seem to have the expectation that I'm not going to spend all my time and effort on their project. I also tend to state that I have other projects that I'm working on, but am willing to look at what they have in mind.

If they are a good friend of yours, you might not have to go as far as a Statement of Work, as baldPrussian mentioned, but setting expectations from the beginning is very important. I sounds as if this wasn't done initially on this project, so taking a step back and setting expectations in a SOW would be a good move right now.

As you get more experience in the workforce, you will come up against something called "scope creep" or "trying to hit a moving goal", repeatedly, which is what it sounds like you're butting into right now. Setting expectations will help mitigate that issue. With expectations set, you can sometimes reset your moving goal back to the agreed on initial expectation. The push back from this reset depends entirely on everyone's attitude. Sometimes you can make this easier to take if you state something like this:

I'm afraid that this/these new goal(s) go beyond what I was initially on board with accomplishing. I think we need to dial it back a bit. However, once we get the original set of goals complete, we can see about reaching this new set. We just need to get some things complete before we start pushing further.

That is to say, if you're good to go with the new set of goals.

Point of View: Switch

From your friend's viewpoint, you may seem like "the man", the person who can do anything, knows everything, and can be "whatever". Your friend might be realizing that they are in over their head and are asking you for help, even though it seems like they are demanding you to help. (At the same time, they may be hesitant to bring someone else in on the project, since that "new guy" is only doing what your friend said they themselves would be doing in the first place.)

They may simply be expecting you to have quick answers for their "impossible" or difficult questions. You've already agreed to help them in one respect, so why would you not agree to help them in other respects, right? You want this to work and not waste your programming efforts, right?

Well... yes and no to both. This is back to setting expectations. Do you want to or can you help them with the business side of things? Can you do this at the same time as your day job and building the app? The only right or wrong answer to these, and other questions, is if it works for you.

To push back on things you don't know or aren't willing to help with, you can passive-aggressively use the site https://lmgtfy.com/. This acronym stands for "let me Google that for you". Once you put in search terms, you can send them the generated link and it'll show them a condescending way to search for the thing they asked you about. It also allows them to do their search right from that page, so it's not completely wasted effort on your part. I wouldn't start with this approach first, though. Start with setting expectations, then if that doesn't work, simply do a search then send them the link to the search. If it's not clear to them that you are simply doing their work for them at that point, then the next step might be lmgtfy.com.

I would make this simple. He is taking advantage of your friendship. You need to be direct.

I did you a favor to get you going but I am not longer going to work for free. My professional rate is $x. I still value our friendship and hope we can continue to hang out.

"We need to start small" implies you are somehow partners. He has given you nothing. You are not part of this business. Even if he offers you an equity position think twice. You also have to pay if the business loses money.

  • Can you tell us more about why you think this is a good idea? Answers on Interpersonal Skills SE need to be well-justified and backed up with either evidence or personal experience or well-elaborated logic that shows the OP that this is a good idea. See this meta post for more information on how to write a good answer. – ElizB Oct 10 at 20:05

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