Essays & Confessions

5 Uncomfortable Things No One Warned Me About Working With A Friend

By Thursday, January 14, 2021

“She used friendship to justify taking so much from me, and used business to justify ripping me off…”

I’ve been teaching dance for 14 years. It was never a full-time aspiration, but rather a reliable side gig in college and, eventually, my working years. Besides money, it brought me joy; I got to be around kids and relieve stress from my day job. The last studio job I had damaged that. Currently, I’m taking a year off of teaching because of all the stress and heartache I experienced – all because I worked for my friend.

In 2017, I was attending year one of a three-year teacher training program — a week-long course for three consecutive summers. It’s there that I met Allie*. We were both from Toronto and we had similar values and interests. We took breaks, studied and commuted together. One day she mentioned she wanted to open a dance studio “someday” in a small city about 45 minutes away from Toronto. Absently, I said it was “too bad” she wasn’t looking that summer, because a studio I’d taught at had just closed, and the space was still empty.

But Allie thought it was fate. With no connections in the market, no sufficient savings and only five weeks before the start of the season, she signed the lease. She offered me a job one night a week teaching tap dancing, something she wasn’t well-versed in. Money was so tight, I dropped my hourly rate from $35 to $25. In return, she offered me a free ride home after work, from our receptionist.  I still had to leave work early on teaching days, sprint to Union Station, and pay for a train there, but a comfortable (and free) ride home was welcomed.

In hindsight, I should have known by Allie’s lack of planning that the first year of business would be rough. She didn’t spend a dime on advertising, because she thought we’d get a ton of business from the previous studio (we ended up with four students). The business grew very slowly, and shortly before our first recital, Allie got in a dispute with our landlord over repairs and she was locked out of the studio. To this day, the landlord still has some of our things, including a pair of my tap shoes.

We found a new place quickly, but the financial strain of the eviction meant she had to lay off our receptionist. Gone were our convenient rides to the city from work. We now had to pay $10 for a 10 p.m. bus home that would arrive in Toronto at 11 pm (I still wouldn’t get to my home until about midnight). And that was after walking 20 minutes through downtown. Suddenly my transit to and from the studio was costing me almost an hour’s pay, and my side hustle had me physically exhausted.

“When COVID hit, it ended a nightmare — three years of stress and exhaustion. Because I was working for my friend.”

Yet, somehow I kept at it for three years. By then I was attached. I worked with our seniors, who had become like daughters to me. Then, when COVID hit, many of the parents lost their jobs, and we didn’t feel right billing them for Zoom classes. With few options, Allie closed the studio permanently.

For me, it ended a nightmare – three years of stress and exhaustion. Just from one night a week.

Despite working with my friend. 

Because I was working for my friend.

Here’s what went wrong, and what I able to learn from the experience.

I Knew Too Much About The Business

Being there from day one meant I had so much insight into the business. I knew which parents were behind on bills and what other teachers made (I also learned that despite my certification and experience, I was making the same as a teacher barely out of high school.)  On the long rides home, Allie would confide to me about what was working and what wasn’t, even for things I’d have nothing to do with. She’d ask for my advice on things like marketing but rarely would take it. I wasn’t just a teacher – I had to play a role in the growth and health of the studio.

Friends Can Be Very Comfortable Making Inappropriate Asks

Allie used our friendship to ask for things that I’d normally be compensated for, like admin or design work, and it became more frequent with every passing month. Unsurprisingly, she dropped out of our training program by the second year, but then asked for my second-year jazz syllabus. I told her to make a copy and return it, but I ended up never seeing my copy again. She also obliged me to keep taking classes myself to stay current, even though classes cost as much as I made in an hour and Allie never took classes. It was hard to separate her “friend asks” from her “boss asks.”

“It was hard to separate her ‘friend asks’ from her ‘boss asks.’

I Was Her Shoulder To Cry On, But I Ran Out Of Shoulders For Myself

The studio dominated my life. Allie called me several times a week at my day job, usually talking for more than 30 minutes. I’d occasionally tell her this needed to stop, and she’d oblige,  but only for a few weeks. I couldn’t sleep on the long bus ride home, because Allie would talk the whole way about business problems. On my nights off, she’d call me late at night about other crises – a student was caught vandalizing the bathrooms. One mouthed off at Allie and walked out of class. Someone wrote a scathing Google review. Eventually, I’d start panicking when she called. At the time, I was dealing with grief from two major deaths and tons of stress at work and didn’t even have time to go to counseling. When I tried to have a serious discussion with Allie about this, telling her plainly that I felt like lines were crossed, she promised to be “there for me” more, which only meant more calls and time together.

Social Pressures Came With The Job

It might seem hard to believe, but we were still friends. Allie in particular considered us close. She’d invite me to parties constantly: her birthday, her partner’s birthday, New Year’s Eve, her baby shower. The thing is, I don’t party much and Allie and I had different crowds of friends. But even when I explained this to her, Allie still tended to demand an explanation whenever I declined an invite (apparently “severe seafood allergy” is not a good excuse to skip a birthday sushi dinner.) She even seemed disappointed that I didn’t attend her housewarming on my husband’s birthday. But I knew Allie well enough to know that she took things personally, so every now and then I’d drive the hour out to Allie’s place just to make an appearance – I felt like my job depended on it.

“Every now and then I’d drive the hour out to her place just to make an appearance – I felt like my job depended on it.”

It’s Hard To Take The Good Things To Heart, But Not The Bad

Allie and I shared lots of triumphs, like when a kid landed her aerial or when a class reached capacity. And she’d shower me in compliments about my great attitude or the feedback she got about me. But it’s hard to be selective with what you take to heart. She cut my classes to 45 minutes, even for the advanced kids – giving me only $18.25 per class. My classes had actually become quite popular, more than hers, but she would say “tap isn’t a technical style” (ouch). She’d put my tap class in the smaller studio with laminate floors my kids could (and did) slip on, while her smaller classes got the proper dance floors. She’d even force her students with musicality issues to do tap – making tap the “punishment class” for the rhythmically challenged.

Worse, she fell behind on payments. During the landlord kerfuffle, Allie didn’t pay me for May and June. She kept promising it would come, but it didn’t arrive until I’d sent my September invoice and she owed me nearly $600. By the third year, we had a few other teachers – mainly college kids 10 years younger than me with no certification – and not only were they making the same rate as me, but they’d also get paid on time. I started to realize that Allie felt comfortable not paying me on time because I was her friend. Allie had also rewritten my contract that year to give me $75 per month on a Presto card (a reloadable transit card we use in the region) to cover my transit costs. She paid for September, then missed October, then went on maternity leave. 

By the time the studio closed for COVID, I was owed hundreds for transit as well. Allie padded everything with “I know you don’t mind” or “you’re so sweet for waiting.” There were always excuses, and if someone was behind on bills, she had to move money around. There were several times when I considered quitting mid-year, despite it being bad etiquette in my field, but at any given time that meant missing out on the hundreds of dollars owed to me.

***

When Allie’s studio officially shut down, she came by to drop off stuff I’d left there. Conveniently, things like my syllabus and the beautiful cardigan I’d often keep there, to wear while teaching, were gone. I haven’t spoken to her since. Teaching is hard – getting attached and moving on comes with the territory. But this one was particularly brutal because so much of my heart and mind was in it to an unhealthy degree.

“She used friendship to justify taking so much from me, but used business to justify ripping me off.”

I’m aware that Allie herself is problematic – she used friendship to justify taking so much from me but used business to justify ripping me off. But the experience has soured me on working with friends. I need time to myself, which means that for the first time in 21 years, I’ve let one of the great loves of my life go. Only now after eight months away, am I coming out of the burnout fog and working through my trust issues. And I feel pretty good – now.

But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

(*names have been changed to uphold privacy)

Bree Rody is a full-time business journalist and part-time choreographer based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include advertising, media buying, technology, entertainment and agriculture. Follow her on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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