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biz ladies: tips for running a family business

rosie_the_riveter1
i am happy to introduce our latest biz ladies contributor eva jorgensen of sycamore street press. eva and her husband kirk have been successfully running their custom letterpress and stationery shop for nearly three years now, and they have acquired an abundance of advice on how to make a family business run smoothly and effectively along the way. thanks eva (and kirk) for sharing your secrets to running a successful—and enjoyable— family biz!-stephanie

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Running a Family Business

Background:
When I was a kid, I would try and find any excuse or reason to go to work with my dad. He’d sit me down at a drafting table in the office he shared with his brother and let me go to town with his neon highlighters and yellow legal pad. Then, when I felt like a break, I could go chat with my grandpa and great-grandfather in the workshop.  It was a family affair, and I loved it.

The summer after we were married, Kirk and I backpacked across Europe. While in Denmark, we worked on a couple of organic farms in exchange for room and board. Both farms were family businesses, and we fell in love with their way of life. It just seemed so idyllic. The parents were able to work from home, and took equal responsibility in keeping the farm going and caring for the kids. They ate simple, delicious food straight from their garden, and sang songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar at night.  While neither family was rich, their quality of life was incredible. Although we had no intention of becoming farmers, Kirk and I decided that their way of life was something we would try and emulate.

We took a slightly roundabout way to get here, but Kirk and I are now the proud owners of our own little family business: Sycamore Street Press. We’ve found that we love working together and wouldn’t have it any other way. Although we don’t have any regular employees, we’ve hired three of Kirk’s siblings on a subcontractor basis from time to time when we need an extra hand, and 3 of our good friends (who also happen to be incredibly talented) design 2 out of our 3 stationery lines (also on a subcontractor basis).

So, my fellow biz ladies and gents, here are a few things that we’ve learned along the way. Although the majority of it should apply to any type of family business, my experience is in the craft-based, couple kind, where both partners are working at it full time, so that’s the perspective you’ll hear. Feel free to add your own words of advice in the comments below!

Running a Family Business:

Have a Trial Period:
Even though you love your spouse/sister/mother, etc….you’ll need to be sure that you work well together before you  make a huge commitment like starting a business. Not all friends make good roommates, right? Well, the same goes for family members as co-workers. Take on a big project together, plan an event, collaborate on a design, etc… You might think you can skip this step, but please don’t.

I started our business with the intention of keeping it very small and doing it all myself. However, Kirk soon began lending a hand at weekend craft shows, during spring break, etc… We found that we were both happiest on the days when we were working together. After about 6 months of this arrangement, we decided that he would join me full time. It took us another 7 months for him to finish up his graduate program and for us to get all of our ducks in a row, but the wait was well worth it. Our long trial period made the transition much smoother than if we had tried to rush it.

Be Ready for Financial Instability:
We all know that self-employment isn’t the way to steady paychecks and benefits. I think a lot of self-employed designers, bloggers, etc… are able to do it because they have a partner or spouse who has a job with those perks. When I started our business, Kirk was in grad school, so he obviously wasn’t your traditional “sugar daddy”. But he had a teaching assistantship, which gave him a modest monthly stipend and full health benefits. This small cushion helped ease the way for me to quit my day job and do my own business full time.

When Kirk joined me full time, we knew it would be a much bigger leap. Not only did he leave behind his paycheck and benefits, but our little home / print shop was bursting at the seams, and we needed a bigger space to work in. We had already decided that we wanted to live closer to our families in Utah, so when my parents offered to let us move in with them, we jumped at the chance. Because of this, we were able to afford a large separate studio space with plenty of room for our business to operate and expand. 9 months later, we are still renting out that studio space and living with my parents. We’re saving up to buy our own live/work space, and it’s looking like we’ll be able to make that transition within the next year.

The key here, is keeping overhead low. I’ve met and talked to many other couples at craft shows across the country who are both working full time at their creative family businesses. The majority of them live in inexpensive rural areas or in big cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit that are known for their extremely low cost of living. Several that I’ve talked to are also living with parents during the first few crucial years of getting the business up and running.  The beauty of the internet age is that unlike traditional mom and pop shops, many small businesses don’t have to rely on local customers alone. Which means that we can relocate to more affordable, obscure locations, and still sell our goods and services to clients in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, etc…

Look Forward to Flexibility:
Financial instability might be a downside to having a family business, but flexibility is a huge upside! If I thought I had a lot more flexibility when I first became self-employed, that feeling quadrupled when Kirk joined me and SSP became the family business.

Before, I couldn’t travel to certain craft shows if Kirk would have to miss too much work or school. (I hate doing those shows by myself.) Now, we are on the same schedule, and can decide it completely for ourselves. In fact, right now we are in the midst of planning a month long stay in New York City! We figured out that we could sell our wares in a trade show and 4 craft shows on 4 consecutive weekends. For the amount of sales and exposure we could get from doing those events, it just made sense to pack up our computers and rent out a furnished studio apartment for the month. If all goes well, this may become a yearly tradition!

Kids & The Family Business:
Kirk and I don’t have kids yet, so I’m no expert. But this is how I see it. Like the farming families in Denmark, when we have children, we will be able to bring them along to work with us at times, and one or the other of us can take turns staying home with them at other times. Because we are the ones in charge, and we are in this together, we’ll figure out a way to make it work. Oh – and once they’re old enough, we’ll make our kids work. Kirk and I were raised to know how to work, and we think that having a family business will help us instill the same work ethic in our own children.

That said, there are some downsides. Like the fact that I won’t have any paid maternity leave. Zero. Technically I can take off all the time that I want, and come back whenever I want, but how long can I afford to stay away? Also, there’s the health care concern. We pay for independent coverage, and it’s pricy. If one our children were to have major health issues, where would that leave us?

Happiness is in the Details:
Maybe I haven’t painted the rosiest picture of family business life. I’m just trying to let you see what it is really like. But here’s the thing: even though it can be unstable and stressful, I’ve never been happier. If I could go back in time, I’d do it all over again. The fact that we can decide to go out to lunch together at the drop of a hat, that I trust my business partner more than any other person in the entire world, or that at I can just look over at him at any time during the day, just because…it’s amazing to me. I never get tired of it. I started our business because I love letterpress, art, and design. But now I am beginning to see that I love having a family business and working with Kirk just as much – if not more. If I had to choose between doing SSP by myself or doing some other sort of business with Kirk, I’d choose the latter.

If you’d like to follow the adventures of our family business in our upcoming travels and shows, I’ll be documenting it on my blog.

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In addition to Eva’s tips, we got some additional tips from some other family-run businesses. Thank you to everyone who shared their advice below!

1. Tiffani Jones & husband Matt Brown, Things that are Brown

Stay Polite You’re in each other’s faces 24-7; it’s easy to take one another for granted.  Always practice politeness, even when it’s not easy. Say thank you, reward a job well done and make your family feel special, just like you would an employee.

Do Due Diligence Just because you’re family doesn’t mean you can dispense with the legal stuff.  Dot your operating agreements, cross your regular visits to a CPA, and make sure your contracts are strong.  The formalities make you stabler.

Set Limits, But Be Realistic If you work with family, business is likely to occasionally bleed into the rest of your life. You can set some limits (no talking about clients in bed, no computers after 8pm), but it’s probably not a good idea to start a family biz if you want a complete work/life separation.

Hire & Grow Slow Beware of hiring lots of employees or acquiring debt up front.  Instead, focus on the basics—what’s our business model and structure?—and grow slowly from there. Limiting complications and stress about money will help your business and your relationship.

Have A Plan B Though it may sound romantic over drinks, taking a caution-to-the-wind approach is poor business strategy.  Be sure to have a clear strategy (read: business plan) for supporting yourself and a few solid additional options.

2. Ella Wright-Stow & bother Pippin Wright-Stow, F3 Design

Communication and transparency is the key… you can never over-communicate

Establish boundaries, both personal and group, before you start. Make use of a third party such as a business advisor/ mentor at this point when spirits and enthusiasm is high. Constant re-evaluation of these business and personal values and boundaries is SO important to the success of your business.

A huge advantage of being in a family business is that you know each others strengths and weaknesses… use this to your advantage.. a successful business hinges on knowing your shortcomings and where you excel…. for this reason being in business with family means you are streaks ahead of everyone else!

Most importantly.. have fun! you get to hang out with your family, life is about spending time with the ones you love!

3. Vanessa & sister Stephanie, Everything Gardens

Create clearly defined roles. Spend time flushing out each members responsibilities.  Utilize your individual strengths when defining these roles.  A family business needs creative minds, accountants, marketers, sales associates, etc. to keep it balanced and running smoothly.  Being as detailed as who covers garbage duty can save precious time and energy for other tasks.

Professional, not personal. When working with family you obviously know each other well and can push one another’s buttons.  Don’t take things personally!  It’s business, which makes it only fair to treat every member of your team equally.

Schedule off time activities. Take the time to maintain your relationship outside of work.  Schedule in movie nights and dinners.  Most importantly, leave shop talk for work time!  Your family and business relationship will be stronger because of it.

4. Jennifer Taylor & Kent Skinner, Modern Paper Goods

Become an expert in diplomacy.  Being a good diplomat is a must in any working relationship; however we sometimes have a tendency to let our “diplomacy-guards” down when working with someone we’re close to. Running a business adds additional stressors to a relationship so I think that you have to work even harder at being tactful. I think this translates to a healthier working environment for everyone in the end. You also have to be careful as to not go too far in the opposite direction by completely avoiding criticism and conflict. My advice is to never be avoidant and always strive for honesty; be honest in giving feedback and honest about how you feel about the feedback you’ve received.

Seek advice and input outside of your close circle.  Often when couples work together they benefit from the fact that they often possess different talents and bring unique skills to the table. And while this creates great balance, working in a vacuum in any context is never good for business.  Plus, when two people work closely together for a long time, they begin to think alike. Taking a cue from our days in the corporate world, before we launched we decided to hold a series of informal usability tests with friends and family. We’d invite people over for dinner (served with lots of wine of course!) and ask that they go through our site as if they were shoppers. People were surprisingly honest and were helpful in finding some bugs that we cleaned up right away. One even pointed out what they liked about a competitor better! Perhaps the wine was to blame for the brutal honesty but we were grateful to have their help in uncovering issues we may not have found on our own.

5. Amy Turn Sharp, Little Alouette

Find someone who loves math and numbers and use them. It is seductive to save some money doing your own books and such, but at the end of the day you are too close at times to your business to do it all right. Or too tired :) This also goes for branding and graphic design. You need professionals.

Hire help when you need it and listen to the old mantra (you have to spend money to make it) It is unfortunately true.

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15 Comments

c_tyler [of thegirltyler.com]

Thank you Thank you Thank you for this post. I feel like you all are somehow aligned with my life! My boyfriend [of 4 years] are in the process of figuring out a business plan and where he will fit in with it – this will be very helpful and I’m sending to him now!

Deval

This post feels so real since we are going through exactly the same situation and experiences. Feels motivated after reading this

Eva / Sycamore Street Press

I love all the advice that everyone else offered. Also, I wanted to say that Kirk and I will be adding a little helper to the family biz this November. (Yep, we’re having a baby!) “Family Business” will take on a whole new meaning for us, I’m sure…

Alma

My husband joined me in full time self employment when he lost his job last year. We have one child, and we switch off parenting/working days, so he gets a day at the studio while I get a day with the baby, and then the next day we switch! We feel like we are getting the best of both worlds.

Madison

Really enjoyed this post! Always wondered what it would really be like to own a family business…As a young, newly married couple, who are both the creative types, this gives me real insight for the future. I’m the “realist” (saying what would the pros and cons be, etc.) and he’s the “dreamer” (he sets really big goals for himself and us). We balance each other well…and this post helps me to see a family business how I have always wanted to see it…As it really is! Thanks!

Dawn

Thanks so much for sharing. My partner & I have a small candle making biz. We just love being together all the time & bouncing ideas off one another just makes for better business decisions. Still too small to devote 100%, but working towards that.

Gloria

Thanks for the post! My husband and I are retired, tired and retired again and starting a new business. I’d love to hear from empty-nesters who are enjoying reentering the business world.

heather

This was a great post – thanks Eva! Even though my husband doesn’t officially work with me in my business, he plays a major role in supporting what I do from watching our 2 boys 2.5 days a week to helping me carry heavy boxes of clay into the studio!
I think the most important advice I can give is to take family vacations/holidays together that aren’t work-related. Having time to just be together as a family without all the business stuff coming along can really help get everyone through the big show seasons when things are pretty intense and it’s all business all the time. It’s also great to just be a mom/dad and play with your kids instead of trying to multitask and only giving them half of your attention.

Luanne

I wanted to add my second generation comments. My father started our business in 1956–before I was born. I have worked in the business since leaving college. My husband joined the business in 1996. I am now sitting here teaching our college graduate daughter my accounting system and our son who will go off to college next month is working for us this summer. It’s tough sometimes but the payoff is great! It has given me a great deal of freedom to be with the kids but also work full time. You have to know what your strenghts and weaknesses are. Don’t try to do everything. I’m a bad delegator. I think I have to do everything and it’s not possible. It made me nuts for years. You have to let go of some things and let other people handle some of the details. Live and learn…

Camille

This is a fantastic article. I am the 4th generation working in my family business with my brother and mother. Our linen store was started in 1912 by my great granfather and was run by my grandfather till he was 92! I must really thank you for this post. It’s a fresh breath of air to finally see someone discuss the challenges and rewards of working in a family business. I must agree that it does help a lot to try and separate the business with your personal life, but it is very hard because it’s almost like our store is an extra member of the family that we love, cherish and would do anything for. It really is important to be on the same page and have clear defined roles in the business, so you are responsible for your specific part and really pulling your own weight to contribute, which in the end will help the business grow tremendously. And one last thing, keep customer service and personal attention a top priority, let people get to know your story and family because that is what is going to separate your business from just another big chain or department store and make your business a destination!

Matt Beaudoin

Thank you for the article. My wife and I are building the business and should be able to free her from a Part Time job to completely be free to succeed (or fail) by our own skill and merit. I learned a lot about balance and defined roles through your blog entry. thank you,matt

Bedding27

In my experience, business and family don’t mix. No matter what you do, a family member will always think they are worth much more than you are paying them. You can never win!!

peace sign bedding

Great post!
I have always been telling my wife that business is far more better than a job but she is not listening to me!
I think I have to print it out and make her read it !
Thanks again.

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