Going into business with a family member might seem like a great idea on the surface. After all, blood is thicker than water, and all that. But no matter how great your familial relationship is right now, you’re much more likely to fight with a family member than a traditional business partner — and the ripple effects of that fighting can go beyond the professional and into the personal.
If you’re taking the plunge anyway, here are some tips to keep you from coming to blows (and ruining your relationship) if you’re going into business with family.
Acknowledge that going into business with family is hard
You grew up with your siblings or you know your cousins really well. You know what will set them off, how likely they are to play dirty in a fight, and which one of you should manage the books and which should handle customer service. Hell, you’ve been preparing to deal with this person professionally for your whole life! Use what you already know about each other — both good and bad — to guide your dealings, professionally and personally.
“Since we are family — and a very close family — sometimes our ideas would clash,” said Angela Nardello, who owns bars in New York City with her brother. The two used to work under their father, but upon his recent death, operations fell to the siblings. “There were many times we would have little arguments about something as simple as the colour of chalk used to write a sign, if a new menu item should be served with fries or onion rings, or how many staff members should be on for a party. My father had a very unique way of doing things. He was a bit more old-school.”
Nardello displays the right amount of awareness here, so pay attention. She knew her father and brother well and knew what they’d agree on and disagree on. Don’t act surprised if your relative-slash-business-partner expresses a like or dislike you already knew they had. You’re not going to advance in business if you’re not realistic about one another.
Michael and Zak Zakar are 28-year-old twins who co-wrote Pray the Gay Away (and its accompanying off-Broadway production) and How to Be Fucking Happy. Zak was the one who responded to questions about what it’s been like to work and write together: “You know how they say you are your own worst critic? That person obviously didn’t have a twin brother.”
Essentially, you’re going to disagree. A lot. Prepare for it, and then get used to it.
Say good-bye to “off hours”
When your family is made up of coworkers, even time at home will be time at work — working with family means a permanent blending between your personal and professional lives.
“The one big negative is that the work comes home with you,” Nardello said. “It’s there when you go to bed, when you wake up, on holidays… It’s nonstop.”
Do your best to keep the shop talk where it belongs (at the shop, not the dinner table), but also know that everyone involved is human and feelings come with us wherever we go.
Be the bigger person when you can
Nardello recalled arguing with her family about the colour of chalk for a sign, but the Zakar twins went as far as to bicker over a single word.
“Being able to say anything to your work partner can sometimes be overwhelming,” Zakar said. “We were in the middle of writing and fought about the word ‘regulate’ for an hour because I thought it sounded stupid and he loved it. We’re perfectionists at heart, so sometimes it’s hard to bite our tongues.”
You might have to bite your tongue at some point anyway, no matter how hard it is. Remember that not only does the success of your business ride on your ability to work together, but so, too, do a number of family dynamics. Don’t blow up your family over a word or an onion ring! You wouldn’t be going into business unless you had a surefire money-making plan, so focus on the strength of your product and do whatever it takes to make it succeed — including being the bigger person.
“Nothing is permanent,” Zakar added. “A lot of the fights we got into were us arguing about ideas. Now we talk to each other with respect. It only took 11 years. Communication is key!”
Finally, know that it actually might be great, too
Sure, you’re going to have disagreements that a standard set of business partners wouldn’t have, given your close relationship to the other person, but that relationship stands to be strengthened just as much as it stands to be destroyed.
“As much as we fight — and we fight — the end product is always better than we imagined because we can talk as silly or as serious as we want about our ideas,” Zakar said. “It’s like having another set of eyes that think just like you.”
And Nardello said, “I know a lot of people say that working for family is the biggest mistake, but I feel like it was the best decision I ever made. I think it made me much closer to my father and brother, especially when it came to my father. Like most fathers, he would work a lot. When I started to work for my father, it brought us closer together and really gave me a better understanding of him as a person. Now that my father passed away, I’m so grateful I worked with him because the memories and things he taught me, the crazy things he would do, even the funny arguments we had are things I have in my heart forever.”
You might struggle to find your footing at times and wish you were working with someone with whom your relationship is purely professional, but once you get over a few familial issues, it can also feel great to celebrate your success with someone you love.
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