The Highs and Lows of Running a Family Business

They say that blood is thicker than water. Sisters Jo Cowan and Claire Chapman share the advantages and challenges of working with family

The Highs and Lows of Running a Family Business

Starting any business is always an adventure, and it can be extremely exciting and extremely nerve-wracking all at once.

However, starting a family business comes with a whole selection of fabulous perks and unforeseen challenges; making it the perfect platform to learn a few lessons about the complex world of business.

Having owned a family-run business for the past six years, we understand just how complicated this can be.

However, we also know what exciting and rewarding experiences running a family business can bring and have had so many ups and downs along the way.

In order to prepare anyone considering starting a family business for what’s to come, we’ve decided to explore just a few things that we think sets a family business apart from any other…

There is usually a greater level of responsibility and commitment when family is involved

When you start a business, we know that you understand just how much effort you have to put into every aspect of the company in order to make sure it succeeds.

However, your business partner and your employees might not realise just how much energy is required to drive a successful business.

This is one of the major benefits of starting a family business – your family are all just as invested in the business as you are, and so will usually be prepared to work twice as hard.

Incidentally, asking a lot from your family usually comes far more naturally than asking a lot of an external partner, making them perfect to join you in business.

Family members tend to be more flexible in their job role

A family business tends to promote an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality; in which everyone wears a variety of different hats to ensure that the business succeeds.

This is especially important when running a young business as it will take a large amount of work to make it succeed, and family members tend to ensure they do everything in their power to make this happen.

As well as more flexible job roles, working hours can also be more varied and social events can become the perfect place for networking with other small business owners.

You can always be honest with family, but when it comes to business you can be too honest

Relationships between family members can be some of the strongest relationships around but they can also be extremely volatile, and a few too many ‘honest truths’ can lead to family feuds and weeks of silence between family members.

When it comes to business, an open, honest policy will undoubtedly lead to a more successful future but you might have to go through a few rough patches before the road is clear of drama.

Honesty can be tough sometimes but there is no one that you can be more honest with than your family, and this honesty can strengthen your business models in ways that you never imagined.

Just be careful not to make the truth too personal — keep it professional and try not to drag any unrelated family politics into work based discussions.

Family businesses can bring a lack of structure with them

Family businesses often have an advantage when it comes to structure. There tends to be a shorter chain of command, allowing difficult decisions to be made quickly, quietly and privately.

However, whilst every family member initially takes on each and every role within the business, it can become tough to maintain any kind of effective structure within the company, and when there’s a lack of structure, this can limit the success of the entire business.

Similarly, hierarchies that are present within the family don’t, and won’t, always transcend into the business. So whilst your father might be the head of the family that doesn’t necessarily mean he is the head of your family company.

Establishing a firm company and family dynamic can initially be tricky but, once you have a strong structure in place, these teething problems tend to fade away and your business will thrive as a result.

Family businesses tend to bring in a variety of skills from a variety of generations

One of the biggest strengths that a family business has over any other type of business is that you have a wealth of information at your disposal from a variety of different generations.

For instance, you might have a tech-savvy niece who understands social media and what it means to ‘tweet’ directly to another company while your grandfather will likely have an understanding of what customer service meant before technology came into the picture.

Utilising human capital by understanding intergenerational knowledge will certainly help you to establish that exceptional service offering that you are looking to deliver.

Family businesses can struggle to keep work at work and home at home

Your home life should be where you can get a bit of downtime from the stresses of owning a business, but if you start discussing overdue invoices over Christmas drinks with the folks then you might find your invite to future family events being quickly revoked.

When running a family business it’s easy to forget how important family time is, and how vital it is to focus on the needs of your family as well as your business.

That is why you should ensure that you’re clear from the outset which hours constitute as ‘working hours’ and which hours should be dedicated to family matters only, and you should adhere to these structures as closely as possible, in order to build both a successful business and a successful family dynamic.

Jo Cowan and Claire Chapman are founders of Belle Bridal; a wedding dress company in North London. Belle Bridal is a family-run business which specialises in sample dresses; so you can get a designer gown at a fraction of the price.

1 Comment

  1. Good article Claire and Jo. We have run a family business for over 30 years which supplies print and large format items for all sorts of businesses in the UK. We do try to keep business to business hours and home to home especially at weekends but we would agree that we ask more of each other and sometimes are not as polite to each other as we are to our other employees. Our two daughters Julia and Claire now run the businesses whilst my husband and I are just in the background for extra support when needed.

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