The way we work is changing: the gig economy is flourishing, and more of us are opting for hybrid careers, garnering our income from a variety of revenue streams.
It stands to reason then, that the choice of people we’re working with is changing too – including family members. For every one person that shudders at the idea, there are plenty more who value the trust, control and – let’s face it – lower fees that can come from teaming up with a relative. Could you do it? Here, six family business owners share their stories.
Sanjay Aggarwal runs Spice Kitchen with his mother Shashi. He spent his formative years working with his parents in their shop; Spice Kitchen started as a retirement project for his mum, but has since grown into a sizeable business with an international custom base. Aggarwal describes working with his parents as ‘amazing’ but says that good communication has been crucial for managing their growth.
‘The key challenges are ensuring everyone knows what their roles are, who the ultimate decision-makers are and also ensuring we keep communicating in an effective way. We talk over the phone or ’round the kitchen table when we are together, and we discuss things informally together.’
He adds that the family largely avoids conflicts, ‘but that’s not to say they won’t arise as we grow.’ ‘We do have a difference of opinion which is to be expected but our relationship is strong.’ Not all familial businesses are as symbiotic as Spice Kitchen.
Susan Gafsen is the co-founder of natural soup company Pep & Lekker, along with her sister-in-law, Juliette. She admits that they are ‘like chalk and cheese on paper’ but that their differences can be complementary.
‘As an ex-lawyer, I’m a workaholic used to checking emails 24/7 and often get very stressed, whereas Juliette remains calm and relaxed – despite losing her mobile, struggling with Word and loathing Excel’, Susan says. ‘I can’t ever switch off so Juliette’s psychotherapy background means she’s also my secret therapist, and in return, I’ve helped her overcome her natural shyness by developing her confidence at sampling events.’
Joanna Southwell, owner of Woburn Bridal, works with her mum Jane. For Joanna, the pair’s different approaches adds a layer of responsibility that doesn’t impact on a conventional boss-employee dynamic.
‘I did not expect the pressure I feel to not disappoint her,’ she says. ‘My mum’s perfectionist personality is amazing for my business: the shop is always immaculate and customers phone back within minutes. ‘I, on the other hand, am rather manic, always in a creative whirlwind and talk at a mile a minute. ‘I don’t always do things the “right way” – the way my mum would do it. I sometimes wonder, what would mum think?’
Kellie Bath founded low-sugar spreads brand JimJams with her husband Kevin. She admits that running a business with a family member is far from easy.
‘Although we share the same focus and passion, we are two individual people with different ideas and ways of doing things. ‘There are days when I want to pour a jar of JimJams over his head, and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.’
However, like Joanna, Kellie also cherishes the level of support she gets from working with her husband.
‘Mostly, it feels like us two against the world. ‘On bad days, we prop each other up, and on good days, it feels amazing to have achieved something with him. When all is said and done, I get to work with my best mate every day and there is no-one else I would rather be with.’
So far, so seemingly rosy. Yet, all family-run operations have one particular challenge in common: how to separate business and family life, and achieve that all-important work-life balance.
‘We can’t take a holiday at the same time anymore,’ according to Charlie Thuillier, one half of healthy-option ice cream brand Oppo, which he founded with brother Harry.
‘There’s little social time outside the office which doesn’t involve work,’ he said. ‘We sometimes try to have brunch together with our partners, but even then we both start talking about challenges or successes. ‘Family dinners are sometimes more like board meetings, especially as our dad is involved in Oppo as company secretary on the board of directors. We might as well print an agenda before we sit down for a Sunday roast.’
While a blurred work-life boundary works for some, the stakes are much higher if there are children involved; the dissolution of a business could also mean the breakdown of a family. To guard against this, husband and wife business partners Tracy and Mike Nolan underwent psychometric assessments before going into business together. They now run Press Plugs, a service that connects businesses with journalists.
‘They showed us to be very compatible as business partners, so we appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses within a business context.’ It’s not a foolproof approach, though. ‘You can take a step forward and two backwards and it can feel a little deflating, which inevitably affects the atmosphere at home,’ according to Tracy. ‘Our business has taken far longer to get up and running due to a range of unforeseen issues, which cost us a lot of money and time, and means sacrificing things like holidays and days out.’
She admits that ‘lots of people say they don’t know how we do it,’ but adds that they wouldn’t have it any other way. Their business model facilitates family life – they have included their children in the day-to-day running. ‘Our working arrangement means our children have never been to after-school or holiday clubs, and one of us is nearly always around to drop them off and pick them up. We are there to help with homework and making dinner. ‘The children also appreciate the little victories and milestones, and we believe it helps with resilience. ‘As an added bonus, they are learning what it takes to run a business, something they’d never get at school. ‘They both have great ideas, which would put the vast majority of adults to shame. We can only assume this business environment is very positive for their development. ‘All in all, we’ve been able to allow our kids to grow up with us on tap most of the time. We don’t have it perfect – but who does?’