You grew up with her, you love her, you know her better than most … but do you really want to work with her?
The Minnesota Women’s Press talked to some local women who’ve said yes to partnering with female relatives. While they admit that working with family requires careful planning and consideration, the women we spoke with are confident that keeping it all in the family has been a key to their success.
There’s a strong trend toward women-owned businesses. Currently, 38 percent of all U.S. businesses are now owned by women, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). Three local women-owned businesses told us how they’ve made it work at work with their mothers, sisters and even their sisters-in-law.
Why they did it
Triplet sisters Judy Morris-Meyer, Katie Morris-Buch, and Maggie Morris-Gronlund, age 44, can’t remember a time when they didn’t work together, “Oddly, we’ve worked together most of our lives,” said Morris-Buch, who recalled at least one restaurant and a car rental agency where they all once worked. Going into business together seemed like a no-brainer for the women who, as teenagers, started talking about the idea of opening a coffee house.
“We have a similar idea of what we want. We have the same vision, same core values, same work ethic,” Morris-Gronlund explained. They talked about their idea for years as they finished school, traveled and gained life experience. Then, in 1997, the sisters put their longtime plan into action and opened Sisters’ Sludge Coffee Cafe in south Minneapolis, and a second location downtown the following year.
For Dr. Amy Rudser it was a simple matter of trust. When she decided to open her own optometry practice, Advanced Eye Care Professionals, in Lakeville in 2006, Rudser knew she needed someone she could count on to help start her clinic from scratch. “Even if you know someone really well, it’s not the same as a family member,” said Rudser, whose mother, Susan Rudser, runs the office side of the practice, “Our relationship is based on [years] of our life before this. She’s my mom; she wants me to succeed!”
Partnering with a relative can also be a boon to the relationship itself. Sisters-in-law Lynnae Finseth and Karen Parks, co-owners of Embraceable You, a women’s vintage clothing boutique in Golden Valley, are grateful for what going into business together has done for their connection. “We are so much closer, our relationship has really grown,” Finseth said. “We spend so much time together, we talk about everything-it’s been an opportunity to really get to know each other!”
Parks added that she loves working with someone she is related to because she feels she can be herself at work. “[At other jobs], I always [felt I had] to wear a mask; be professional, but [with Lynnae], I just sit down and cry if I’m having a bad day. It’s a much more comfortable relationship.”
Why it can be risky
While family business partnerships can be very successful, there are challenges to consider before making the leap. “Partnerships are just like marriages,” explained Maliha Husain, Microenterprise Development Program Manager for WomenVenture. “When they’re good, they are wonderful, but when they start to go bad, it can get very complicated.” And, she cautioned, “When there are problems it becomes very awkward-you have to sit across the Thanksgiving table from this person.”
Parks agreed wholeheartedly. “We talked about relationship concerns at the very beginning,” she said. Parks had a role model for what not to do: She learned from the mistakes of a close relative who had a similar business arrangement years ago. “I [have seen the ongoing] effects of that … I never want to cross that line so we’re on each other’s bad side.”
How to make it work for you
Are you interested in owning a business with a female family member? Experts and business owners shared seven strategies to maximize your chances of a harmonious and profitable venture.
Get invested. Being in business together means spending a lot of time together. Be sure that all parties are 100 percent committed and are equally willing to do what it takes to help the business succeed. “Come up with a business plan together that reflects your combined vision,” Finseth and Parks recommended.
Play it smart. Require everyone who’s involved to learn about the business. Do your homework-talk to other business owners together, read, learn everything you can about your industry and find out what resources are available to you. Don’t think that because it’s “all in the family” everyone doesn’t need to be on the same page, knowledge-wise. “Make sure everyone is educated equally. Learn everything you can-take classes together, make sure everyone invests the time in understanding the business,” Morris-Meyer suggested.
Set clear expectations. Establish each person’s role in the business up front. Figure out where each person’s strengths lie and who has the knowledge and expertise needed for each area of the business. Define together what work hours and fair compensation will be for each person. Create your business policies together and hold each other accountable for sticking to them.
Then, suggested Sally Stolen Grossman of Gray Plant Mooty’s Family Business Enterprise Advisory Team, formalize your agreements. “It’s important for everybody who’s in business together to have formal legal business partnership agreements, but it’s particularly important for relatives precisely because they are family … misunderstandings in business can cross over into the family arena and affect who’s going to be invited to [family gatherings].”
Many families shy away from such formal agreements, Grossman said. “They’re afraid of sending the message, ‘I don’t love you and trust you enough, and if we really love each other, we wouldn’t need to do this” but that can be a big mistake, since getting out of a business arrangement with someone you’re related to is much more complicated than walking away from someone you never have to see again.
Lead double lives. It is critical to the success of both your business and your relationship that work and personal lives are kept separate. But Morris-Meyer admitted this can be tricky to do. “Sometimes you lose track of where the business begins and the family ends,” she said.
Morris-Buch concurred. “We work very hard to keep business talk to ourselves but it’s difficult-sometimes the lines get blurred and other family members try to get involved. It’s important to set boundaries.”
Susan Rudser has sometimes found herself having to run interference for her daughter with some of their well-intentioned family members. “I’ve had to remind them that this is her business and it’s her decision,” she said.
Keeping business and personal lives separate also means being aware of how family dynamics can creep into the workplace. For example, Morris-Meyer explained, if a family member is used to being in charge at home, it may be difficult to accept not being in charge at work. That can cause tension for everyone.
Rudser had to get used to having her daughter call her by her first name at the office, but she laughed as she described how they have worked through their role reversal. “It’s her business, so [I have to think], ‘This is how it needs to be,’ not, “Hey, I used to change your diaper!’ It’s not about me. I can make recommendations, but the final decision is hers … but when [she’s at my house], she’s my daughter and I’m telling her to pick up her shoes!”
Appreciate your advantage. Is there a difference in how women run family businesses? Duchie VanHoven, associate at Hubler Family Business Consultants, believes that women tend to work more collaboratively than their male counterparts, which may give them an edge when it comes to managing their differences in the workplace. And, VanHoven said, “Women are more aware of the different hats they have to wear and are very good at multi-tasking,”-elements critical to the success of any startup venture.
Know how to resolve conflict. “You have to be able to fight and get over it,” said Morris-Buch, who said she’s had plenty of practice fighting with her sisters over the years. “We know how to fight with each other and move on … in the end, it has to come down to, ‘What does the business need?'”
The sisters also stress the importance of putting policies and decisions in writing. That way, when a conflict arises, it’s easy to point to the decision you made together. And if you can’t resolve a conflict on your own, don’t be afraid to bring in an outside professional who knows your business well to help you clear up the issue.
Remember your roots. Because there’s so much focus on the business when it’s getting off the ground, it’s easy to forget about taking care of the relationships that got you there in the first place.
Finseth and Parks have always made their relationship their No. 1 priority. The pair make a point of keeping work fun, and their affinity for each other is obvious. “If you’re going to make it work, you can’t treat each other poorly-you can’t live with each other like that,” Finseth said, “Respect each other and how each person works; give each other space. If you know something is important to the other, take the time; be respectful of that … building a business together means building up each other.” And that’s something they’ve been able to bank on.
Ask the pros
Ready to jump in? These experts can advise you about how to get your legal and practical ducks in a row.
Hubler Family Business Consultants
Family Business Enterprise Advisory Team
Gray Plant Mooty
National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO)