How to Start A Family Business Without Killing Each Other
by Vanessa Tse
Are you thinking of mixing business with pleasure? The results can be alchemy or disaster.
I’m one of the co-founders of Fazl, a Fair Trade, handmade, giveback company that specializes in Himalayan knitwear. I have five business partners: my husband, my brother-in-law, another pair of the partners are married, and one is their mama. It’s fun, complicated, and gloriously good! Here are some tips on how to work with your loved ones in a way that will help build your relationships rather than decimate them.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Now that you have business partners who are joined to you in holy matrimony, by familial bonds, or another form of adhesion, you have abdicated your right to make almost any major decisions alone. I’m speaking professionally, but this probably will seep into other domains of your life. And that’s a good thing! Every big decision should be discussed with your partners. For Fazl, this means we have open communication where we discuss strategy, our hopes, worries, frustrations, dreams, and perhaps, most importantly, we share ideas. To me, it’s invaluable to gain my partners’ perspectives, not only out of respect for them, but also because they’re incredibly intelligent people and we’re always better together. No one partner has the entire perspective, no one person can see every angle, by discussing things as a team we usually come up with a better plan or a more interesting idea.
Be forewarned, communication takes time, and lots of it. You might not think you have time for multiple meetings and emails and voice messages (a week), but strong relationships are at the core of what has allowed us to thrive. Our business is based in the Himalayas of North India and the western Canada, which is a 12.5 hour time difference. That means we, almost always, have meetings in the mornings and evenings. Does this mean sacrifice –– sleep sacrifice? Sometimes! And it’s always worth it. So much of the growth of your business will come out of the health of your relationships. Invest in what matters most.
Let each person be the boss of their domain
Paradoxically, while you do need to discuss all the big things, at Fazl we are quite hands off when it comes to each partners’ domain. Can you ask questions? Definitely. Should you micro-manage? Heck no!
We have found that allowing each partner to be the captain of their own ship increases efficiency and proficiency. If we need help, we ask for it, but if not, we allow each partner to run their individual shows. It’s important to note that we discuss regularly what we are doing and how things are going. Accountability is king/queen. But it’s rooted in the belief that we’re all doing the best we can.
Trust. Respect. Love
Don’t go into business with your cousin who always owes you money. Don’t become partners with your uncle who flosses with dryer lint (unless you’re into that too!). You can love someone without trusting them or respecting them. And in terms of your business partners, you absolutely, 100% need to trust and respect them. You should know that if you gave them all your life savings and took off to the Caribbean and came back in a year (don’t ever leave your partners hanging like that by the way!) you could return to find all your lifesavings down to the last cent.
Always give one another the benefit of the doubt. There will be times when your business partner(s) (and/or life partner) makes you see red. Breathe, take a walk, and discuss it without accusing them, but this should be tempered by assuming the best about your partner, not the worst.
Know where you’re going and why. When we first started Fazl we wrote down our Guiding Stars, for some companies this means their mission statement, but for us our Guiding Stars are what we are striving towards, what principles guide our decisions, and serve as our bottom line. Our Guiding Stars are to care for orphaned and destitute children and to provide employment for women in need. It’s vital that you and your partners are more than on the same page, but walking towards the same horizon.
There’s true joy in building something together, something we all feel called to, something worthwhile. For us, Fazl has never been about socks, it’s about creating systematic change, loving and providing for orphans and widows and women in need, as best we can. That’s what we’re striving towards and for. You and your partners need to know, at the core, why you do what you do and writing it down and saying it out loud are a vital part of the process.
There are so many other things I could add––build one another up, make sure down-time is truly off the clock, express gratitude and appreciation for one another’s hard work and sacrifices––the list is endless.
But let me close with this: my partners have been with me through some of the worst and best moments of my life. We’ve cried together in hospitals, in the office, worked through the night and traveled together, danced around fires and laughed till our cheeks hurt. It’s a journey worth taking, and a journey I’d do again, with them, any day.
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