The New Dynamic of the Family Business
By Paul Vaillancourt
For many, particularly those born before the 1990s, the idea of a “family business” conjures up notions of longstanding institutions passed down through generations, often including children less than thrilled about their inherited line of work and in-fighting over control. For me, I immediately picture something like the Chris Farley and David Spade classic, Tommy Boy, where the ill-prepared son finds himself running a dinosaur manufacturing business.
While today’s definition of a family business hasn’t changed, where (or who) ideas come from, how family-run businesses are built, and how they are managed has certainly evolved. Children grasping tech concepts at a very young age and tools that allow an online store to go up in a matter of days have opened up a world of opportunity for innovative families.
Take the Kruse family. During a snowy Minnesota spring break in 8th grade, Peter Kruse got bored and headed out to his dad’s woodshop to teach himself how to make wooden baseball bats. A new passion took hold and Peter’s curiosity turned into Delano Bats, a 5-year-old family-run business. He and his brothers have built a business around producing high-quality bats, often in the evening after their own sports practices and school classes.
Today, Peter’s brother Andrew manages production, high-school aged Aaron runs the company’s website and social presence, their mom handles customer service and shipping, and their dad advises the boys on important business decisions. The Kruse family has learned many lessons along the way, not only about what it takes to start and run a business, but how to address the challenges a family dynamic can present in an already stressful startup environment.
There are increasingly more stories like this where siblings, spouses and multiple generations come together to innovate, develop and build a thriving business. In my role as SVP of customer success services at BigCommerce, I have the pleasure of regularly engaging with families using our platform to conduct business online, and they all have unique stories to share around their own wins and losses along the way. Below are some useful nuggets of wisdom from the Kruse family as well as the multi-generational team behind Atlanta Light Bulbs and the husband and wife duo from Twirly Girl, useful for anyone looking to start, and maintain, a successful modern business with the people they call family.
Adapt to the changing business environment and changing needs of the customers: Doug Root, CEO and co-founder of Atlanta Light Bulbs, points out that while some things have changed with the introduction of the internet and advancements in technology, many family businesses are still passed down from generation to generation. It can be tempting to continue to do things a certain way because “that’s the way that it’s always been done.” Those in charge may be resistant to change as younger family members bring new ideas to the table. “A few years ago, we had a website but it wasn’t really functional,” said Root. “Younger generations coming into the business questioned why we weren’t selling product through online channels rather than just to the guy down the street.”
“There are so many platforms and tools today to make running a business easier than ever before, so it’s important that older generations listen to the advice of their younger successors (and vice versa!), try new things, and adapt to change, or they will never be able to grow the business to its full potential,” continued Root.
Understand the shifting family dynamic: Roles in business differ significantly from roles within the family, and it’s important to understand how the dynamic of parent vs. child, sibling vs. sibling, spouse vs. spouse, etc. translate to the business environment. Defining roles and eliminating gray areas as much as possible is key to keeping what can be a complex and sometimes stressful family dynamic from impacting the operation of the company. “For our business, we looked at the perceived skills and deficiencies of each member of our family and put them in roles that are most suited to their strengths. While it may cause friction at times, it helps ensure a healthy working and personal relationship and it’s helped us excel in conflict resolution,” said Delano Bats CEO Peter Kruse.
Michael Jamin, one half of the husband/wife founding duo of Twirly Girl further emphasized the importance of role delegation. “Part of the key to our success today is that Cynthia and I never tell each other how to do our jobs. She runs production and I handle marketing, and by maintaining a clear separation of responsibilities, we are able to avoid the bickering that many business and life partners can be prone to.”
Find the right tools for different uses and users: There’s really no way around it. Whether it’s for accounting, product management, ecommerce, CRM, shipping or all of the above, technology is going to play a significant role in any successful business today. Finding the right stack of tools to properly service customers, run an efficient operation and scale with growth is a critical consideration. “This was a huge challenge for us. Starting a small business with no prior experience made it even more important to find tools that could help us maximize growth on both the manufacturing and operational side,” said Kruse. “We had to consider not only what each tool would do, but who would be using it. We took the time to try many solutions and find the right fit. Today, we use five vendors, all of which work together seamlessly to better enable our operations.”
Build for passion and profit will follow: The Jamins never thought they would be business owners; their company Twirly Girl came about almost by happenstance. After Cynthia struggled to find fun, stylish and comfortable dresses for her two young daughters, she started making them herself. The one-of-a-kind nature of each dress caught the eye of neighborhood parents and the Jamins quickly found themselves with a flourishing business. Their passion for creating dresses that kids wanted to wear rubbed off on their oldest daughter Roxy, who recently helped design a new line of dresses geared towards teenagers. “As Roxy got older, she wanted dresses that were a little more sophisticated than the designs Twirly Girl offered, and when she couldn’t find anything she liked in stores she made her own. We were looking for a way to keep customers even after they began to outgrow the Twirly Girl designs, and no one understands what teenagers want to wear quite like a teenager, so we asked Roxy if we could sell her design on Twirly Girl. Her vision inspired a new line of teen clothing.”
Families are unique. And there are likely some families that just aren’t cut out for adding the stress of running a business to the existing complexities of home life. But for those who decide to take the plunge, it can be an exciting and lucrative bonding experience. Just make sure to take the right steps to ensure all members understand their roles, agree on delivery and can separate inevitable familial incidents and emotions from responsibilities to the business. You just might find yourselves retiring the monopoly money and taking some real hard earned cash to the bank!
Paul Vaillancourt is the senior vice president of client success and operational excellence at BigCommerce. He has more than 25 years of experience in customer service and support at organizations like Intuit, Support.com, Activant Solutions and AuctionDrop.