The standard industry advice has always been, “Don’t do business with family.” But who follows industry advice? Three years ago, I decided to do more than just business with family — I went all the way and founded my company with my brother, Scott. We went from bunk beds in the ’80s to “Brofounders” in 2009 when we started our digital education and marketing firm, 9 Clouds.
Our business just turned three years old, and after working with over 400 clients and launching two subsequent businesses together, I think I’ve experienced both the good and bad of starting a business with your sibling. Here are my key takeaways that prove the traditional industry advice wrong.
Tell Your Story
Every good business knows how to tell their story, and probably more importantly, sell their story. Whether it is the tale of Zuckerberg in his dorm at Harvard, or Blake Mycoskie of TOMS losing The Amazing Race but recognizing that children in third-world countries are in need of adequate shoes, a good company always has a good story.
Not only do people love the story about 9 Clouds and how my brother and I started it together, but we make sure to always share it with others. Whether speaking at a conference or pitching to a new big client, we make sure to present our story and sell it. You have to. Starting a business with a family member makes you unique — it is an opportunity to promote your company values while also allowing the listener to make a connection with you.
Know Your Role
When you first start a business, I think it is important to wear many hats to understand the ins and outs of your business and pick up the startup slack wherever you can. However, as you grow, think about your strengths and how you can specialize.
For example, Scott and I may have many similar qualities and personality traits, but those similarities are accompanied by a few key differences. We make sure to take advantage of these unique characteristics. For instance, Scott is more analytical and detail-oriented, so he helps clients create strategies based around their data and goals. I am a bit more artistic, so I head up the creative side of the business. This not only helps us divide the workload, but we both get to truly spearhead our side of the project.
Between you and your sibling co-founder, think about your personalities and how you can each uniquely help the business. Then spend as much of your time doing what you’re best at — for the good of your familial relationship and the future of your startup.
Record Your Partnership
Having a brother as my co-founder leads to questions like, “How do you work with your brother?” and “Does it ruin your relationship?” and “How do you handle it from a business standpoint?” I usually just retort that nothing will go wrong, because that would just make the family Christmas awkward! But the truth is that we both know exactly what our business relationship is, and how many different ways it could potentially go wrong.
It is vital to put your partnership in writing — preferably with a lawyer, but at least begin with signatures from both partners. When starting up, be sure to talk through what would happen if you move, start a family, or get a more attractive job offer. I know the goal is a lifelong business partnership, but don’t make any assumptions; just have the difficult conversation first.
Manage Your Time
Undoubtedly, the biggest startup problem that Scott and I had was managing our time. When we opened the doors, we were working together AND living together. This was a bad equation that resulted in non-stop work. I’m all about the entrepreneurial hustle; if you’re not passionate about your business, get out. But the never-ending schedule can put a strain on the family side of your relationship. If we were home for the holidays or at a family get-together, we found ourselves talking about the latest client or next strategic move, and I knew the rest of my family did not appreciate it.
The solution to that bad equation is effectively managing your time. It’s not easy to turn off the entrepreneurial mindset, but you must at least learn how to cool it and own that time with your family and friends. Whether you’re with your parents, husband or wife, kids or friends, value that time with them as much as you value your business. This will not only keep you happier, but your business will flourish because of it.
Should You Start Up With Your Sibling?
As more and more Gen Y’ers make the leap to entrepreneurship, it seems family or close-friend co-founders are becoming more normal. Starting a business is one of the scariest things you can do, and you need to expect both ups and downs. If you can alleviate the fear or reduce some risks by starting your business with a trusted friend or family member, why not pursue that route? In my case, a sibling co-founder provides both a trusted ally and someone who I know will fight to the end to make our endeavor succeed.
I’ve loved every day of the last three years being an entrepreneur and starting multiple businesses with my bro. If you’re looking for that co-founder to start your business with, perhaps you need to look no further than your childhood bunk bed mate!