Entrepreneurship is always a family affair, whether intended or not, but there are ways to prepare to take the plunge that will make all members ready, willing and able to deal with the changes to come.
Laura Drewry wishes she had known that when she bought a small independent bookstore, The Bookshelf, in her hometown of Squamish, B.C., after the previous owner retired in November, 2008.
“I had never owned a business, and didn’t really know what I was doing,” Ms. Drewry recalls. “It was a quick decision. so there wasn’t a lot of time to sit down and think about it.”
In fact, she had just 11 days from the time she took over the store until she reopened it. There was no time for talk.
“We needed to get in, organize it, paint it, etc., so I had everyone there helping, including [her three]boys, my parents, mother-in-law, sisters, their husband, everyone,” she says.
“It was hard…There were times they were really not happy about helping, but they did it, anyway.”
After the store reopened, Ms. Drewry’s husband, Ron, let her “just get on with it,” putting his focus on his own full-time work in construction. Her sons, now aged 10, 12 and 15, suddenly found their former stay-at-home mom much less available to them. “There was a real adjustment needed by them,” she says.
Ms. Drewry’s experience is far too typical for many entrepreneurs, says Judi Cunningham, executive director of the Sauder School of Business’s Business Families Centre at the University of British Columbia.
The time, financial, energy and emotional commitments required to build a business will easily move beyond its walls and into the family home – yet many entrepreneurs don’t take into account how much the people they live with will be affected by their decision to start a new business.
“There is a romance around being an entrepreneur,” Ms. Cunningham says. “Sometimes people aren’t prepared for what it is really like.
“You’ve got issues of funding and carrying out operations. Often when you start a business you think you know exactly what it is going to look like, but when you are in it, you see it differently. A supportive family needs to understand how this changes.”
There are also many issues about how the family’s own life will be affected, from time to financial sacrifices, which can cause additional stresses and resentments.
“A family needs to understand that things can change, sometimes daily. Day-to-day operations, family members getting pulled into it, it requires flexibility,” Ms. Cunningham says.
She says that running and building a business, especially a startup, is so challenging that, at the dinner table, owners tend to overemphasize the struggles, rather than the pluses, of entrepreneurship. Resentment can build in children because parents are under stress and the things they see as important, such as family vacations, are negatively affected.
“So the families are sitting there going, ‘I hate this business and I don’t want to have anything to do with it,’” she says.
Lorraine Bauer, president of the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, says many business owners come to her organization seeking help only after problems arise.
“It would be ideal if they came to us at the get-go… if they were pro-active. That would be excellent.”
Yet, far too many families fail to sit down together and consider the decision before it is made, Ms. Cunningham says.
Ms. Drewry, for instance, had been working part-time at the bookstore when the opportunity to buy it arose. There wasn’t a lot of analysis at the family level before she decided to go for it.
“The discussions came afterwards, when we were up to our necks already,” she says.
Much, however, can be done to prepare families for such an enormous shift before it takes place, the experts say.
Niki Kux-Kardos, owner of Nexus Facilitation, a Victoria-based consultancy that tries to help smooth family business disputes, says the same planning ahead that goes into the business should also go into the family.
“A lot of time and energy is put into setting up businesses and managing bookkeeping, and the same thought and attention should be paid to effects on the family,” she says.
Ms. Kux-Kardos says it is also important to gain clarity upfront on everyone’s expectations on issues ranging from what kinds of sacrifices family members are willing to make to what kind of support they are expected to offer.
“You need to clarify the expectations, and this is usually around how much time and commitment [and money]you’re investing. What are the realistic expectations?”
She says that communication is key at every step. Holding regular family sit-downs to discuss all issues can be a helpful move, Ms. Kux-Kardo suggests.
“A family meeting will put into place a formal structure where everyone knows it’s coming once a month or once a quarter… and it creates an environment where people learn to make decisions collaboratively.”
Ms. Cunningham says that, rather than focusing only on all the challenges, entrepreneurs should be more deliberate in talking about the exciting side of owning a business.
Teaching children about the business from an early age can also help further their understanding and support, she says.
As well, just like a business plan that outlines goals and ways of accomplishing them that relate to the business, drawing up a family plan can similarly address family goals, needs and ways to achieve them, Ms. Cunningham suggests.
It’s also important to come up with ways to achieve business and family life balance, Ms. Cunningham adds.
Since opening, Ms. Drewry has been putting some of that kind of advice to work – and it is paying off.
She has spent time teaching her sons about how the business works. They now help her by pitching in at the store and at home, from dusting books to making family meals. She says she has succeeded in turning the business into a family adventure.
She has also called on other family members, including her sister, niece and mother-in-law, to help out in the store. That helps her better balance her family and business lives.
“Thankfully, with the help of the family who are with me, they all make it work,” she says. “They can see what is involved in making it succeed.”
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