Young entrepreneurs redefine ‘family business’

Ashley Milne-Tyte Aug 15, 2012

Young entrepreneurs redefine ‘family business’

Ashley Milne-Tyte Aug 15, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Used to be, going into the family business meant a dad, because you know, it was usually a dad hiring his kids. Steinway and Sons, that sort of thing.

But some young entrepreneurs out there are turning that idea on its head, hiring their parents to staff their startups. From New York, Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: The studio where Alexandra Ferguson runs her home décor business is buzzing. Ferguson started her company in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 2009. She designs pillows with phrases like “Think big” and “Be nice or leave” emblazoned on the front. The room is full of bolts of blue, pink and red felt and trays of individually cut letters waiting to be sewn on to the pillows.

Alexandra Ferguson: So the logo goes there, then it has the care/content label inside. This one is “The good life.”

Ferguson’s mom Charlotte works for her 15 to 20 hours a week. For now she’s unpaid, but Ferguson says when they eventually divide up equity in the company, her mom will receive a large chunk. They’re not sure how much yet. There’s no one she trusts more.

Alexandra Ferguson: I know she’s always got my best interests at heart, and if my best interest is the company’s best interest, then I know that she’s going to root for that. There’s no ulterior motive for her except what’s going to be be good for me.

So what’s it like for Charlotte having her daughter as her boss?

Charlotte Ferguson: Very strange.

Charlotte says she’s the practical one getting things done behind the scenes. She offers moral support and in typical mom fashion even tells her boss when her skirt’s too short. She says she’s glad to let her daughter shine.

Charlotte Ferguson: She should. She’s the front face of the company. But I’m happy to be behind and help her. Sometimes I feel like, “Hmm I don’t really want to do that.”

But she usually obliges. If only every child-parent business partnership were so functional. Wayne Rivers is president of the Family Business Institute, a consultancy. His company once advised a business owner who had hired her father.

Wayne Rivers: Unfortunately dad had a wandering eye, and of course his daughter didn’t know this, until one day when she caught him sort of in the act with the office manager.

The daughter told her father he was fired — as she would any other employee in the same compromising position. But dad refused to go, citing his parental authority, among other things. Rivers says parents often think the usual rules don’t apply to them. He says both parties tend to think the business relationship will work because they love each other.

Rivers: We don’t need a job description and we don’t need accountability policies and we don’t need this and we don’t need that because love will be enough. It’s not.

He says pre-hire planning is key.

Katie Weiford and her mother Sheila have done a little of that. They’re opening Kookiedoodle Krafts in Kansas City in September. They’re splitting the business 50/50, even though it was Katie’s brainchild. Katie says somewhat to her frustration she’s doing more work than her mom for one reason.

Katie Weiford: Starting a business in this day and age, a lot of what you have to do involves technology.

That isn’t her mother’s strongest area.

Sheila Weiford: I do detect some frustration in her voice at times when I seem to be a little not accepting exactly what I should be learning with the technology.

But then again Sheila says, modestly, she does have other strengths. Katie agrees. She says while she multitasks madly, her mother has a different approach to business.

Katie Weiford: She takes one thing at a time and really puts all of her energy into getting one thing done correctly, and I think especially with our vendors they appreciate that.”

But their relationship is going through some changes. Sheila says they’re mostly good.

Sheila Weiford: She’s learning new things about me and I’m certainly learning new things about her every day.

Katie says sometimes things do get emotional, and when she gets exasperated at something, she has to remind her mom she’s irritated with her business partner, not her mother.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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