Notes from a small business: A family affair

  • 20 Dec 2021

By Guy Browning

You’d think all family businesses are pretty similar, but they’re not. They’re as different as families themselves, and just as tricky to manage. Some are like beautiful loving partnerships where everyone co-operates nicely and is treated well. Others are like the mafia. 

When you work with your family, you can’t go home and have a good whinge about your co-workers, principally because they’re already at home and equally ready to whinge about you. That’s why it’s vital to have some kind of pressure-release mechanism when things get heated. You can go and talk to the HR department, which in small family businesses is often the dog. If your dog is being walked more than four times a day, there’s likely to be a problem in the business. 


Telling your partner they need to learn to stack the dishwasher doesn’t normally go down well. How do you tell the same person at work that they need training on something equally basic? Giving them a formal appraisal doesn’t work at home, and won’t work at work.

Ideally, you’ll have an experienced business mentor to tell everyone what’s required, so get one early while you’re all still getting along. When it comes to technology, you’re probably best just talking to your children. If you don’t get advice from anyone about anything, you’ll end up talking to the receiver appointed to wind up your business. 

Every family has a black sheep. Normally, they’re the ones who set up the business in the first place – but what happens when all the other family sheep want to join in? People who think they should be part of the family business just because they’re part of the family are a danger. If you bring them onboard, it will make finding other talented individuals more challenging, because outsiders will think that not being one of the family will count against them. 

Roughly one in three family businesses are handed on to the next generation. There are lots of reasons to go into the family business. The best – and worst – is that it’s all there for you on a plate. Family businesses work best when members of the next generation learn outside the business and bring their knowledge back in. It also means other people will pay for their learning opportunities (mistakes). 

Trust is essential. If you don’t have it in the family, you won’t have it in the business. If you’re thinking of going into business with someone related to you, a business ‘pre-nup’ is essential. Who has the remote control on the sofa at home is a big issue, and it’s the same in a business. You have to be clear who controls what, otherwise you’ll end up on two different channels in two separate rooms. 


Successful family businesses generally have three things going for them: they have a sound idea for a business, they work hard and, most importantly, they plan ahead. It’s like inheritance tax; if you don’t want to pay it, plan ahead to reduce it. If you don’t want problems in your family business, talk them through before they arrive. As in any family, as long as you’re talking things through honestly, you’ll work it out. Remember, that’s talking things through with your actual family, not the dog.

Guy Browning runs the design agency Smokehouse.

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