5 Keys to Successful Sibling Partnerships
Family may know you better than anyone, but should you be in business together? Sibling partnerships have a long history of huge successes, such as the Wright brothers, and huge failures, like the Kellogg brothers. There are even far more dramatic examples of sibling rivalry that snowballed out of control into full-blown warfare like the dissolving of the Kellogg brother’s relationship or the Bronfman’s of the Seagram’s brand.
So what makes some sibling partnerships a great success, while others create a chasm so great it rips familial ties apart? While the truth is that there are many reasons for unsuccessful sibling partnerships, here are the top five things that are sure to help improve your sibling partnership success story.
1. Choose to play to your strengths. Before you get into business with a sibling, you need to decide who is good at what and make sure that’s how your partnership is divided. When brothers Walt and Roy Disney co-founded their company, there must’ve been a clear understanding of who was good at what, and each was allowed to play to their individual strengths.
Walt was the dreamer, the creative, the big picture and big vision guy who saw the possibility and had the imagination necessary to create the Disney Company. His older brother Roy was the businessman, budget-conscious, bottom-line guy who was able to handle the details, finances and deals necessary to actually build his little brother’s vision.
A partnership like Walt and Roy’s is an ideal collaboration of playing to your strengths and drafting off the skills and talents of a partner. No one person can do it all but a great partnership can offer the best of multiple arenas. The Disney brothers were able to see the big picture and ultimately retained a good working and family relationship that lasted through from the founding of the Disney Company to Walt’s death. They leveraged a dream and smart business decisions into an empire that is now a living legacy.
For that to happen, both parties need to play to their strengths and be willing to set their ego aside for the vision of the business and the strength of their partnership.
By contrast, look at the Kellogg brothers, who were unable to set aside ego, unable to communicate and not willing to allow the other partner/brother to give the right input for success. The Kellogg Company ultimately was established and successful thanks to younger brother Will, but not without a decade-long legal battle where he and his brother John sued each other and battled bitterly over who invented Corn Flakes or granola and which had the rights to distribute the cereals they created.
Who knows what else they might’ve created if their egos and legal battles hadn’t impaired not only their product development, but also destroyed their sibling relationship.
- Don’t let ego get in the way of your partnership. Decide what is best for the business and be willing to forgo what’s always best for you.
- Play to your strengths and allow your sibling to play to theirs. The freedom to be unbound in what you’re doing will make a big difference in your abilities to leverage your unique qualifications.
2. Set expectations ahead of time and in writing. It’s easy to want to “play nice” when it comes to family and think that all the nitty gritty details of your partnership can be left to verbal agreements and assumptions, but that’s a huge mistake.
You need to put all expectations about performance, roles, authority and any other aspect of the business plan and leaderships expectations into writing, together and ahead of time. That’s perhaps even more important with a sibling or family member partnership than with a non-familial relationship.
Writing up expectations and holding each other responsible to the commitments in writing is a very important aspect of ensuring your ongoing success in business and as a family. It’s far better to butt heads in the beginning of a partnership and test your true ability to partner together than to be nice, put expectations on the backburner, and assume that the details will get hashed out later.
This particular point was driven home in a recent article on Lifestinks, a line of natural deodorant and bath products. The co-founders of this more than $1 million annual revenue startup are three sisters: Mary, Annie and Clare.
In an interview with Crain’s Chicago Business, sister Mary sums this up: “Clean up any issues before you go into business together. You need a rock-solid relationship … Anything that is unresolved will escalate.”
- Establish expectations for each sibling’s role before getting into business.
- Clean up any lingering inter-personal issues so you can start the business together with a clean slate, free from the past.
3. Communicate frequently and disclose fully. Like any great relationship, communication is the real key to success. Communicating expectations up front is important and likewise so is the ongoing commitment to communication. Working long, hard hours together day in and day out can be a challenge. You combine that with the time you’ll likely spend together outside of the business at a familial level and things can escalate quickly if you don’t effectively practice great communication.
My brother Adam and I know all too well the importance of great communication. Having co-founded and run numerous successful businesses, and even co-written two books together, Kidpreneurs: Young Entrepreneurs With Big Ideas and Small Business, Big Vision, we are no strangers to collaboration.
In an article on CNBC, my younger brother Adam explained the importance of communicating with a sibling partnership. “We can have a tendency to feel like a loved one knows us so well that we shouldn’t have to voice our feelings or expectations," he writes. "But if you want your partnership to work, it’s important to let go of these assumptions and communicate clearly and openly, just as you would with a non-family business partner.”
Don’t take your sibling partner for granted, or assume that just because they’re family, they can read your mind. Effective, frequent communication and good listening skills will take you far in your partnership with a sibling.
- Don’t assume your sibling partner(s) know what you’re thinking. Express feelings, opinions and ideas effectively.
- Don’t bottle it up. Find a respectful, consistent method to communicate for continued success.
4. Make decisions as partners. In a sibling partnership, it’s important that regardless of your clearly-defined roles, you consult each other on the decisions that shape and effect the company. Partners should have a say in what’s happening in not just the day-to-day, but also in the scope and long-term planning of your partnership.
Just because one sibling is the business side and another is the creative doesn’t mean business decisions should be made without running them past the creative side of the partnership, and vice versa.
Take sisters Megan and Bridget Torregrossa, who created their own line of luxury handbags, Torregrossa. Each sister is able to focus on the skill set they excel at, while moving toward their common goal and dream of creating a luxury handbag line. In an interview with Forbes, the sisters share that making collaborative decisions, regardless of their specialty, is still key to their success together.
“As sisters we are always honest with each other and have only our brand’s best interest in mind when we make any decision together,” Megan said.
- Utilize your individual strengths, but collaborate on all the important business decisions together.
- Bring your unique skill sets together and watch your business dream take off.
5. Get the resources you need. When you first get started, it may very well just be you and your siblings. But as your company grows and the revenue starts to support bringing on employees, make sure you get the resources and support you need to relieve the pressure and stress of running your business.
It’s important to discuss which staff members will impact the overall business most, and not get too stuck on which sibling’s silo of expertise that goes to support. Remember, it’s always about the bottom-line growth of the company and what’s best for your partnership and business overall. Be wiling to utilize that good communication to effectively decide what’s best for everyone and step away from your ego.
Getting the resources you need becomes crucial to the rapid expansion and success of the sibling partnership. Take the Cook family, co-founders of myYearbook.
It all started when oldest brother, Geoff, started and sold his first business when he was 24. Little did Geoff know he was inspiring his younger brother and sister to follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps.
Little sister Catherine Cook had the revelation after a move at 14 years old that it would be a lot easier to get to know people in her new town if the yearbook was online. She and her brother Dave noodled on how that might be possible and ultimately pitched the idea to their older brother. Geoff became the original investor in myYearbook, putting $250,000 of his own money into his kid sister and brother’s idea and became CEO.
With their sibling leadership in place and seed money to get started, the next big step was the resources to build out the business. That paid off when myYearbook merged with Quepasa in a $100 million deal. MyYearbook has since transformed into a new endeavor, MeetMe, with the goal to go global.
- Don’t be afraid to go after the resources you need to scale your business and make your sibling partnership a success.
- Consult each other before bringing on new employees, vendors or resources regardless of individual positions for long-term success.
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.