Fifteen years ago, a dog named Zelda was launched into space -- not on purpose -- and a pet-travel products business called Kurgo was born, founded by brother entrepreneurs Gordie and Kitter Spater.
Related: 5 Keys to Successful Sibling Partnerships
Zelda, Kitter's late, beloved Plott Hound, had just nudged her way into the front seat during a car ride when an unscheduled short stop threw her to the floor of the driver's seat. "She ended up wrapped around the pedals," Kitter remembers. Zelda was shaken up, but otherwise okay. But, not wanting to see any other dog so imperiled, Kitter recruited his brother and travelling partner, Gordie, to do something.
"We designed the Backseat Barrier -- like all Kurgo products -- because we saw a need," Kitter says. "Today, people see dogs as part of the family and are increasingly bringing their pup along wherever they go, whether it’s a week-long vacation or just a trip to the store. There’s a real role for gear that makes the trip safer and more enjoyable."
Selling through pet retailers, Kurgo offers dog harnesses, seat covers, coats, "hydration solutions" and all manner of other products designed for travelling with man's (and woman's) best friend. It's a success -- having grown almost 90 percent since 2013 alone -- but the business wouldn't have lasted this long if its two brother-entrepreneurs weren't also friends as well.
In fact, they attribute their 20 percent year-over-year growth since Kurgo's 2003 founding to their ability to work together and simultaneously balance their family relationship.
They're not alone in that challenge: According to a 2016 survey by Statistic Brain, 35 percent of Fortune 500 businesses are family-controlled, and the top reason reported for a family business’s failure (60 percent) is because of “problems with communication and trust."
That hasn't been the Spaters' experience. And, today, in recognition of National Siblings Day, Gordie and Kitter agreed to share their top tips for their successful sibling business partnership. Their first tip? That when they started out, they didn't make a big deal of ttheir familial tie.
"Our parents owned their own clothing business and retail store, so it only seemed natural," Kitter says. "But as with any family, unique dynamics come into play that can get in the way of running a good business.
"Upon reflecting on how Kurgo has been so successful and how we have been able to work so well as a team, we think there are a few key tips we would give any siblings thinking about going into business with each other":
1. Define clear areas of responsibility.
Says Kitter: "We have fairly classic type A and B personalities so our talents are very different; however, they complement each other well. Based on our interests, it was easy to divide up the management clearly. For Kurgo, [I'm] responsible for making and getting the product into the warehouse (design, manufacturing), while [Gordie's] responsibility is getting the product out of the warehouse (sales, operations, finance).
"We both have input into each other’s area, but at the end of the day, the final decision is by the brother who manages it. This is probably the most important thing in running a successful business for siblings and something that would be harder for siblings with more similar skill sets."
2. Resolve disagreements quickly.
Disagreements between the brothers have been thankfully few, but they've happened. Gordie described one where he was concerned about selling online to consumers, fearing that retailer relationships might be damaged. "Kitter believed the retailers would nto even notice," Gordie remembers. "After some disagreements, we decided to test it out in stages . . . it all worked out fine because we met, disagreed, came to a conclusions, acted on that and moved forward."
Says Gordie: "When you disagree, duke it out in private until you come to a resolution. Letting things linger, or not talking about them at all will only lead to an unhealthy working relationship."
3. Trickle down to your entire staff.
Kitter: "When we were kids, our parents bought us a wrestling mat and boxing gloves for Christmas and would literally send us to the basement to put on the gloves until the problem was resolved. [In a business] disagreements, are inevitable, but quick resolution is key."
4. Put family first.
Gordie: "Being brothers is more important than any single business decision. We approach every problem with the family as the first priority. We try to involve our entire family informally in the business – whether it's kids stuffing envelopes or wives helping with social media or pets modeling our products. The family model then extends to the rest of the company where employees are always welcome to have their kids spend time in the office and dogs, of course, run rampant."
5. Connect outside the business.
Kitter: "Family dinners and holidays can be pretty boring if all we talk about is Kurgo. Your relationship has many dimensions so connecting as a family member through shared passions or interests is important. We grew up in Vermont, skiing, so we have continued to use it as a way we can connect and grow the relationship."
6. Disconnect, too.
Gordie: "We spend a lot of time together in the office or traveling, so it’s important to have away time, too, where there’s no chance to talk business. We both run, but we don’t tend to do that together. It’s 'alone time' for each of us. Socially, our groups of friends are different and geographically we live about an hour away from each other, with the office in between."
"Oh, one more thing on which we both agree . . .
"Never tell a ‘Yo Momma’ joke. Ever."