He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother ... and My Business Partner

How this contributor and her sibling run their company like the 'family' business it is.

learn more about AlexAnndra Ontra

By AlexAnndra Ontra

AlexAnndra Ontra

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One of the most important decisions an entrepreneur can make is choosing a co-founder. Many seek out partners who are just like them, because "Great minds think alike," right? Or, "Two is better than one to get the job done" -- or any other maxim you'd care to conjure.

But, is a mirror image of yourself really best for your business?

Related: How to Run a Family Business Without Killing Each Other

Instead, why not seek out someone who can complement your skill set and knows you inside and out? Someone who understands your strengths and weaknesses, and how to work with both. For me, that was my brother James, and we've been founding partners for almost 20 years, including the last five with our company Shufflrr.

While our partnership hasn't always been easy, here's why starting a company with my brother was exactly what I needed to succeed.

We value our complementary skills.

Research from the University of Birmingham has shown that last-born children are the most likely to be entrepreneurs. Does that mean I was born for this? Maybe. But no one excels at everything. The best management teams, whether at a startup or a Fortune 500, are made of people with different skill sets.

Related: 5 Keys to Successful Sibling Partnerships

One reason James and I work so well together is that we have very different strengths. James is a visionary who can see puzzle pieces and how they fit together. I'm the one who can put the puzzle together. James is better at product, vision, finance and numbers. I'm better at client relations and writing.

This balance has been instrumental to our success, particularly in business development meetings. Just recently, a prospective client came to us asking for a replica of an outdated system that she had used because she was nervous about change.

James was able to explain why the replica idea would actually be a poor decision from a technical and productivity standpoint, while I spoke directly to the client's fears of process change and highlighted how, while different, the new platform would be more efficient and easy to learn. The balancing act illustrated by that meeting has been a part of every client win we've ever had.

Alli Webb, who co-founded Drybar with her brother Michael Landau, shared similar insights with Fast Company when she said, "It was great coming together -- being very respectful of the other's strengths."

If James and I had the same skills, our efforts would overlap and duplicate, which is not productive at all. We would just get in each other's way, which is never a good thing for siblings.

It certainly wasn't at age 5, and it's still not, at age 50! More important, that would leave gaping holes in our operation that would hinder our success. The reason we work so well as co-founders is because we were able to recognize what each of us does really well, and then stay out of each other's way. No one likes to be micro-managed -- especially not by your brother.

Siblings don't pull punches.

No one will tell you like it is better than a sibling. I once flew out to meet a client in person for a meeting, and James dialed in by phone. As I was sitting with several senior members of the client team, waiting for everyone to arrive, James let out a huge yawn over the phone. I instantly said, "Are we boring you?" at which the client laughed and remarked, "You two must be related!"

This incident became a joke throughout our client relationship, but also a lesson: No one can talk to the CEO of a company the way a sibling can.

Another advantage of working with a sibling: When we disagree, we don't make it personal. Rather, the disagreement is always focused on a particular business issue and how best to solve it.

Sometimes, our disagreements get so heated we have to step into a conference room, out of earshot. There, we'll hash things out until we come to a productive solution. We may annoy each other, even fight, but our ultimate goal, without a doubt, is figuring out the most productive solution to our business problem.

Family (and business) comes first.

As entrepreneurs, we are certainly motivated by the financial rewards we realize from running a successful business. But with a family business, it's bigger than just our own bank accounts.

When we do well, our entire family benefits. Our children, our parents, our brother, etc., all reap the benefits of our success. So, on bad days, when we feel like giving up, we don't, because that decision won't affect just us, but everyone we love and hold dear.

Nadine Abramcyk and Jaclyn Feber, sister co-founders of Tenoverten, told Forbes that their bond was forged early by their mother's pre-bedtime mantra: "Always together, never apart. Maybe in distance but never at heart."

A family obligation can be a big, even burdensome, weight to carry. But it's also the most rewarding. What good is success if you have no one to share it with?

That said, it's important to remember that at the end of the day, you're still running a business together. Abramcyk and Feber both mentioned how important it is to ensure that formalities like operating agreements and securities still be executed properly, and that you should still be having the tough discussions needed in decision-making, each person's role in the business and ultimately what will happen should something with the business go wrong.

Norm Brodsky once wrote for Inc. that, "Splitting up with a family partner isn't like splitting up with another who you'll never have to see again." Having these conversations up-front will ensure that everyone is comfortable with their role and that your shared expectations -- and that family bond -- won't get in the way of good business.

Family bonds can also help prepare you for the tough times that may await you as an entrepreneur. When we were kids, our family filed for bankruptcy, and for a period of time, we relied on the generosity of friends and other family to get by.

But that tough experience drove my brother and me to want to ensure the security of our families moving forward, through our own entrepreneurial endeavors. Whenever we had a tough time, we remembered those days as kids and knew we could persevere.

Related: These Siblings Started a Refrigerated Protein Bar Company to Support Their Large Family, and Now Their Products Are Sold in 20,000 Stores

No childhood fight was ever going to get in the way. Not then. Not now.

AlexAnndra Ontra

Co-founder, Shufflrr

AlexAnndra Ontra is the co-founder of Shufflrr and co-author of Presentation Management: The New Strategy for Enterprise Content.

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