How to manage a business with a sibling

Michael Bruce outlines the key considerations to make when going into business with your brother or sister. 


Michael Bruce outlines the key considerations to make when going into business with your brother or sister. 

Siblings share the benefits of inherent trust, a shared ethos and often quite brutal honesty. For a business partner, there is often no better set of characteristics. But when siblings decide to start a business together, the results are often either prosperous or, sadly, preposterous.

Many famous companies were founded by siblings, from the Wright brothers to the Disney pair. But childhood rivalries can often arise, making the workplace very uncomfortable indeed – and sometimes even destructive to personal relationships as well as the business. The Kellogg brothers’ long and bitter dispute can teach us tales of caution.

So for entrepreneurs thinking of starting up a business, how can you ensure both your personal relationship and business flourish?

Understand your respective skills

As siblings, you’re likely to have lots of characteristics in common, but you will most probably have several key differences. Play to your strengths and make sure your roles complement each other’s to give your business everything it needs. Don’t fall into typecasts just because they are expected of you; the eldest sibling doesn’t have to be the leader, the organiser, and so forth. Take time to evaluate where your respective strengths lie and how you can combine your skills for the benefit of your company.

When Walt and Roy Disney founded the Disney Company, they knew to play to their individual and complementary strengths. Walt had the creativity and imagination, while Roy handled the finances, business conversations and structure of the business necessary to turn his brother’s vision into reality.

I myself am more of a strategist and a planner, so it is especially useful that my co-founder and brother Kenny is more hands-on and runs the day-to-day operations on the ground. I pull together the global strategy while Kenny supports our sales people. The best sibling partnerships complement each other.

With this in mind, it is important to assess your own talents and allocate individual roles to bring the best of your characteristics together.

Make sure everything is in writing from the off

Don’t rely on an informal agreement for what should always be a formal business arrangement. Make everything watertight from the very beginning. Don’t let having a close personal relationship cloud your judgment when it comes to important company decisions and the formality of initial, and ongoing, agreements. This kind of arrangement prevents confusion or resentments arising later down the line.

It is a good idea to plan out your aims, strategy, responsibilities and remuneration in writing from the start. Ideally hire a lawyer to help you set everything out.

Don’t let disagreements stew

Siblings are more likely to be ruthlessly honest with each other than unrelated co-founders, which means that, throughout your journey together, disagreements will inevitably arise.

Communication is of course key, as with any business relationship. Making sure to resolve differences as soon as they arise is even more important when you are working with a brother or sister. Siblings have a tendency to let disagreements – like old childhood resentments – stew, which is unhealthy all round. Doing so can impinge on your personal lives and cause tension outside of work as well as in the office.

Maintaining a healthy business and personal relationship is paramount, so make sure that throughout disagreements you communicate as transparently and honestly as possible.

Outline your ‘sibling’ and ‘work’ time

Separating your work relationship and personal relationship with your sibling co-founder can be incredibly difficult. It’s vital, however, that you make sure you manage your ‘sibling time’ and your ‘work time’.

If you spend the first few minutes of a meeting chatting about your personal lives or other topics – a temptation much higher when you are so close with your colleague – your work time is clearly less efficient.

On the flip side, letting your work agenda seep through to the downtime you spend with your sibling means that your personal relationship can easily become overshadowed by business.

It helps to set specific meeting times to help separate personal and business time together. While it may seem an artificial way of addressing your relationship, knowing that you have allocated specific aims to your meetings will increase your productivity at work and reduce the pressure on your family time together.

Starting up a business with a sibling can be incredibly fun and can bring out the best in both of you. Maintaining a strong, healthy relationship with a brother or sister within the business setting can be challenging, but if you set out your shared aims and play to each other’s strengths, there is no reason why your partnership shouldn’t be a great success.

Michael Bruce is founder of Purplebricks

Further reading on family business

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