Starting A Business With Your Sibling
Family bonds are more important than business needs
My older brother and I have always had a lot in common, but until we began a business together a decade ago, we’d never before shared the same career.
My brother is two years older than me, always two years ahead in so many other respects too: the first to go to college, the first to get a proper job, the first to buy a car, the first to get a mortgage.
So from the beginning of our business together, I had to get used to seeing my sibling in the new light of equals. He was no longer the older brother with his own separate vocation, with his own career circumstances and work friends — a world into which I had only partial insight. He was now my business partner and our professional lives were suddenly intertwined. For the first time, we were level pegging: his opportunities were mine, and his setbacks were mine too.
As brothers we’ve always shared lots of traits but it was our differences that had first inspired the idea of starting a business together. 10 years ago we decided to build a digital agency, offering app and website development, branding and online strategy.
For my brother, he had over a decade of experience in computer programming to give him a solid grounding in the digital world. For me, I’d spent years in design freelancing and art.
With the backing of our parents, we sketched out a business plan and hatched a strategy to move from square one — with zero clients and no portfolio — to an income that could see us leave our 9-to-5s. We felt we could be two jigsaw pieces with the right-shaped holes, and with a bit of luck we might fit together perfectly.
From day one, our motivation was for a business we could call our own, for liberty from conventional work routines and a sense of control over our own futures. Part of our strategy was to let each of us take charge of duties appropriate to our distinctive skills.
Our differences would be our strength, so the plan went. And yet it was our differences that gave rise to our first set of problems.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to quite know where the pathway of a new enterprise will lead — and, crucially, on whose talents and skills the business will come to rely on most.
So when the makeup of our day-to-day work began to reveal itself — as we found and took on our first set of clients, won through jobs boards at per-hour rates we wouldn’t consider now — it became impossible to ignore how the weight was falling more on my brother’s skills and much less on mine. Overwhelmingly our clients needed web coding prowess and digital vision, whereas my art and design talents seemed to be more or less surplus to requirements.
Even when we took on jobs that involved a decent slice of design work, it soon became obvious that the coding side was far more lucrative. In our planning we had envisaged a 50/50 split between our abilities, whereas in reality it was more like 80/20.
For me, that meant having to learn a raft of new skills and also having to put myself in front of our early clients with only politeness and bluster to act as a bridge over my missing knowledge.
For my brother, it meant having a veritable student on his hands, one with more questions than answers — “What does server-side mean?” I might be heard to ask — and more often than not, reliant on him to deal with the more complex coding issues I couldn’t solve myself.
First tests lead onto stronger bonds
For a family business, a situation like this is a test of trust and generosity. It is also a fertile ground for disagreement.
Importantly, my brother and I both expressed an interest in each other’s backgrounds, in such a way that we were always likely to mesh together positively, and in time, boost each other’s skills-set. This openness would prove critical as the next few years unfolded.
Still, a disparity had opened up, and more than once we found ourselves debating our respective pay scales, which from day one were pegged at the same rate.
My brother’s argument was straight forward. After a series of stressful jobs, where he again took the brunt of the heavy-lifting, he came to me and asked if I thought it was fair that we should be paid the same. After all, he had a lot more experience than me, and didn’t this mean he was the senior partner?
His position was perfectly reasonable, but I was reluctant. It wasn’t that I felt he didn’t deserve more recognition. It was rather that I thought that our joint commitment to the business would suffer if we started to diverge from our initial pledge: This was something we were doing together.
We surmounted the problem with one of the great tools available to family members, namely trust.
Trust carried us through, from a point of awkward disagreement to a place where we could both feel reassured. For my part, I worked hard to learn what I needed to learn and proved to my brother that I was catching up with him. For his part, he backed down and took a wider view, appreciating that I was contributing to the business in other ways: I’d written up several key business documents and was also keeping an eye on the accounts. We made an effort to distribute responsibilities between us more suitably, so that we could both be assured the scales were as evenly balanced as possible.
Unofficially, we also remembered the initial disparity, so that we knew I “owed him one”. In time, maybe I would get the chance to pay him back.
The opportunity pay him back came about 5 or 6 years into our business when a particularly challenging piece of work started to go awry. It hadn’t seemed so on the surface, but it was one of those jobs that only revealed its true nature once we were knee-deep. You know what they say about devils and details.
Whatever could have gone wrong did go wrong. It was made worse by the fact that our client fell ill half way through the work, so that a messy job suddenly lost its leader. Our client handed the reigns over to his wife, who tried her best but with a bed-bound husband and a struggling business, it was us who ended up shouldering the brunt of the chaos.
All this put a toll on my brother. He worked his socks off, but in the end the amount of stress got too much and he fell ill too.
This was my chance to step in. I took the lead and tried my best to rally morale. In fact, most of the difficult work had been done by then. But what I could do was to revive spirits and to try to repair our strained relationship with the client.
After some fairly horrible months, we finally got there. The client was (just about) satisfied, we got paid, and I had kept my tacit promise to repay my brother his previous generosity.
Our business has prospered since we first conceived it over 10 years ago. We’ve worked on all sorts of client projects, from tiny local businesses to multinational companies.
With growth came new questions. Should we take on more staff? Move to new premises? Push for bigger clients? These questions have been floating around for years now; some have been answered with, others not. It is natural, I think, for dilemmas such as these to always crop up within any business. Many times my brother and I have sat down and explored our future options. It’s always felt like anything was possible — so long as we had the commitment to back it up.
In more recent years, our old differences have began to reappear: for his part, my brother is looking to fulfill his long-standing career goals of a business that enjoys consistent and exciting growth. For my part, I’ve taken the opposite tack and begun to grow weary of the corporate side of our work. My own long-held interests in art and writing are finding opportunities outside of the business, and now it’s time for me to push ahead with them.
Being brothers, we’ve accepted each other’s hopes for the future. Moreover, we also realise that we’ve developed different lives — with wives, children and mortgages that didn’t exist 10 years ago — that require different levels of income and security.
So now we’ve reached the point of forging new pathways that diverge from one another. It’s the right time. He’s about to launch a new concern with a different business partner; I’m doing my best to live a creative life.
But we’re keeping our core business running in the background. It’s prudent to do so, and besides which, I doubt that either one of us want to bring our closest ever project together an to end.
Throughout it all, we’ve always kept one thing in the back of our minds, that no matter what the business asks of us, it’s nothing compared to the family bonds that tie us. And that thought has seen us through.