How to Run a Business With Your Mom (and Survive)
You love your mother, but could you run a business with her?
It may be tough to imagine, but it works for Lucky Dog Cuisine, a South Carolina e-commerce company that ships organic frozen dog food to customers across the United States and Canada. The company's founder is Janice Elenbaas, a former chiropractor and Canadian native who always cooked human-grade food for her dogs and found they were healthier because of it. Her daughter Meghan Elenbaas spent a few months helping out as Janice got the company going.
After a couple of years working for a Toronto speakers' bureau, Meghan sought to rejoin her mother's company about a year and a half ago. The timing was perfect: A growing number of customers wanted the dog food in Canada, and shipping across the border was a hassle. So Lucky Dog launched a new website and facility north of the border, with Meghan heading up Canadian operations from Toronto.
How are their dual roles as mother/daughter and founder/president working out? Very successfully, both Janice and Meghan report. Here--just in time for Mother's Day--is their formula for success:
1. Put family first.
Janice and Meghan are Lucky Dog executives second and mother and daughter first, they both say. Sometimes that means picking your battles. Early on, the two locked horns over the logo for Lucky Dog Cuisine Canada. Janice had used a rustic-looking barn board logo in the United States and thought the same should be displayed on the Canadian site. Meghan countered that in cosmopolitan Toronto, something different was needed. Eventually, Janice agreed to use a horizontal logo showing the Lucky Dog Cuisine name with no barn board, though the Canadian site has a tasteful wood-patterned background.
"Anyone who has the entrepreneurial impulse to start a business has a tendency to be strong-willed," Janice says. "I think that's great, but the relationship between you and your kids has to be more important."
2. Respect the boundaries.
You can always pick up the phone and call a family member, but not if you're calling about work. "You need to set some ground rules," Meghan says. "Unless it's an emergency or you're about to be on CNN, you don't call during dinnertime. She knows that I have a life, and she completely respects that."
3. Don't expect to always have the same viewpoint.
As the logo discussion illustrates, just because you're family doesn't mean you'll always look at things the same way. "They're not necessarily going to have the same worldview that I do, and they won't necessarily see what steps need to be taken," Janice says.
Just as with parenting, it can be tough to know when to give guidance and when not to, she adds. With Meghan, and now her son Ryan working in the business as well, Janice is careful not to micromanage: "You have to give them a little slack to make their own decisions. And when they make mistakes, to not say, 'If you had listened to me in the first place...'"
4. Start from a strong relationship.
It's probably a bad idea for a parent and child to try running a business together if they don't have a strong relationship to start with. "If you'd told me when I was a teenager that I'd have that partnership with my mother, I'd have laughed," Meghan says. But as she matured, she came to have a strong bond with Janice. "Make sure you have the right kind of relationship, one where you can be open and honest with each other," she says.
5. History matters.
Remember that when you're creating a business together, you're building on a shared past. Janice believed her many years running her own chiropractic practice helped prepare her kids for the entrepreneurial lifestyle. Perhaps more important, she spent as much time with them as she could during those years, for instance, coming home for lunch with them each day, given that she sometimes had to work in the evenings. "I think there's no such thing as quality time with kids--it has to be quantity," she says.
You need that foundation, she adds. "You can't have a not-committed relationship with your kids when they're little and then expect them to work well with you in the business."
6. Don't let your relationship be about only work.
You're family first and business partners second. That means taking the time to focus on family matters, or on just having fun together. Otherwise, there's a danger your work lives may devour your relationship.
"You have to have days when you just go shopping or go to the movies, because if all you talk about is work, that's bad," Meghan says. "Or maybe you set a time: At two o'clock, we stop talking about the company."
7. Accept that a family member is not your average employee.
"You can't fire your kids," Janice notes. "But you also know your family members will have your back in a way no one else would. These kids are dedicated to having this business as their future. And it's the most rewarding experience to share a passion with your children and then watch the business grow."
Like this post? Sign up here for Minda's weekly email and you'll never miss her columns.
MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.