Have you ever wondered how you might like having a family-run business? Well, Kirk and I have been married for 10 years now and running Sycamore Street Press for 7. And we’ve survived, ha! Actually, we love what we do, and feel grateful to be able to do so. We don’t have everything figured out (of course) but we’ve learned quite a bit along the way that I’d love to share.
Keep reading to see my top 5 considerations before starting a family business…
1) Have a Trial Period
Even though you love your spouse/sister/mother, etc….you’ll need to be sure that you work well together before you make a huge commitment like starting a business. Not all friends make good roommates, right? Well, the same goes for family members as co-workers. Take on a big project together, plan an event, collaborate on a design, etc… You might think you can skip this step, but please don’t.
I started our business with the intention of keeping it very small and doing it all myself. However, Kirk soon began lending a hand at weekend craft shows, during spring break, etc… We found that we were both happiest on the days when we were working together. After about 6 months of this arrangement, we decided that he would join me full time. It took us another 7 months for him to finish up his graduate program and for us to get all of our ducks in a row, but the wait was well worth it. Our long trial period made the transition much smoother than if we had tried to rush it.
2) Be Ready for Financial Instability
We all know that self-employment isn’t the way to steady paychecks and benefits. I think a lot of self-employed designers, bloggers, etc… are able to do it because they have a partner or spouse who has a job with those perks. When I started our business, Kirk was in grad school, so he obviously wasn’t making much. But he had a teaching assistantship, which gave him a modest monthly stipend and full health benefits. This small cushion helped ease the way for me to quit my day job and do my own business full time.
When Kirk joined me full time, we knew it would be a much bigger leap. Not only did he leave behind his paycheck and benefits, but our little home / print shop was bursting at the seams, and we needed a bigger space to work in. We had already decided that we wanted to live closer to our families in Utah, so when my parents offered to let us move in with them, we jumped at the chance. Because of this, we were able to afford a large separate studio space with plenty of room for our business to operate and expand. About a year and a half later, we started paying my parents rent, and at their invitation, eventually renovated their unfinished walkout basement into an apartment for our growing family. To be able to afford this, and also so we could have the convenience of working from home, we decided to move our studio into the garage.
The key here, is keeping overhead low. I’ve met and talked to many other couples at craft shows across the country who are both working full time at their creative family businesses. The majority of them live in inexpensive rural areas or in big cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit that are known for their extremely low cost of living. Several that I’ve talked to are also living with parents during the first few crucial years of getting the business up and running. The beauty of the internet age is that unlike traditional mom and pop shops, many small businesses don’t have to rely on local customers alone. Which means that we can relocate to more affordable, obscure locations, and still sell our goods and services to clients in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, etc…
3) Look Forward to Flexibility
Financial instability might be a downside to having a family business, but flexibility is a huge upside! If I thought I had a lot more flexibility when I first became self-employed, that feeling quadrupled when Kirk joined me and SSP became the family business.
Before, I couldn’t travel to certain craft shows if Kirk would have to miss too much work or school. (I hate doing those shows by myself.) Now, we are on the same schedule, and can decide it completely for ourselves. In 2010, we lived and worked from an apartment in New York City for an entire month. In 2012, we took our toddler to Paris for a few weeks. Right now, we are on a family vacation in Puerto Rico, and it was so nice not to have to ask for time off like in a “regular” job.
Eventually, we’d like to live abroad for awhile, and we are starting to put the pieces into place so that that will be a real possibility down the road.
4) Kids & The Family Business
Although we both put in (more than) full time hours, Kirk and I are able to squeeze it into 4 days (plus evenings after the kids are in bed) so that we can each spend a day home with our 2 munchkins during the week. We love having that flexibility! We love the fact that we’re able to spend more time with our children than we would at most traditional jobs.
That said, there are some downsides. Like the fact that I won’t have any paid maternity leave. Zero. Technically I can take off all the time that I want, and come back whenever I want, but how long can I afford to stay away? Also, there’s the health care concern. We pay for independent coverage, and it’s pricey. If one our children were to have major health issues, where would that leave us?
5) Happiness is in the Details
Maybe I haven’t painted the rosiest picture of family business life. I’m just trying to let you see what it is really like. But here’s the thing: even though it can be unstable and stressful, I’ve never been happier. If I could go back in time, I’d do it all over again. The fact that I trust my business partner more than any other person in the entire world and that we can choose our own schedules with our children in mind is priceless. I started our business because I love letterpress, art, and design. But now I am beginning to see that I love having a family business and working with Kirk just as much – if not more. If I had to choose between doing SSP by myself or doing some other sort of creative business with Kirk, I’d choose the latter.
This is an updated and abbreviated version of an article I originally wrote for the Design*Sponge Biz Ladies series back in 2010. See the original article, with advice from 5 more family-run business owners here. Also check out my Stationery Business classes on atly.com.
Photo credit: Jessica Peterson