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Jarrad Skeen, Founder and MD of affix

How to run a successful business with siblings

Over the next 10 years we’re likely to see the greatest wealth transformation occur in Australian history as ageing baby boomers pass on their estates. Of the 2.1 million businesses in Australia, about 70 per cent are family owned, according to Family Business Australia and they employ more than 50 per cent of the workforce. [1]

But, with wealth being transformed on occasion to more than one heir, we’re going to see more siblings attempt working together. There are many examples of Australian start-ups with wife and husband teams that have achieved amazing success such as Boost Juice and Envato. But less common are examples of siblings working together successfully in business.

Two years ago, I set up my own start-up as I wanted to disrupt the traditional model of recruitment by partnering with customers over the long-term. Instead of charging large fees up front, we charge over the first twelve months of tenure, so we only get fully paid if the new recruit remains in their role for the long-term. In the beginning, I didn’t set out to build a business with family, but along the way my younger sister and brother joined me for the adventure. Here are our top tips for working with your siblings or any family member in business.

  1. Make sure you set clear work/life boundaries

One of the key rules we’ve all agreed to at functions outside work is that no shop talk is allowed. At Christmas dinner, it’s about enjoying family time. We’ve been fortunate that we don’t need to spell this out to each other because we’ve always been close siblings, we enjoy each other’s company so we naturally focus on nurturing that relationship outside work hours. If you’re going into business with your siblings you need to understand the expectations and what the boundaries are. If you can’t talk about something before you begin working together, you certainly won’t be able to resolve it two years down the track.

  1. Don’t expect your siblings to be as passionate as you

When you build a business it’s natural to expect that your siblings, whether they work with you or not, will understand how much it means to you. The fact is, no-one will be as passionate as you, and no-one will ever understand the personal journey you’re going through as a founder. It’s important to understand that if you hire siblings or agree to partner with them, you need to focus on what skills and attributes they bring to the business as you would with any other employee or partner. You need to understand the aspirations of each person in your team and what they want to get out of the business. It’s nice to know that my siblings have my back on the journey.

  1. Build and foster a positive, equal and inclusive culture

Working with your siblings, or in my personal case, being the boss of your siblings is incredibly complex. You don’t want to be seen as giving preferential treatment to your loved ones or propping them up if they are under-performing. You’ll spend a lot of time thinking about what’s the right thing to do, but what you need to focus on is treating everyone objectively. You need to concentrate on building and fostering a positive workplace culture, one that is inclusive and gets the best out of everyone in the team. You need to have processes for how you manage issues that arise anywhere in your business. I have a very close relationship with both my sister and brother, we respect each other, understand our differences and have an open and honest communication style. We’ve now built a company of fourteen and are expanding fast so we’ve attracted people successfully to join our vision. In interviews, we commonly answer questions about what it’s like to work with us.

  1. Remunerate for role and performance

It’s important that everyone in your team is fairly remunerated for their role and performance. This should be transparent. Your HR or payroll team shouldn’t get a shock at the pay packet of your family member. It should be a figure that’s fair for their contribution and one you’d pay a similar performing non-family member. To build a positive team culture and avoid an undercurrent of gossip in your business, you can’t be seen to be overly biased.

  1. New starters and clients can’t easily tell your related

You’ll know if you’ve got the balance right when new starters in your business have no idea you’re related and are genuinely surprised. If they join the team and its obvious on day one then you need to consider balancing the professional and personal equation more. In the beginning, we were so conscious of going to client meetings and pitching for work and being asked how we were related. Was I married to my sister? But, we found it was an advantage, it gave us a unique story to tell, it helped open a fun dialogue. Most people we meet think it’s terrific that we’re a close family who enjoy working together.

Business is all about relationships and enjoying who you work with, so working with family shouldn’t be any different. It will certainly bring up more challenges, but working with those you trust and know share your goals can help create something special.

About the author

Jarrad Skeen, founder and managing director of Affix, a recruiter based in Southbank, Victoria.

[1] Family Business Survey 2015, KPMG and Family Business Australia

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Jarrad Skeen

Jarrad Skeen

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