Could you run a business with your partner, sibling, parent or offspring? Is it ideal because you know each other inside out and can say what you really think? Or is it likely to descend into heartache?! Creative business coach Jo McCarthy chats to four families who have developed businesses around their individual strengths and found interesting ways to push their businesses forward against the backdrop of lockdown.
Cassie Davis and Bev Butterworth – ROOM 356
Mother and daughter duo Cassie Davis and Bev Butterworth opened their retail space and online store six years ago. The pair have grown and evolved the business together, recently launching their own furniture range just as the country went into pandemic lockdown. We chat with Cassie about what it’s like to work alongside your mum every day and how they have adapted their business in light of the impact Coronavirus has had on high street retail.
Can you share the story of how you came to work together as a mother-daughter team?
My mum, Bev, had her own businesses from me being a young age. When she opened a coffee bar, I worked there all the way through school and then managed it for her when I turned 17. I lived in London from the age of 18 and when I moved back, my Mum’s next venture was an online furniture company which eventually resulted in us starting a business together with our shared love for Scandinavian interiors.
Do you have any tips for people who are considering working with their parents, siblings, or another family member?
Sometimes it’s hard to separate the mother/daughter relationship from the professional ‘work’ relationship. Would I speak to my mum the same way as I would a colleague? Probably not. It’s sometimes hard to separate to the two. We do have disagreements but the important thing is to draw a line under it straight away, apologise and move on. We would say it’s important to always try to be respectful, patient and willing to listen to each others views and ideas. Recognise each others strengths and play to those. It is important for each person to have clearly defined roles and to feel these are fulfilling. Communication is key and having weekly or even daily meetings ensures that you are on the same page and working together. If you have a genuine shared interest and passion in the business you are running this will help you run the business successfully.
Do you share the same aesthetic?
Following on from the previous question we really do share the same aesthetic. Bev has always had a love for minimal Scandinavian-influenced interiors. She used to take me to the huge Habitat in Manchester most weekends, which I loved! We always agree on the same products to include in the business going forward and definitely share the same vision when it comes to the look and feel of Room 356.
How do you divide the tasks in your business? How do you work with your individual strengths?
I like dealing with the accounts and numbers side of the business. We both come together when we are choosing new products or designing new lines. We work very closely on all the visual and creative aspect of the business. I run all the social media and digital marketing, whereas Bev deals with all the customers and runs the online operations. Bev does all the copy for the website descriptions and I will work on all the imagery. We work on what we enjoy doing and love coming together too when we feel both our strengths are needed.
What does a typical week look like for you?
Since lockdown we have had a real chance to change our working week. We spend most of the week working from our shop premises. Friday and Saturday are spent running the stall at Altrincham Market. At the moment we are both enjoying having one full day off which has been lovely. Our typical week consists of wrapping online orders and dealing with customers. I will then process all the new stock orders on a Monday and do all the accounts. Monday is a real day to get everything done. We always tend to have a meeting on that day and map out the rest of the week. We will both work on the website throughout the week and make updates and changes. Bev is working on the new furniture lines and I am working on all the digital marketing aspect of the business at the moment which is taking up a lot of our days. We always round up the weekdays with a walk near where I live with my dog Ozzy. Working on the computer really does make your head spin so the walk and fresh air really clear our minds!
Can you describe how the lockdown has affected your business?
It was such a crazy time as just as the lockdown had been enforced we had literally just had our new website completed. Since January we had been working on our own range of furniture. The furniture is handmade locally and designed by us. The week after lockdown we decided to bring all the furniture to my house and photograph it all on our mobile phones. We launched our furniture line within that week and sales started to come in for our desks! It was so crazy as we had launched a whole new part of our business during lockdown, there were so many bumps along the way. The couriers were so overloaded, parcels where delayed. But, we managed to pull it all together and since then our furniture collection has grown and flourished. Also the new website has seen an increase in sales and we ended up being busier than we have been before. It’s given us the boost and confidence we needed to keep pushing our online store and making it the best experience we can for our customers. We also have a surprise in store as we have completely shut the shop. It has had a makeover and in September we will be relaunching it as a showroom for our bespoke furniture and lighting! Retail has been impacted massively and I think having the ability to adapt and change is necessary. New creative ways can really flourish in these uncertain times.
Ryan and Madeka Panchoo – Borough 22, The London Mother and BOXD
From their family-home in Plumstead, south London, Ryan and Madeka run an impressive three businesses between them whilst raising Noah, aged 10 and Georgia, 14. Ryan’s award-winning, photogenic vegan and gluten-free doughnuts are sold in Selfridges and independent cafes across London. Madeka owns The London Mother (TLM), an online magazine for London families and she’s used the extra time on her hands during lockdown to set up BOXD, a gift box shop for teens and tweens that’s linked to TLM. We caught up with Madeka to ask how they make a success of their family businesses.
Did you plan to run your own family businesses?
There is definitely an entrepreneurial spirit in the family. I’ve had lots of sidelines, and I’ve been blogging since 2010. When I left full-time work, I started monetising The London Mother in 2013 and worked from home whilst the children were young.
We were often invited as a family to events and premieres and we found that our kids, who have food intolerances, could never enjoy the food that was offered. So Ryan started to experiment and created treats that the children could eat. Word got out, and Ryan took 18 months to develop a range of doughnuts that are suitable for a whole range of diets. The mission was to create something that our own kids could get excited about, and everyone loves the story behind the brand. Ryan’s first wholesale account was with Selfridges, he was featured in the book Startup London and on Channel 4, and in a short time the business took off!
Our businesses aren’t expensive hobbies; we are strategic and work hard to be profitable and sustainable. We are in this for the long run!
What does a typical week look like for you? Has this changed during the lockdown?
The majority of time on Borough 22 is spent preparing ingredients and packaging for the 60 home deliveries a week, plus the deliveries to the cafes and shops we stock. There are lots of early mornings!
The London Mother web content has had to adjust. The website is not about me and my life but about events and activities around the city, which have obviously been massively affected during the lockdown. However, searches are increasing again for family activities in London, as well as ideas for interiors, working from home and day trips out of the city. Now I’m a shopkeeper too, so I’m busy running BOXD alongside The London Mother, and Georgia helps me with social media and sourcing stock. Each week is a little different, so we need to be good communicators to make things happen.
Do you have any advice for couples who want to work together?
Although we run distinct businesses, we have to have good cooperation between us. It’s important to discuss the boundaries you want to establish. We make sure we have family time, time off during the week and limit work at the weekend, although Sunday is a big prep day for Borough 22. We want the kids to know we are hard workers but we also try to prioritise family life – nobody likes grumpy, worn out parents.
It’s good to see each other working creatively and enjoying what we do. It’s great to have each other to bounce ideas off and to focus on building brands together. It’s also really important to invest in your businesses; where we see skills gaps that neither of us can fill, we outsource and find the best people for the job. We work harem but we are excited to see new ideas develop and are glad we are in this together!
Alisha and Roisin McDonnell – Sew Botanical
Sisters Alisha and Roisin McDonnell started to experiment with embroidery just four years ago when they wanted to create artwork for their bedrooms at home in Kingston-Upon-Hull. They didn’t intend to sell their designs, but when they ran out of wall space to display their hoops, they opened an Etsy shop. Today, they run their thriving business alongside part-time day jobs and have found a way to blend home and work-life beautifully.
How did Sew Botanical bloom into life?
Although we had low expectations, our Etsy shop opened, and our hoops proved to be really popular. We remember jumping for joy when those first sales notifications popped up on our phones! We decided to take requests for custom pieces, and our skills improved quickly as the orders came in. Customers often asked if we could create kits or patterns, and we finally took a week off at the same time in the summer of 2019 to develop these products. In fact, the first kit we created is still our best-seller and has been sent all over the world.
How do you divide up the Sew Botanical workload?
Roisin is the creative brain. She designs the patterns for the kits, photographs each step, and creates the final hoop. Aisha turns the drawings into digital products, calculates the threads and orders everything we need for the kits. We tackle the other tasks together. It’s taken time to work out the roles we each have and because we balance Sew Botanical with our other jobs, we are careful not to overstretch ourselves and each other!
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are contemplating a business agreement with a family member?
Honesty is important, especially when defining strengths and weaknesses and acknowledging the roles you each play. In our case, we know we are more robust as a team. Our priority is to put the family first, and the business is secondary.
How has Sew Botanical fared over the lockdown period? Have you coped with the challenges differently from each other?
We know so many businesses that have been adversely affected during the lockdown, and our hearts go out to them. Since we both have other jobs and Sew Botanical supplements our income, we have survived financially.
Embroidery seemed to be a popular hobby during the lockdown, and we had a dramatic increase in sales, especially at the beginning. The biggest challenge was sourcing supplies because our normal suppliers had either shut down or sold out. We had to source materials from wherever we could while maintaining the high standards we have for our kits.
Some exciting opportunities to work with large companies have come our way during the lockdown, but we decided that for now, we are stretched far enough as a two-woman band! We view it as a massive success that we are coming out the other side without killing each other!
Bethan and Joe John – The British Blanket Company
Winning the ‘Family Business of the Year’ in the 2019 Natwest Great British Entrepreneur awards was a highlight for this Somerset-based, sibling-owned business. We chatted to Bethan John about the bright idea she had with her brother Joe and how to navigate the sibling relationship in business.
Can you share the story of how your family-run business came to life?
Many small businesses are founded from the kitchen table, but ours started from the sofa. Back in 2013, we’d decided to leave our secure jobs and start a business together. We’d set up an online shop selling a mix of home accessories and it was ticking over ok, but it certainly hadn’t been the launch pad we’d hoped.
Realising that our first business was growing slowly, and having already taken the plunge of becoming self-employed, we decided to launch a second e-commerce shop that we could run alongside. We wanted to create an iconic British brand specialising in just one product and doing it really well. Sitting on a grey sofa and feeling the chill, a bright idea struck. Modern British-made blankets that could add colour and cosiness to a home in an instant. We brainstormed names over lunch, bought the domain name the same afternoon, and The British Blanket Company was born!
We bootstrapped and then bootstrapped again; everything we couldn’t afford to outsource we taught ourselves to do, from learning to code and DIY product photography to PR and Google ads. The British Blanket Company soon overtook our first business and went from our side hustle to our full-time venture.
How do you and Joe divide up the business tasks between you?
A sibling-run business is something most people find hard to imagine. “Oh wow, I could never work with my brother / sister” is something we hear a lot when we introduce ourselves!
Working with Joe, I’ve learned he has so many qualities I’d never appreciated before. He’s clear-headed and calm, whereas I’m sometimes in danger of missing the wood for the trees. His previous career was working in finance and e-commerce management so he’s great at strategy, but he’s creative too. As well as looking after our finances, he taught himself to code to personalise our website and designed our logo from scratch – all our branding is down to him.
Working with a sibling isn’t going to work for everyone, but for us, it’s our biggest strength. I think the secret is that we have a strong shared vision for what we want The British Blanket Company to be, but different skills. When a task needs doing it’s clear who should take the lead and we have complete trust in one another’s judgement. We fill in for each other’s weak points to make our partnership strong.
How is co-founding a business with a family member different from working with someone outside the family?
It’s the same, because you need a partner who has different skills to you. A lot of people will go into business together thinking “This is going to work brilliantly, we’re on the same page about everything” but that’s not what you want. Yes, a shared focus, parallel ambitions and compatible personalities are important, but aim for different skill sets and a different approach to solving problems. Each person should be better than the other at plenty of things! Try to keep a relatively professional manner with each other too; during work hours we interact as colleagues, not as siblings.
Lockdown has tested us all. How have you been?
Our business is stronger as a result of lockdown because it’s really pushed us to realise how resilient we can be, as a business and as people. It’s cleared our focus by taking some potential business developments off the table and instead we’ve really worked hard on improving what we have.
The most exciting new project has been designing and sampling of a new Special Edition blanket collection, inspired by the colours of British Birds. At the beginning of lockdown the landscape for our business (and everyday life) was shifting every day but overall it’s been positive so far. I think lots of people began shopping online who would never have done so before, so that gave us the chance to reach new customers and prove to them how great buying online can be. We also noticed a swell of goodwill and we’ve forged a more personal connection with customers, people have had more time to leave reviews and interact on social media which really gave us a boost when things felt tough.