Many people who grow up in a family business environment atmosphere face this question.
Here are my pieces of advice as someone whose worked in his family business for 5 years:
1) The first reflection I would do is on about yourself and what you envision for yourself?
What is it you want out of life? I think you should self-reflect on an ideal professional life based on your own characteristics and desires.
I say this because while many people want to be a boss, the reality is being a business owner is not always easy.
All the success and failure of the company resides on the boss. You come up with the business strategy, you manage employees, you have to be one to lay off employees, etc.
Obviously, you grow into that role and you’re not going to be tasked with all those tasks when you initially join, but I do think if the next generation joins, the expectation is usually for them to eventually get to a leadership position.
So, ask yourself, is that something I would enjoy — being the head of the company and having all the good and bad problems come to me?
There’s no shame in saying you don’t want to be a #1 at a company, and you’d rather be an employee. Being the boss is not for everyone.
Working for someone else, i.e. the corporate route, has a lot less pressure (at least initially) in the sense that you’re not tasked with tasks like strategy and operations from the beginning (i.e. in a corporate setting, your employer hopefully has a business model in place and you’re just there to execute your job).
The caveat to this is — there may also be a structure for your family business where you’re not the #1 if you don’t see yourself becoming a #1.
2) The second reflection I would do is why do you want to join?
What is it that you hope for out of joining your family business?
A lot of people join family businesses out of duty or guilt to keep the business going. They may also join it out of pressure from family members.
You should be wanting to join your family business because you want to.
Doing something out of duty/guilt/pressure and not really wanting to do it, will lead to resentment over time. Human beings cannot, long-term, do something they don’t want to do happily.
At the end of the day, your family should want you to be happy. I know that family business and family can sometimes not differ for some family business owners, so going against the family business can be viewed as going against the family, but this is not true. The two are different.
Though the family business may have been economically how the family has survived, the two are not the same enterprise, they’re different.
3) The third reflection I would do is about your professional work experience and what skills you want to gather
The skills you want to learn — say you want to become better at digital marketing, can you objectively get better at digital marketing through joining your family business or would it be better to go somewhere else and learn those skills?
Ultimately, what you want from your work experiences in great experiences that teach you skill.
Maybe you want to experience a startup environment and also a big business environment. Does your family business fit either of those environments?
Additionally, how many years of work experience do you have outside of your family business?
For me, I would encourage you to have at least 4 years of work experience.
I think this will at least provide you with maybe say — 2 jobs at 2 different companies or say 2 jobs (because you got promoted) at 1 company.
There are a couple reasons I think it’s important to get work experience outside the family business:
1) You have perspective on working in corporate cultures outside of family business
Should you eventually decide you don’t want to work at your family business, it will be easier for you to transition because you will have work experience in non-family business environments and things like recs/references from those experiences.
2) In most cases, you can always go back to the family business. However, it’s harder to leave your family business, once you’re in it.
Once you start working at your family business, employees have a reference point of you working there. If you leave, employees may question the financial stability or succession plan of the family business.
Your family may also question — why are you leaving? Are they not doing enough to make you happy?
3) Even if you do end up doing the family business long-term, it may be really helpful to get different perspective on work culture and how things are done.
That perspective you’ll gain working elsewhere can be really helpful for your family business.
Sometimes, when a family member has been running a business for years on end, they’re thinking doesn’t change.
Having a different perspective that the current ownership won’t have could be really helpful.
4) Realize your personal relationship with your family will never be the same
Obviously, many family businesses get into personal and business conflicts over vision, strategy, structure, succession plan, etc.
Though people like to think they can separate business and personal, that’s really hard.
Say your father and your uncle own the business, if they get into an argument about succession plan that gets very heated, that may end up affecting you and your cousin’s relationship (your uncle’s kids) even though you don’t want it too.
Even if you don’t get into extreme arguments like that, even if you’re decently cordial the entire time, your relationship with your family will never be the same.
Once you add the business element, you can never go back to what your relationship was like prior to adding that.
So, if it’s your dad or mom who are the owners, for example, and they are your boss, when they tell you something to do, you’ve got to do it in the business arena.
In your personal space, if they said go do your laundry, you could’ve said, I’ll do it later. But if they say, give me a sales report for this month sorting through by product type. You have to do it.
It’s just a different element to the relationship.
In a non-family business atmosphere, nobody will ask you about personal questions. Naturally, in a family business environment, personal questions may be asked in business environments or vice versa (at a personal friends/family outing, a co-worker or manager in a regular corporate environment wouldn’t bring up business most likely, but in family functions, family can bring up business at a personal function).
If you do join, these are the things I would work out:
Be clear from the beginning about how compensation and roles in the company will work.
Be clear about what the plan is for succession.
Are you going to receive ownership at a small percentage at a time over the years? Will you have to wait for your parents to retire before gaining any ownership percentage?
If they’re multiple owners, how does that affect succession?
Also, have honest dialogue about how/what situation might make you leave. You can say, like I’ll try this out for 2 years but if I don’t like it, I’m going to pursue a different path. Say that up front, maybe even have it writing so feelings don’t get hurt.
How do strategic decisions get made? Trying new things and new ways to do things will be hard for people who haven’t changed their ways. How will this work?
So far, I’ve been very cautious, despite all things you want to be cautious about, there are a lot of positives:
You can learn a lot — because you can work in multiple functions of the business — you can literally do business development for a year, and then going into a marketing role or an operations role or finance role, you have the flexibility that in a big corporate environment you wouldn’t have. In this way, family business can teach you a lot about business.
Since I’ve joined my family business, I’ve gotten to work in human resources, operations, marketing, sales, business development, quality management.
The beauty of private companies and most family businesses who are private, is you can be long-term focused.
A lot of public companies have to do short-term strategies (because they’re evaluated every 90 days). In private companies, you can make long-term investments that might not be good for the business in the short-term but will have long-term positive effects. This is a really neat aspect of private family businesses.
You can create great corporate culture. Having access to possibly being involved in management and ownership level, you can create great corporate culture — that’s really priceless. To create an environment where employees love going to work and are feeding their family because of your family business is an awesome feeling.
Finally, be grateful you have family business as an option. Most people don’t have that as a fallback.
Hope these pieces of advice help. If there’s an aspect of family business you don’t think I addressed or talked about, let me know!