5 ways to stay sane in a family business

6 min read

14 September 2015

Working with family might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when you get it right, it can prove extremely fruitful. Here are five ways to stay sane in a family business.

According to the Institute for Family Business, more than 3 million companies in the UK are operated by families — showing that it can be done right. The trick is knowing how to stay sane. 

Dealing with complicated circumstances at work as well as managing employees can prove challenging at the best of times, never mind when they are related to you. It is therefore crucial to know how to handle, and indeed how to prevent, these situations from arising wherever possible. 

Here are five tips on avoiding common slip-ups to help you stay sane within your family business.

1. Remember to communicate 

It might sound obvious, but communication is everything. Often, members of family-owned businesses make the mistake of thinking that because they have a solid relationship with family members outside of the office, they don’t need to be as clear with their expectations within work. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the reality. 

Relatives should be treated just like any other employee, and that means giving them clear and open instructions. It might seem a little official at first, but it is important that personal, out-of-work dynamics don’t dictate the way you treat one another within the business.

Don’t assume that your family will automatically know what you’re thinking. Instead, talk to them just as clearly as you would communicate with any other business colleague.

2. Don’t fulfil family needs with business resources

While your life shouldn’t revolve around the family business, it is unwise to mix personal decisions with company decisions. For example, if it’s unlikely that you’d let a non-family employee use business property (such as vehicles) outside of work, then don’t let family members either. Double standards only serve to create tension between employees, not to mention projecting an unprofessional image.

It’s also never clever to write off personal expenses as business outgoings — as illustrated by the Dow Chemical Company revelation in 2014. Even if you have co-founded your company with your husband or wife, that doesn’t make your holiday to Tenerife a business excursion. If you wouldn’t take [insert non-family employee name here] from accounts, then it doesn’t count. Save yourself trouble further down the line and professionalise the business from the outset. 

3. Make your business relationship formal

Even if you have the closest family in the world, like all business partners, it’s not uncommon for disagreements to crop up from time to time. This is why a written agreement makes good business sense. 

A lot of family-businesses are reluctant to formalise their company in this way, in case it damages family relationships, however, the fact remains that a written agreement is there to provide everyone with protection.

Sam Prochazka and his twin brother founded Novosbed together, and he strongly suggests “putting everything in writing” at the start of a business venture. Their business was founded on a formal structure, and it has now become North America’s premier online memory foam mattress brand.

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4. Prioritise family relationships

The reason anyone starts a family business is to be successful, however, it is important to prioritise what’s important. When your business is your family, it can often feel like family is also business. 

Although this is somewhat true, it can drive you insane if all you ever do is focus on work. After all, you could start another business venture, but you only get one family. Making a concerted effort to prioritise family-only time will see your personal and work relationships flourish all the more. 

One of the UK’s oldest fuel distributors, Rix Petroleum is still entirely family owned. While our processes have adapted, our family ethos remains constant. This healthy family-work philosophy is also encompassed in our strapline: At Rix, We Care.

Read more about family businesses:

5. Establish boundaries

This is especially relevant to husband-and-wife partnerships, as it can sometimes be tempting to talk about your shared business venture at all hours of the day, every day. However, this isn’t conducive to a healthy personal relationship, as offering all of your time to the business leaves little time for you to dedicate to other things. 

Couples who work together often develop certain systems to help manage their time. For instance, driving separately to and from work or not talking about the company at weekends. Sticking to this system and having breaks away from business will help maintain your sanity and make the most of your personal time.

Tim Rix is managing director of Rix Petroleum.