The Family Business Advantage Puts Some Entrepreneurs Ahead of the Game

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I started freelancing in high school. Even though I didn’t really know it at the time, I’d started my own business at a time when most of my peers were applying for whatever jobs would work around their school schedules. Some how this experience has translated into an assumption that I know something about how to help younger entrepreneurs get a start.

I’m not really an expert in how to get kids to start their own businesses, but I know that I had a clear advantage: I surrounded by entrepreneurs from the day that I was born. The grand majority of my family run their own businesses. That translated into a very different approach to earning money than most of my friends had. I never automatically assumed that I needed to find a job to put money in my pocket. Part of that approach was a result of a long progressions of helping out with various family businesses as needed. There was always a relative who needed someone to handle a big data entry project or hand out flyers. — which may have lead directly to freelancing as an easy starting point.

One of the biggest advantages I’ve had in life comes from growing up around entrepreneurs. It’s an experience that business school just can’t replicate.

The Advantage of Growing Up in a Family Business

I’ve talked about the situation with other business owners and coming from a family of business owners does seem to normalize the idea of entrepreneurship, at the very least. Ashley Brooks had some seriously similar experiences. She comes from a similarly entrepreneurial background: “My grandpa started his own business and passed it on to two of my uncles; I have an aunt and uncle who own their own print shop; another uncle left his day job to start his own insurance company; and I have an aunt who’s done some freelance editing herself. People in my family just didn’t seem to do well with day jobs, and they were all extremely successful at their own endeavors. I never questioned that I could do it that way too.”

That last bit echoes one of my experiences. After spending enough time with entrepreneurs, especially those who you are related to, it becomes a lot harder to land and hold one of those day jobs that I’ve heard so much about. Part of it is sheer practicality: it’s hard to get results from resumes with big employment gaps or with a work history where your last name matches the sign on the door. But part of it is that, especially these days, it gets a lot harder to accept that you’ve got to do all your work between 9 and 5 or the whole world will fall apart. If I decide to do my work between 10 and 7, nothing truly dramatic is going to happen, but a lot of jobs assume otherwise.

Recognizing that there are options beyond that 9-to-5 grind can be incredibly difficult if you haven’t seen the alternatives in action. I’m a pain, constantly trying to help certain friends strike out on their own, but when I’m the only person who those friends know with a business of her own, I’m far less persuasive. Having people in your circle of friends and family who actually show that there’s not just one way to make a living is almost a necessity for someone who really wants to become an entrepreneur.

The Advantage of Not Having to Explain Yourself

One of the reasons that entrepreneurship is at least a little easier for someone who grew up in a family business or in a family of entrepreneurs is because those family members will generally be supportive of the idea of someone else in the family striking out on her own. Starting a new business is incredibly difficult. Starting one while listening to your family tell you that you’re crazy is much harder.

Only two of my family members have ever questioned my ability to launch my own business. It’s no coincidence that both of those family members have held a succession of day jobs and aren’t entrepreneurs themselves.

Don’t worry, though: I do get plenty of those concerned calls from relatives wanting to check up on particular aspects of how I run my business. My family doesn’t leave me concern-deprived, by any means. But, in addition to that concern, I get a bit of a pass when it comes to prioritizing my work over other parts of my life. Sure, the whole family would love to spend more time together — but most of us are realistic about picking which holidays to celebrate as a clan and which we’re each going to be open for business.

(That isn’t to say, however, that certain people can’t take that permissiveness too far. We all know which member of our family won’t make it to any family get-togethers because he spends 80 hours a week at his business.)

The Advantage of Seeming Perfectly Normal

Going back to those questions I get about how to encourage kids to take a look at entrepreneurship, I’ve got to say that the most important step is to make running your own business seem like the normal thing to do. Otherwise, you’re going to be in a situation where business ownership seems entirely aspirational — something everyone would like to do eventually but that is out of reach right now.

While I don’t have a ton of numbers to back me up, my experiences show that young entrepreneurs usually only emerge when they have friends or family who have also gone into business for themselves. Having a mentor who can provide advice on the nuts and bolts of running a business is part of the reason, but that’s not all of it. Knowing that your uncle, who has gone through four wives and shouldn’t be left alone with a six-pack, can run a business does a lot for making entrepreneurship really seem possible. It may even make starting your own business seem like a complete no-brainer.

In those sorts of circumstances, a kid may start thinking of her own future without quite as many constraints. While I went through quite a few potential career paths (I thought I was going to go to law school for quite a while), I definitely assumed that I would work for myself and wind up at the top of the food chain through most of my plans. Ashley seemed to have a similar experience, despite have somewhat more focused goals: “As for my entrepreneurial family, I guess I’d never realized how much it impacted my outlook on work until I graduated college. I knew I wanted to freelance way before it was the cool thing to do. When I was in 8th grade, I remember knowing that I wanted to be an editor, and I wanted to work from home on my own schedule.”

Family isn’t Everything for Encouraging Entrepreneurship

College tends to screw with an entrepreneur’s plans: while there are plenty of schools that put heavy emphasis on helping students, most schools are very clearly set up to feed students straight into jobs after granting those all-important diplomas. Both Ashley and I spent several months post-graduation applying to jobs that we didn’t particularly care for. Ashley was a lot smarter than I was: “Once I was in college, I adjusted my plan a bit: I assumed I’d work as an in-house editor for a few years to build connections before I struck out on my own. Long story short, that plan changed after I spent four months applying to jobs I wasn’t crazy about, for companies I didn’t care for, in locations that meant a long commute. I was already doing some freelance work, so I said ‘screw it’ and started putting all that extra time into building my business.”

I actually landed one of those jobs I applied for, took it, and then quit after a week and a half. I might have been able to stick out that particular job longer if I hadn’t had some freelance work already coming in, as well as a belief that I actually had to. But it was an awful job, in the way that many jobs immediately after college are, and I had no driving assumptions that the world had to be that way.

In fact, I was working off of assumptions that directly opposed the idea that I had to deal with a job that made me miserable. With freelancing, and even with the odd jobs I’d had both with family members’ businesses and assorted college departments, I’d had a pretty good time. I usually wound up doing work that I enjoyed, with people I enjoyed hanging out with. I’m not about to suggest that you should only do work that you’re passionate about, but I’d like to believe that we should all be able to find work that we either don’t dread every morning or that we get paid more than enough to make worthwhile.

But because I had that sense that I could be doing more, plus some real world business experience from my time in family businesses, and the belief that running a business just wouldn’t be that hard, I went whole hog into working for myself. I see my family background as a major advantage in that respect.

Image by Stock.xchang user Bubbels

1 Comment

  1. Maria E. Hill   •  

    This is an excellent article. People write about entrepreneurship but rarely from a perspective like yours. It certainly makes the idea more accessible and practical for others.

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