In Business With Family? 4 Ways to Keep Work and Home Separate

I’m the youngest of 10 kids in a family full of entrepreneurs. In fact, eight of us now run our own companies. Perhaps it’s genetic.

Though some might chalk our business success up to dumb luck, I like to think it’s the result of conversations we had around the dinner table after long days of hard work on the farm. Our father taught us a sense of urgency and entrepreneurship through example and parable. He urged us to think hard before we handed our lives away to a large corporation.

Fast forward to 2012, and I didn’t see that same urgency among my six kids. They lived in suburbia, where they could finish their entire chore list in a half-hour. Any talk of creating their own security failed to resonate. Frankly, I was disappointed in the sense of entitlement my kids had toward money. Something needed to change.

Kids learn by doing, so I decided they should try going into business for themselves. The summers get pretty hot in St. Louis, and people like ice cream. It seemed like a readymade audience, so I provided an ice cream truck and an initial investment.

Ice cream

I told them to figure it out for themselves. They owned the problems as well as any potential solutions. They were also responsible for providing return on my investment.

A Tale of Two Kevins

In putting my kids in charge of a business, I added yet another role to the relationship I have with my family.

In my house, I am Dad. That guy is loving and caring. He offers encouragement and says things like, “Yeah, that sucks. I’m sorry you’re going through that.” He’s incredibly compassionate.

My latest role within the family — that of CEO — is not quite as understanding. That guy watches his dollars meticulously and expects a decent return. He spurts lines like, “Oh, it’s raining today? This is why I told you to save. I guess you’ll remember that next time.” He’s all about tough love.

Keeping those two personas separate can be a challenge. But I want to raise six kids I’ll feel comfortable having around my conference table 15 years down the road. That said, I still want them to feel cared for and loved.

So I strive to maintain a balance between pushing my kids and supporting them. I’m sure we’ve all heard about what can happen to the families of workaholics: depression, stress, and separation. That’s exactly what I want to avoid.

Four Ways to Keep Work and Home Separate

Work-life balance in entrepreneurial journey

I want my kids to be ambitious workers and self-starters, but not at the expense of our family or their own happiness. Here are a few ways I have created a healthy work-family balance.

1. Know Your Audience

If you’re an entrepreneur, this should come naturally to you. Whenever you’re talking with family members as CEO, it’s perfectly acceptable to troubleshoot issues without a concern for feelings. But when your daughter calls you to talk on the phone, she probably is more interested in interacting with Dad.
Make sure you know your audience and what will resonate with them. I have found it can be as simple as asking, “Do you want me to listen, or do you want some help?” Once you know who they’re looking for, you can respond accordingly.

2. Plan Accordingly

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., work comes first. But when you’re enjoying dinner with your family, put the CEO — and his ever-ringing phone — away for a few hours. Actively engage with your family members and be present.

If you absolutely need to take a phone call during dinner, plan ahead and let your family know. They will understand as long as you treat them with respect and make this sort of behavior an exception rather than the norm. If you fail to establish boundaries, your family will never feel safe to engage you for fear that work will get in the way.

3. Create Physical Boundaries

Piggybacking off the previous point, I have found it’s useful to restrict roles to certain physical locations. If I’m in the house, I’m Dad. If I’m in the shed — I like it call it my “Shedquarters” — then I’m CEO. That separation means there is no gray area.

If one of my kids swerves out of his lane, I shut him down. Paint some lines on your shared highway, and set some rules of the road. As long as everybody follows the rules, we avoid collisions between work and play.

4. Remember That Skills Trump Last Name

If your reason for working with family is to spend more time together, I suggest you plan a vacation instead. If you hire your brother as your company’s sales and marketing guy, he’s no longer your brother when you’re at work. You must make family members accountable to their duties. If they are not perfect fits for those roles, they don’t hire them.

Going back to the ice cream truck, the venture has taught my kids a lot of important lessons. They have learned firsthand about saving for rainy days and not hiring a Hufflepuff for a position that demands the talents of a Slytherin — yes, Harry Potter helped me teach my kids about best hiring practices.

They’ve returned my investment in spades, routinely pulling in tens of thousands of dollars in profit over the course of a summer. While it would be easy for me to micromanage and push them to pull in at least $50,000 in a year, I have to remind myself that they’re still kids.

Piggy bank
photo credit: OTA Photos

Beyond actual profits, probably the biggest benefit is that my kids have become more self-sufficient. They have learned to resolve dilemmas on their own, and they no longer ask me to bail them out when things fall apart.

My kids who are in college call me once a week, updating me on problems they have solved as well as recent accomplishments. They’re honestly more mature than a lot of adults I know. I’m one proud papa, and I can’t wait to someday sit around a conference table with them and tackle problems as a team.