Family Businesses Are Like Startups

Six months ago, I was running my family-owned business with my younger brother. Three months ago, I graduated from Startup Institute Boston's Technical Marketing track. And now, as part of the Startup Institute New York team, I'm helping a class of students do the same in the next few weeks. My transition to startups has been fast, to say the least. But what took me off-guard was how familiar it feels. 

Rebuilding my family’s business, I did every job function imaginable and scrapped together whatever free-to-affordable resources I could find to keep things moving forward. I clawed through gatekeepers, fought to establish credibility, took on the unglamourous duties, and learned to do whatever needed to be learned. I had been drawing the startup owl the whole time.

The similarities of startups to a family business are mind-blowing! On top of the immense culture of accountability and the necessary adaptability to take on uncharted territory, three key overlaps popped out at me.

Pitch in, even when it hurts. When you work with family, there will be the obvious grunt work. The guys at Kinkos knew not to bother me in my three-hour sprints on their photocopying machines. But the less obvious way you pitch in is that you have to play to “your” strength on the team. Funny thing is that this may not be your strength at all - it may even be something you consider a weakness. Bookkeeping? Use and occupancy taxes? Coinsurance? If you are the best person on the team to do it, you just do it.

Complement and compliment. The first thing my brother and I did was hash out what we like to do, tend to do, and can consistently do. Figuring how we worked and fit took a lot of brutal honesty with ourselves and each other. But once done, we were able to really get moving while putting checks and balances in place. By deciding who would take ownership of what, it was easy to celebrate progress. Since the workflow was interconnected, we always saw how integral each other was towards the wins. We did not take each other’s skill set for granted and made sure to recognize that we got this far, together.

Care about fun. The days can get long and the nights can get rough. Sometimes the workload felt insurmountable and one of us will drop off that proverbial cliff. Sometimes that meant dropping into YouTube land to laugh at baby-laughing videos, or throwing a Nerf ball around in the middle of the street. After our early Saturday morning meetings, I would take my brother to brunch to familiarize him with a new part of town. During all-nighters, we challenged each other to push-up and sit-up contests. It is important to care about each other as a person and not simply for an output.

Startups are amazing because of the relationships you can build. When we care about the team as much as we care about our deliverables, every day at work can feel like home. My years running my family’s business has taught me how that should feel and how that can be possible, and I am incredibly thankful for that experience.



Rebecca Chin is an alum of Startup Institute Boston. She works as the Associate Director at Startup Institute New York. Say hello to her on Twitter @rebeccakchin.