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Not every CEO has seen her business partner in her diaper, but that’s one of the unique hurdles for moms and daughters who become business partners. While trust and respect is important for any professional team, these duos must also navigate personal histories and hierarchies decades in the making. BusinessNewsDaily found five mother-and-daughter teams who have learned firsthand what works and what doesn’t in an experience that’s often life-changing for both generations.
Georgia is better known for its Southern hospitality than its kung pow chicken, but one Smyrna mother and daughter team have combined both. Daughter Natalie Keng fuses her studies in Asian history and multicultural marketing with her family’s personal story and her mom Margaret’s background in Chinese restaurants and education. These diverse skill sets and a dash of humor create Chinese Southern Belle LLC, an "edutainment" business providing cooking classes, Asian market field trips, corporate events and diversity workshops.
Keng started the business two years ago after returning to Georgia to spend more time with her family. Since Margaret emerged from retirement to help with the business, Natalie shields her from financial duties and administrative work. The two both run cooking classes and demonstrations, but mom is able to opt out of topics when she chooses.
Natalie and Margaret keep their respectful family dynamic alive in their business. Natalie considers her mom a Tigger (from Winnie-the-Pooh), not a Tiger, the controversial and demanding Chinese mother discussed in the controversial book by Amy Chua. Natalie says her mother is able to balance discipline and high expectations with a sense of fun. In classes titled “Buddha-to-bubba” and “Wok ‘n’ roll,” their gentle teasing and funny stories entertain students and clients.
There weren’t many Asian families when Keng grew up in Smyrna 30 years ago. At the time, Keng’s family ran some of the only Chinese restaurants in the area. Things are different today as international flavors and Chinese restaurants have increased in popularity. To distinguish their business, Keng offers more than the average caterer or restaurant, leveraging Margaret’s stories growing up in Tawain and Natalie’s in-depth knowledge of Asian history and culture. The result is a mix that’s fun and informative, and something only they can provide.
At bedtime, when other moms were reading fairy tales to their daughters, Robyn Karp and daughter Sara pored over Architectural Digest. Together they’d point out which rooms they liked, which drapes they’d turn pink and what chair they’d replace.
Today, Sara is Robyn’s partner in the interior design business mom started 15 years ago. The firm combines Sara’s sense for fabric and sourcing with Robyn’s feel for spatial planning and architectural detail. Both design interiors while Robyn handles the firm’s five administrative staffers and Sara develops a specialty in children’s rooms. The two are close and even live in the same Manhattan apartment building. (Sara often starts the day with coffee at mom’s house).
Though Robyn has worked with several talented designers, she feels that Sara truly understands her unique aesthetic – an essential for a creative business. Robyn says she feels the two can be brutally honest with each other and even if they sometimes disagree, they still see most things in similar ways. Says Robyn, “I’m not worried she won’t see blue the way I see blue.”
“If you [both] do the exact same thing, then you’re competing. I let Sarah do what she does best.” In Sara’s case, her great strength is designing rooms for children and teenagers. She connects with kids immediately and will release a self-published book called “Kid Chic” this August. She’s also launching a line of room accessories for children and teens that complements the line of fabrics mom has designed.
Family-style honesty is a both perk and a land mine. Though family members interact in a work environment, the family dynamic never completely disappears. Robyn admits she sometimes checks up on her daughter more than she might another colleague. She recommends that moms and daughters never leave work angry and to remember that “this is the person who will always have your back.”
Great cookies aren’t enough to support a bakery. At The Flour Pot, a cookie shop in Ambler, Pa., the recipe for success also includes mom Margie Greenberg’s creativity and 20 years' experience running a party planning business, and daughter Abbey Alpert’s sense for sales and marketing. They also have dad and brother with their own business down the road to provide guidance and advice.
The Flour Pot launched in 2003 and the business sells thousands of distinctive sweets each month. Cookies shaped as shoes, Christmas lights and Valentines have been featured in Oprah Magazine, House Beautiful, Glamour and on The Food Network. The two have also published two books including "The Flour Pot Cookie Book" (Running Press, 2006) and "The Flour Pot Christmas Cookie Book," (Running Press, 2009).
Margie and Abbey have a support system that’s 30 years in the making. Says Abbey, "When something great happens we can share it with each other. When something bad happens we can lean on each other. We built something together and even if it all went bust tomorrow—it’s been an amazing 8-year adventure."
At The Flour Pot, Abbey and Margie are 50/50 partners, meaning that each expect equal say in how the business is run. These expectations are made clear for their six staffers as well. At work, Margie and Abbey call each other by their first name, establishing the duo as professional colleagues and equals. Abbey suggests pairs make labor divisions clear and find time to unwind separately.
When they first started the business, Margie was the engine, having contacts with caterers and event planners from a previous party planning business. The Flour Pot is Abbey’s first job after college and after approximately four years of working with vendors and customers, Margie’s confidence grew and she finally felt she stood on her own in the firm. Working with mom, she also realized how different she is from her. Abbey says she’s more likely to see the world as black and white to her mother’s gray and the two provide each other balance when it comes to spending and other decisions.
“Growing up I thought I was a little Margie. But working together and developing my own professional self proves just how different I am,” she said.
Surviving the downturn meant both capitalizing on opportunities only they would see. The recession brought cutbacks from The Flour Pot’s corporate clients. To make up for the loss, the shop created a line of unique bridal favors, an idea inspired by Abbey’s own wedding planning. The line of “Will you be my bridesmaid” cookies and wedding favors takes advantage of the bridal market’s resiliency during the recession and now accounts for 30 percent of the firm’s revenue. Mom Margie also found a new revenue stream in the form of wholesale cookies. Margie was inspired by the idea after visiting boutiques and department stores and imagining The Flour Pot’s cookies sold there, Abbey said. Wholesale is currently 15 percent of the business and Abbey would love to grow it more.
A chance visit to a London flea market was the inspiration for Treacle, the vintage jewelry business started by mom Nan Rubenstein and daughter Isabella. At the Portobello Market, Isabella was enchanted by unusual vintage charms that moved and opened and were different than anything she’d ever seen before while Nan pored over Victorian ephemera. They became hooked and regulars at area markets until they realized they couldn’t simply continue buying jewelry as much as they enjoyed it. Nan had founded her own software company, and both had experience with the heating and cooling business run by Isabella’s father’s family. They decided they could upcycle antique and vintage items that might otherwise be sold for scrap, altering them to fit a modern, edgy audience. In September 2010, the pair founded Treacle, an online jewelry company selling one-of-a-kind handmade goods ranging in price from $199 for a simple bracelet to $1,000 for a vintage gold Victorian necklace. The two share purchasing responsibilities, while Nan handles the finances and stylish Isabella serves as creative director, researching trends and designing pieces.
Nan knows that her business isn’t just about jewelry, it’s about offering unique sentimental items that speak to people, make them happy, and connect them to history. Nan has a graduate history degree and says vintage items, such like those from the Victorian age, speak volumes about traits [the era] prized: love, courage, fidelity and memory.
“Given the volatile markets for precious metals, we feel compelled to save these artifacts from being melted down, and we hope to educate a new generation about their value,” she said.
Keeping priorities straight are hard on days when things don’t go right, and vendors miss shipments. During those days, she’s comforted by a daughter who sings silly songs, brews her tea and coaxes mom to “chill.” Isabella reminds her mother that ‘a bad day is when someone is critically sick or terminally ill, not when the cat has irreparably tangled up a strand of pearls.
Thick skins are useful in any business, especially ones run by moms and daughters. Partners need to be able to accept criticism without being defensive, Nan said.
“One important thing that I’ve learned is humility,” Nan said. She is thankful to work with a daughter who couches criticism with affection, saying things such as: “You know I love you dearly, but that’s hideous.” Nan doesn’t believe another partner would be quite so deferential.
When Jill Kerner Schon first heard about “paint and sip” bars, where women can paint and enjoy a class of wine, she was intrigued. The friend who introduced her to the concept lived in Atlanta and Jill was used to business concepts hitting Boston first, Atlanta second. After visiting Atlanta to research the concept, Jill became inspired to start her own. As a freelance graphic designer, she was ready for a bigger challenge and she realized her daughter, a talented artist and photographer, could be a natural instructor.
The prospect of the business being the first of its kind in Boston was exciting. Jill felt she needed to act fast and in November 2010, after knowing about the concept only since June, she and her daughter founded The Paint Bar. At their Newtonville, Mass., shop clients come for two hours of painting instruction in a social atmosphere. Jackie shares her knowledge of their core demographic, 20-30 year-olds, while developing the lessons and running the classes. Jill handles the marketing, the finances and tends bar.
Timing is important for any small business, and moms and daughters are no different. Both need to be at a place in their lives when they can see their parent or child as a colleague. Jill’s youngest child is going to college in the fall and so she has more time to dedicate to a business. Jill mentions that a parent’s relationship changes as the child grows older.
“If you can’t respect the child as an adult, I’m not sure if it would work,” she said.
In her research Jill found a similar “paint and sip” bar in Denver whose owner led a consulting business for those who wanted to pursue the concept in their towns. The consultant helped them jump ahead of trial and error mistakes. Jill also recruited her family accountant , a family friend she trusted, to advise her financially, including on the use of the firm’s first-ever Groupon offer. Jill learned the importance of legal advice after several failed attempts at a liquor license. She used an attorney she’d learned about through networking who had experience working with restaurants and finally received her license.
Recently, Jill and Jackie discussed an issue and in a rare moment, Jill jokingly told her daughter, “I overrule you.” She immediately regretted it. Jill didn’t want to run The Paint Bar as the CEO but as its co-founder and that meant an open dialogue where both partners respected each other’s contributions. “I had to step back from that,” Jill said.
Moms and daughters sometimes have different opinions of what the other should be doing in her personal life. To avoid strain, Jill and Jackie live separately and refrain from discussing their personal lives while working. The compromise is worth it for Jill. “I put all my work experience and my time into this,” she said. “I don’t want petty things to get in the way.”