Family-run businesses are in a unique position: they must navigate common business challenges alongside challenges from close, personal relationships. It takes a strong bond to successfully grow a business with a spouse or family member, and the lessons learned along the way can benefit any business owner.
Excelsior Growth Fund (EGF) is proud to have worked with several family-run businesses that have grown by playing off one another’s strengths. Two couples in particular have found success in life and business, and shared with us what makes their partnerships work.
Cristina Casañas-Judd and General Judd are the creative duo behind Me and General Design, a growing architecture and design firm based in Brooklyn. Nicole Cornell and Will Kavesh are the team that leads Token Studio in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district—a furniture-and-home design venture that’s produced additional business lines, including Token Lights.
Read on to learn more about their family-run businesses and their advice for others going into business with a loved one.
Share professional and personal vision
While Cristina and General had thriving careers on their own—she was a set decorator for film and television and his background included experience in the art departments on several films—they found that the real professional and personal magic happened when they combined their shared passion for design. By working together on interior-design collaborations, they set the stage for their business partnership.
“We were full-speed ahead from the beginning,” says General. “It was the perfect move for us and we haven’t looked back.”
Like Cristina and General, Nicole and Will discovered that their personal and professional interests and values overlapped and that each had skills and talents that complemented the other’s.
For them, the practical considerations involved with living, working and raising a family together were significant—the kind that require honesty, trust and mutual respect to overcome.
“Running a business can be emotional,” says Nicole. “It’s normal to have some reservations about going into business with someone you have an emotional relationship with already.”
Advice: Align on your vision for the business and your personal life before starting a new venture with a family member.
Leverage each other’s strengths
In business partnerships, each person brings different strengths to the venture and when you’re fortunate, your partner’s strengths complement your own.
With Token Studio, for example, Nicole explains that, “Will is the creative force behind the business and I manage the day-to-day operations and customer service.”
Similarly, Cristina and General have found that their complementary strengths are critical to their success. “With her eye for detail, Cristina’s strengths encompass the entire design spectrum—and she runs a tight-knit Me and G team each day,” General says.
Cristina continues, “General’s ability to create ‘the now!’ is definitely a strength. We run different aspects of the business. General may be out running with construction teams and deliveries while I’m keeping the designs and projects running smoothly. And sometimes that changes completely and we’re okay with that. We’re here to support the whole effort.”
While it’s important to trust one another to lean into each area of expertise, it’s also essential to make key decisions together. “We work together when making the larger, overarching decisions that affect the future of the business,” says Nicole. “We always run our ideas by each other and use each other as sounding boards, so that we can tackle things most effectively.”
Advice: Examine each other’s key strengths and determine where they can plug into the business, but be sure to work together when making decisions that will impact the entire business.
Work together to create new opportunities and identify road blocks
Both businesses saw new opportunities on the horizon, but needed capital to set those goals in motion.
“For the first decade, we reinvested Token’s profits back into the business,” Nicole says. “But we didn’t invest any additional personal money, or take on investors or loans. Eventually, we realized that if we didn’t seek an influx of additional working capital, we would continue to plateau. EGF came through for us at the right time when we needed capital the most.”
Cristina and General had a similar realization. General says, “We were in total agreement about taking on debt for the business, because we wanted to expand and we also needed to refinance some existing higher cost debt. We got an affordable EGF SmartLoan in 2016 and since then, our business has been on a steady climb and we haven’t needed additional funding.”
With funding in place, both businesses invested in marketing and sales and focused on developing new revenue streams.
“We created a line of wallpapers and a custom sound system
, called Swick Board, that we designed out of a need. Instead of shopping for it, we turned to each other and our team and created it. We don’t always agree on a design in the beginning, but we know how to get to it where we both love it by working together and using each other’s strengths,” explains General.
Will and Nicole also found that having enough funding in place to take risks and grow has been essential to their success.
“Token has been around for about a decade,” says Nicole. “But there were challenges, including setbacks resulting from Hurricane Sandy, so we often felt like we were trying to make up for lost time and opportunities. Now, though, we’re constantly looking for ways to grow the business. For example, we’ve recently taken on outside sales reps in different US regions to expand our sales channels.”
Receiving funds is just the beginning. Financial management is often the difference between success and struggle for small businesses.
As Nicole says, “We want to ensure that we’re using our funds in the smartest ways possible and developing strong plans and projections. When we were approved for our first EGF loan, we received a small grant to work with a financial strategist, too. It’s been really helpful.”
Advice: Plan for the future of your business together, and identify road blocks early on to increase your odds of success.
Insight to share
Ask anyone in a work/life partnership situation and there’s a consistent challenge that Nicole sums up, saying “Our greatest struggle is trying to not talk about work all the time and to separate work and personal lives, and we often end up just defaulting to talking about the business. We have a young son, too, though, so we’re very conscious of making sure our time with him is very focused on family. That helps in creating boundaries!”
Cristina and General agree. He says, “Working together and being together at home creates a different type of bond. Our conversations now are based on the projects we’re working on, but our family loves to hear what we do and to be involved. We actually created a wallpaper from our daughter’s drawing and it’s now in the playroom of a residential building in Manhattan!”
EGF can be a key partner
EGF helped Token Studio and Me and General Design and we’re available to help your small business grow, too. To speak with our Business Advisors about ways we can help, contact EGF today.