When Shakespeare's King Lear decided he was getting a bit too feeble to administer the day-to-day challenges of his kingdom, the sovereign elected to divvy up his holdings among his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan and Goneril.
Looking for his progeny to show him the love, Lear would bequeath his largest holdings predicated on which of his girls made the most sycophantic pitch of devotion and adoration. When his beloved and favorite daughter, Cordelia, refused to be obsequious, the king promptly disowned her. Much treachery, stabbing, poisoning, eye gouging and hanging ensued, and the full quartet ended up dead because of yet another family fracas.
Movies, too, are rife with examples of why families and commerce are a lethal concoction. Let's see: Michael had his bro whacked in Godfather II (step away from the dock Fredo!); in The Grifters, the mom slashed her son's throat with a water glass for his cash stash; and poor Norman Bates was driven to wield a blade because he had to run a motel with mum.
The Bard and Cosa Nostra notwithstanding, I've seen family businesses succeed and thrive. My first experience with a family-run enterprise was at 17, when I started my first full-time job in retail (natch). I managed two stores for a husband-and-wife team who'd been in business one million years and married twice that long. They often pressed their children into service, even though the “kids” were well past the years when one must acquiesce to parental requests.
The family did reams of quiet fighting, that deadly form of discord that involves calmly uttering what is really better suited to full-throated and expletive-enhanced shouting. But they made it work, and my boss, the Mrs., taught me more about running a business than anyone I've worked for since.
She was a velvet hammer, a woman who could leverage her will simply by adjusting the cadence of her voice. The Mr., an affable and gentle man, seemed to show up mostly to collect the day's receipts, fix stuff and carry heavy items.
Yet, while I've seen that the arrangement can be both profitable and viable, with my own Sedaris-meets-Simpsons clan I'm more likely to sweep the swimsuit and congeniality competitions at the next Mrs. Maine pageant than go into business with any member of my family.
Herewith, my rationale:
- 99% of people admit that their family is screwed up, and the other 1% are lying. Many instances of life's humor grow from the fertile material that utterly nonsensical and maddening family dynamics provide. There's just no feud like one you can whip up involving people you've loved and loathed your whole life.
Entire families break up over such things as the she-did-not-send-a-card-when-I-had-a-dentist-appointment incident. I cannot imagine my financial and emotional wellbeing hinging on such delicate and ephemeral matters.
- I'm far too bossy. This, according to husband David, who has been getting bossed since 1987 (snippet of David to Kimberly repartee: “Item: I don't work for you”). This issue-orders gene was apparent early on—as a tomboy growing up in San Diego, my mom always knew with GPS-precision exactly where I was, because she could hear me ordering neighborhood kids around outside (you with the Barbie—yeah you—quit blubbering and get over here, we're fixin' to play dodge ball). And while the need to run the show serves me well as a solo business owner, it'd likely be less than endearing for family members.
- I've a limited free-labor pool. Much of the successful family-business model appears to hinge on the free-to-cheap toiling of kids, cousins, siblings, et al.—basically any human who can be pressed into service just shy of their first shave. Since David and I don't have kids, and I'm an only child, and our dogs appear unmotivated to contribute to household earnings, I'd have to dig deep into the family tree to find talent. And that tree, my friends, she ain't a horticulturist's dream.
- How the heck do you pink slip Uncle Mordecai? It's difficult enough to manage the economic vagaries of a business—I'd not do well if I had to factor in the vocational fates of my loved ones on top of my own. The trickle-down stress effect of firing a relative I would later be seeing for the Arbor Day barbeque would simply be too grueling.
As a vicarious learner, I'm content to draw from what the Bates, Corleone and Lear parables teach us about the belly of the familial-business beast. I'll take a pass on real-life drama.
(This piece is reprinted with permission from Mainebiz.)
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