What happens when brothers and sisters go into business together? NZBusiness went in search of sibling-powered enterprises to prove that when it comes to chasing a common goal, blood ties can provide the winning ingredient.
By Glenn Baker. Photo: Chris and Lily Davis.
There is something pretty special about siblings going into a business partnership and succeeding. While many of us may think of nothing worse than setting up shop with somebody you’ve locked horns with for much of your childhood – there are those remarkable sibling relationships out there that positively thrive in a business environment.
David and Brent Kelly, co-founders of website design and digital marketing agency Zeald, are easily the most high profile pairing we selected for this story. Describing themselves as “great mates”, they’ve had a special bond since they were kids.
“Our family moved around a lot when we were kids so we’d often be leaving our mates behind rather than forming longer-term friendships. So we hung out with each other a lot instead,” recalls Brent.
“We’ve two younger siblings (Joanne and Kaleb) but the age gap between the two pairs of us meant it was always David and I doing things together. This involved countless hours playing sport, making music together or working in hay gangs and other jobs around the farming communities.”
At age 17 David Kelly left home for university and soon realised his final year of high school would’ve been better spent getting a head start there. He convinced Brent to abandon his final year and start uni, and the two flatted together while attending Massey.
In 2000 David started working on a business idea, the forerunner to Zeald, with friends while attending performing arts school. He convinced cousin Hamish Braddick to return from the UK to join him.
Brent, meanwhile, had been offered a place in Massey University’s brand new ecentre business incubator along with a few course mates, where they started contracting out their software and web development services.
After some initial dabbling in their own businesses the brothers, along with Hamish, merged the two companies and focused on further developing the Zeald business model. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over 15 years Zeald has assisted thousands of Kiwi SMEs with their online objectives.
“Mum always forced us to talk through our problems with each other and no matter how much we kicked and screamed, we’d be forced to communicate and come to a resolution.” – David Kelly.
Both David and Brent definitely believe going into business with a sibling was the right thing to do – because they’ve always worked well together.
“Our mother’s philosophy is that any problem can be solved by talking it through,” says David. “Like most brothers we had our fair share of scraps as kids. Mum always forced us to talk through our problems with each other and no matter how much we kicked and screamed, we’d be forced to communicate and come to a resolution. This has served us well in our working relationships.
“When you work closely with a brother for 15 years there are bound to be disagreements and times where you get under the other’s skin. Being able to work our way through those issues with good communication has been critical in making the relationship work.”
Brent agrees that strong communication and mutual respect is key, and says coming from the same family means they’ve inherent values, beliefs and trust.
He says he can trust his business partners implicitly. “I know they’ve always got my back. And with any problem we encounter, there’ll be all three of us there to work our way through it.
“I think this is really quite rare in a business with multiple partners.”
Brent recalls animated discussions with David out in the hallway as a fairly regular feature of the early days at Zeald. After merging businesses, working out who would lead and how to have appropriate leadership and accountabilities while still treating each other with courtesy and respect was challenging, he says. “A big part of it was working out our roles as owners, directors and employees – all three were different. The appropriate way to interact would depend on what hat we were wearing. Also, there were appropriate times to wear different hats, and inappropriate times.
“We agreed early on that David would be captain of the ship, the ‘tie breaker’ in a case of a disagreement. We then had to work out how to implement this so all parties felt respected and their opinions valued, while still allowing David to lead and hold me accountable.”
On the same subject, David says there has never been any major disagreement over large strategic decisions. “Either we have the same opinion, and there’s clear direction, or we are able to talk the options through and come to a mutual decision.”
David and Brent both started out as developers in the business, and have taken different paths to today’s roles – CEO and sales and marketing director respectively. Exiting the business is far from their minds, and they’re both involved in businesses and investments outside Zeald.
“Over the years we’ve specialised in our differing areas and complement each other’s skill-sets,” says Brent. “It’s a partnership that works well, so I don’t foresee any end date on us working together. We’ll continue to develop our business portfolio together and make sure it meets our collective life goals.”
So what’s the best thing about being in business with your bro?
“Working with one of my best mates and the fact that we’re all in it together,” says Brent. “If any of us win, we all win.”
For David, it’s sharing in the success of the company. “Sharing that sense of pride with my brother. It’s one thing winning the tennis singles, but winning the doubles means you get to share the glory.”
“The flipside is that when we stuff up or make a bad call, it's twice as gutting because you’ve not only failed your business partner, but your brother and respective families as well.”
Hugs and affirmations
Thirty-one year old Chris Davis and his 28-year-old sister Lily admit they weren’t that close growing up – but that all changed when they went into business with mum Madeline Davis in Auckland’s dynamic home staging industry three years ago. Now, working closely together in their North Shore-based business Smart Staging, it’s all daily hugs and positive affirmations for the siblings, and they agree that they absolutely love working together.
Prior to starting up Smart Staging in July 2013, Chris had been working in the storage and logistics industry – in a career that had originally been launched through his parent’s transport business – while Lily was nannying for a family.
The idea for Smart Staging was triggered by a business partner of their father, who suggested a property in South Auckland would be easier to sell if it was staged with furniture. They realised there was a gap in the market helping real estate agents and property traders shift difficult properties. Of course, in recent times clever home staging and ‘part-staging’ has almost become a default option for sellers to maximise the price they get for their property. It also lets potential buyers see how furniture can be accommodated in various rooms.
“We’ll never stew over anything.” – Lily Davis.
Business has since more than exceeded expectations, tripling in three years – and with Auckland’s rampant property market Chris and Lily, who’re property owners themselves, expect business to double again by 2017. They’re buying a custom removals truck to cope with the demand, and expect to be taking on additional part-time employees.
Networking at various APPP (Auckland Professional Property People) meetings also keeps them up to date on who’s doing what in the real estate staging market. And Chris and Lily now work with some of Auckland’s top property traders.
It is Chris’s job to physically load/unload the trucks and shift the furniture, as well as drive business development through networking, the website and Facebook.
Lily mainly takes care of the paperwork and customer management, while Madeline buys the furniture (couches must be female-friendly to lift), chooses the palette themes and designs. The business works like a well-oiled machine.
While the two siblings agree they have disagreements “all the time”, they have a policy of being honest and open with each other. If one doesn’t like what the other has done, they’ll talk about it on the spot to solve it, and get a third person involved if necessary.
“We’ll never stew over anything,” says Lily.
They have similar outgoing personalities, although Chris is the bigger ‘talker’ of the two. They also have nick-names for each other because they love giving each other stick (Lily’s is ‘half-a-job Lily’, because she goes home at 3pm to look after her three-year-old son, while Chris is ‘big-head Harry’).
But one thing they’re both grateful for is that the business has allowed them to see a lot more of each other.
Chris and Lily want Smart Staging to be a household name by 2020. With the way the property market has been travelling in Auckland, it means they’ll be managing a very significant business indeed.
Young and zesty
When Jamie and Will Lainson launched their Warkworth-based web development company in January 2015, they initially had a battle on their hands to establish credibility in what is regarded as an extremely competitive market. Potential clients took one look at the fresh-faced brothers (Jamie was 20, Will 19) and assumed they couldn’t perform as well as larger, more experienced players. While that’s understandable – those fears were entirely misplaced. After just six months of business networking (they each attend a different BNI group) and picking up referral work, Zesty Design was well on its way.
Eighteen months later Jamie and Will have many satisfied customers, and if anything, their young age and the fact that they are brothers now makes them stand out in a crowded marketplace. “People think it’s cool that we’re so young,” says Will. “And that we’re brothers who get on so well.”
“Age is an advantage,” agrees Jamie, “Because this industry changes so much. Because we studied as recently as 2014, we’re trained in the latest skills, languages and technologies. We can offer a very modern, current and up to date service.”
The brothers describe themselves as “best friends forever”. They’ve always been close – even when growing up in England. “There it’s a bit different; you can’t play outside so much with neighbours and friends, so until I was eight, Jamie and I used to stay together and play together, playing board games and computer games,” recalls Will. “That was really the foundation of our relationship today.”
“In business you must consider both sides of the argument and accept that sometimes you will be wrong and your sibling correct.” – Jamie Lainson.
When their parents brought them to New Zealand for a better lifestyle, the boys carried on hanging out together, even today they still play Xbox together.
At high school Will studied IT and computers; Jamie’s subject of choice was biomedical science. However, they both subsequently ended up in the same web development class. It was Will’s suggestion to set up their own business, and their parents were excited by the idea as well. The name Zesty came from a fruit and vege design table-cloth on the family’s dining-table, and represents the ‘fresh solutions’ the brothers provide for clients.
They dug into their savings, invested in some iMacs, and set up business in the garage.
So do Jamie and Will think going into business with a sibling is a good idea?
“To be honest, I’d rather go into business with a sibling than with a friend or someone else that I’d met,” says Jamie. “If you have a disagreement, you still have to like each other; you’re still family; essentially you have to make up. So you can pretty much say what you want, and the next day it’s forgotten.”
“Fortunately our parents are good mediators,” he says, adding that it helps that he and Will are similar in nature and pretty much at the same stage in their lives.
Knowing each other so well means they can also predict the other’s reactions pretty accurately, they say. “Just by making eye contact we know what the other one’s thinking,” says Will. “If we’re both at a meeting, the eye contact thing works really well!”
Their parents have been supportive advisors and mentors, they say, along with Radio Live Sunday Business host Andrew Patterson, whom Will first met on a ‘work experience’ visit at age 13.
Jamie’s advice for other sibling business partners is to always listen to what the other has to say.
“Growing up each sibling will think they are right and the other is wrong, that’s just the way it is. But in business you must consider both sides of the argument and accept that sometimes you will be wrong and your sibling correct.”
Will says there needs to be a mutual understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities within the business – and you must stick to it. “Work to each other’s strengths,” he says. “That’s very important in business.”
While both do website design and development, Jamie does more admin work, and Will focuses on sales and networking. They can both see the day when they’ll need to take on an additional team member to expand the business, and move out of the garage into their own office space in Auckland.
In addition to Zesty Design, Will, Jamie and two friends (who also happen to be brothers) run a video production company called Beyond the Lens Productions. “The two businesses work hand in hand,” says Will. “It’s almost like a one stop shop for clients.”
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.
Starting a business with your sibling? Here’re six important things to do:
- Determine sibling time and work time. Having work-free sibling time is crucial for keeping your personal relationship solid, and maintaining a healthy business relationship.
- Communication is crucial. Leave passive-aggressive behaviours at the door and just explain what you’re thinking or feeling.
- Use each other’s strengths and weaknesses to your advantage. Play up each other’s skills, encourage one another, and identify roles that are best suited for your personalities.
- Be your sibling’s emotional rock. Chances are when your sibling is feeling stressed and pessimistic, you’ll be feeling more optimistic and encouraging. Use this to your advantage.
- Make important decisions together. Don’t make decisions and expect that your sibling will agree with it after the fact.
- Be prepared for your relationship to change (for better or worse). Don’t be surprised or alarmed when your relationship changes – just work on steering it in a positive direction.
Source: Lauren Jessen, ‘6 Things To do When Starting A Business With Your Sibling’, (Huffington Post ‘What’s Working: Small Businesses’ blogsite).