HR · 18 August 2015

The sibling-run businesses where “brutal honesty comes with the territory”

Paul and Gemma Young are the founders of online housing platform Settled
Paul and Gemma Young are the founders of online housing platform Settled

Numerous early-stage firms utilise family and friends for help when getting a business off the ground, but is it sustainable working alongside a sibling? Business Advice spoke to a number of firms with brothers and sisters at the helm to find out what the experience is actually like.

Gemma and Paul Young are currently raising £250,000 of investment on equity crowdfunding platform SyndicateRoom for their new venture Settled. It’s an online portal for buying and selling homes, offering a commission-free experience which aims to give the control to the seller.

So far, the platform has received backing from a Google executive as well as Facebook’s head of European Partner Marketing Adam Harrison, both of whom feel it can tap into the £3bn spent on agent fees each year in the UK.

Settled’s business model offers both homebuyers and sellers the option to get instant quotes for mortgages or solicitors, with the business earning money from referral fees.

Gemma said it provided a “cost-effective and simple way” for sellers to reach buyers and to avoid what can often be a problematic experience with a lack of communication, fears over transparency, a period of high emotion and hidden costs.

Settled is just one of many smaller companies operated by members of the same family. Many micro businesses rely on relatives for help with their firms – nearly two thirds need the support of family and friends to keep them running according to Lloyds Bank Insurance. It’s very much the norm to see family chipping in with day-to-day tasks, as well as working full-time for the business.

Sold sign

A sibling combination as co-founders could surely be a recipe for disaster though – is there rivalry and petty squabbles interfering with running the business?

Not for Gemma and Paul, who had a similar interest in property from an early age. Their father was a financial advisor in the industry and after finishing university, Gemma worked in an estate agency and Paul qualified as a mortgage advisor. It gave them both insight into the workings of the property market – as Gemma put it, “we saw the problems from the inside”.

Stints at Google and an advertising agency respectively saw them develop the digital nous they felt would stand them in good enough stead to launch an online platform. “We saw the stresses and strains of family, friends and colleagues when buying and selling homes and we felt passionately that we could improve things,” she explained.

The final trigger came when a close friend lost the house she was preparing to buy due to bad processes, so Paul and Gemma quit their jobs and took the plunge to launch Settled.

“Thankfully we both share the same vision – to redesign the industry so that the consumer is at its heart,” Gemma added. She mentioned those like Airbnb, Nutmeg and Transferwise as those which have similarly been successful by changing the focus to the end user experience.

It’s not a passive environment with brother and sister as co-founders though. “A pro and a con is that we aren’t afraid to disagree,” Gemma admitted, saying the two had grown up bickering. “We each fight our corner at the start of a process, but we discuss things, lobby for our ideas and then come to a decision that suits us both so we can move forward.”

Working alongside one sibling could be challenging enough, though manageable if disputes are aired regularly. Yet the idea of starting a business with six other brothers may seem near impossible.

SEVEN BRO7HERS brewery

Yet it’s exactly what the aptly named Seven Bro7hers brewery have done, with the Mancunian McAvoy brothers establishing their own brewery to sell craft beers via pubs and supermarkets. Launched in August 2014, the family got started using the government-funded Start Up Loans scheme which provides advice, loans and mentoring to new businesses. Annual turnover is on track to be £250,000.

Keith McAvoy saw the brewpub scene in Oslo, while working there, and wanted to bring the concept to Manchester, so shared the idea with his entrepreneurial brothers. They have a range of backgrounds – with an engineer, project manager, ex-teacher, computer expert and designer among them, as well as an ex-rugby player. This has meant that instead of what could’ve been a daunting task of matching each sibling to a role they felt happy with, McAvoy said “it didn’t take long for us all to find our place in the business”.

Like Gemma Young, he also feels that the lack of personal barriers can be both a positive and a negative. “We probably say things to each other that a regular colleague wouldn’t say”, which he admitted can be “a little awkward at first”, but it does mean issues are resolved much quicker.

There’s also a pre-established unity among the team – they have an ingrained loyalty and reliability that can be like gold dust for a new business to come by. McAvoy said the seven-strong team “makes us such a powerful unit”.

At web development company JB Cole, the setup is a similar family affair – though it doesn’t have quite so many siblings involved. Brothers Oliver and Josh Bolland created the business in 2010 and have since created websites for brands including The Body Shop, Portobello Road Market and Pepsi.

The core team is small, with their sister Amy pitching in with the books, and one of their wife’s manning PR. Oliver said the complementary skill sets, “Josh is more visual and creative, I’m more technical” meant it made sense to combine their attributes for a joint end and start a business together.

Read on to find out how one business utilised its family-feel to improve the office environment.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Rebecca is a reporter for Business Advice. Prior to this, she worked with a range of tech, advertising, media and digital clients at Propeller PR and did freelance work for The Telegraph.

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