The concept of the family business still permeates the entrepreneurial landscape. While as we approach the end of 2022, the image we have of a startup might revolve around a tech-savvy person coding an app alone in a basement, it’s worth remembering that family businesses remain the most common type of economic ‘entity’ in the world today. For example, some studies have estimated that around 80% of all businesses in Canada are broadly tagged under “family-owned”.
Of course, the definition is a broad one: A family-run business could be defined as a mom-and-pop grocery store, or it could be based on the fact that The Walton family owns 50.8% of the shares of one of the world’s largest corporations, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Such is the disparity between those two definitions, a family-run business can be difficult to describe.
Nonetheless, for our purposes here, we are talking about family-owned startups based on partnerships between family members to get a business off the ground. And, whether you are selling groceries, running a restaurant, or launching the next big thing from your garage, technology can help get it off the ground. However, tech is often framed as antithetical to the traditional idea of a family-run business, although – thankfully – that is now being challenged.
Below we list some ways how your family business can adapt:
Recognize that being family-run is a secret weapon
For decades, businesses have proudly worn the tag of “family-run”, often putting it front and center of their marketing. This is deliberate, as the idea of a family-fronted business instills a sense of trust, attention to detail, and so on. Marrying that idea with tech is not always so easy. But the key is to put family-run values to the forefront. It does not have to be literal, but trumpeting those values – taking care of employees, putting a face to the business, good customer service, etc. – can help your business stand out against competitors in the online world. Indeed, some modern business brands, like Uber and Airbnb. While both are eminently successful, but they are also (with all due respect) faceless. In fact, they are more networks than companies, with no central customer-facing authority. This is one of the big criticisms customers have of these brands, and it makes them amenable to the personal touch of a family-run business.
Embrace technology rather than fight it
Back in the 2000s, the great threat to physical goods stores came from the rising tide of eCommerce. The Amazonification of business swallowed everything from bookstores to clothes shops to tool depots. Those that survived, however, eventually flourished, as they were able to see that eCommerce was not a passing fad. A good example is the furniture and home décor chain, Bouclair. Founded in 1970, the privately owned business has dozens of stores across Canada. The nimbleness of eCommerce posed a threat, but it, unlike many other similar businesses, flourished because it was prescient enough to understand that online shopping and in-store shopping could co-exist. As such, it launched a successful online platform to complement its physical locations. You can click here to visit the eCommerce site to see how it looks today.
Anticipate the next wave of technology
If our example of Bouclair showed how businesses can weather the storm of eCommerce, what are the ‘threats’ today? Well, just because you have a website or social media profile doesn’t mean technology won’t disrupt your business. Consider the advances in AR/VR, for example. One of the advantages a clothes store has over an online site is that people can physically try on the garments. Last year, Snapchat (the social media platform) rolled out AR capabilities, partnering with brands like Amazon to let users virtually try on clothes. This kind of tech is in its infancy, but it is exactly the kind of thing that clothes retailers should be – at the very least – exploring.
Harness a global talent pool
One of the strengths of a family business – relying on people who care – is also a weakness. It might seem logical to let your tech-savvy brother-in-law build your app, but there are perhaps people who are better suited to it ready and waiting in the online marketplace. Indeed, we mentioned the prevalence of family-owned businesses at the beginning of this article, but that is now being offset by a more modern phenomenon – the legions of freelancers working in the so-called gig economy. Sites like Upwork, Freelancer.com, Fiverr, and so on have a global talent pool of millions who will compete for your small jobs, ranging from designing a logo for your hair salon to helping with SEO (search engine optimization) so that your restaurant shows up on the first page of Google results.