“You work with your mom? You’re so lucky,” many people tell Corey Colwell-Lipson who runs the Green Halloween website and Green Year LLC with her mother, Lynn Colwell.
“You work with your mom? Don’t people spend their whole lives trying to get away from home?” a smaller number of people ask.
Mother-daughter partnerships like theirs are growing in tandem with the increase in the number of women-owned businesses. There are no concrete figures on how many mother-daughter partnerships there are in the region or the country, but the number of women-owned business has increased by more than 42 percent from 1997 to 2006 and stood at 7.8 million in 2007, the latest Census Bureau figure.
In talking with mothers and daughters in partnership in four local companies, three words came up over and over: Family. Trust. Love.
All four mother and daughter pairs talked about the benefits of having their children and grandchildren around as they work and being able to put their families’ priorities first without having to compromise with an employer. “I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing outside the family business,” says Jenn Donogh, who runs the web hosting company Ovaleye with her mother, Kathy Nelson. “We pass the baby (8-month-old Kelly) back and forth,” Kathy says. One of the boy’s grandmothers also spends a lot of time in the office. “He’s raised in an environment with extended family all around,” Kathy adds. “This is my dream come true.”
Most of the women repeatedly spoke of faith and trust in each other as cornerstones of their business relationships. “You have a powerful amount of trust; you’re bonded to each other,” says Sharon Nichols, who ran Nichols & Zwiebel graphic design company with her daughter, Jennifer Zwiebel, for more than six years. “I could talk about troublesome issues with her more than I could with anyone else.”
These are loving mothers and daughters who have always been friends, from high school and young adult years until now. They vacation together, they spend lots of time at each other’s houses, and they enjoy each other’s company. The mothers in the partnerships are effusive in celebrating their daughters’ talents and growth, and the daughters admire their mothers’ strengths. “It is so fulfilling emotionally to be in business with my mother,” Corey Colwell-Lipson says. “I love her so deeply and admire her; she’s my role model and hero and one of my best friends. Doing things we’re so passionate about together is a gift.”
A word that doesn’t come up is money. These women are all committed to their businesses for the long haul, but family and personal satisfaction clearly rank above monetary success. This may be true nationwide as women own 28.7 percent of all U.S. businesses, but account for only 3.9 percent of all business receipts, according to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Business.
“Family always comes first,” says Annie Davis, founder of Annie’s Nannies, Inc. Household Staffing. Her daughter, Suzanne Royer McCone, who is the company president in charge of day-to-day operations, immediately echoes that sentiment. “I think it’s the nature of mother-daughter businesses not to be uber-big. Neither of us is super ambitious to make this a large national company,” Suzanne adds. “If you let business come first, it could ruin the family,” Annie agrees.
“We probably gave up more financial opportunities,” Sharon Nichols says. “But family was more important.”
It’s fascinating to see how these different women work out the dynamics of creating and maintaining a business together, balancing and complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
ANNIE’S NANNIES, INC.
Annie’s Nannies is 27 years old this year, and Annie and Suzanne have been partners in the business for 26 years.
Always looking for new challenges, Annie started the region’s first nanny placement agency in an extra bedroom in her home in 1984. Suzanne had been living in New York and moved back home a year later, helping her mother part-time with administrative tasks while Annie interviewed prospective nannies. “We grew the business together,” Annie says.
“It was a lot more fun in the early days,” Annie adds. “We could watch a soap opera at lunch or go exercise.” When Suzanne was pregnant with her first child and was “deathly ill,” she could come to work and lie on the couch when she needed to. “We took care of her together,” Annie says of baby Gabriella. “When each was on the phone, the other would hold the baby.” When Gabriella was bigger, “we’d watch to see how the nannies reacted to her. As we talked in the living room, we’d see if they paid attention to her; if not, they weren’t a kid person.” Suzanne’s second daughter was born five years later, and the two hired an office assistant/nanny to help with the girls. “When your business partner is Grandma, they never had to be in day care,” Suzanne says.
As the business expanded to include temporary, part-time nannies and companions to seniors as well as full-time nannies, Suzanne took over running day-to-day operations. Annie owns two-thirds of the business; Suzanne owns one-third. Annie is now semiretired and works from her house, while Suzanne and the other three employees work at an office in Ballard.
Annie is CEO and clearly in charge. She describes herself as the “stronger personality” and Suzanne terms herself “a pleaser, more accommodating.” Suzanne says she’s fine with that: “As a daughter, you’re underneath your mother in the order of things.” She seems calmly confident in her own strengths.
“We pretty much see eye to eye,” Annie says. “Not always,” Suzanne says quickly. “But because we’re yin and yang, it works for us.”
“She’s comfortable being top dog,” Suzanne adds. “I’m too opinionated with some people; I don’t suffer fools gladly,” Annie counters. “I have a softer way of saying things,” Suzanne says.
Both decided Suzanne would be better interviewing prospective nannies and dealing with clients. Annie makes many of the decisions about where the company should go and keeps the books.
Annie says working with her daughter has been an advantage when solving disagreements in business. “I’m more accommodating with her than I’d be with someone else. I don’t want to break up the relationship if there’s conflict.” The option of one person hitting the road or another letting someone go doesn’t apply with family, she says.
“They (family members) may stand in your way because you love and care for them,” Annie adds. “You don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. I like to control things, but I can also be forgiving.”
“You don’t want to disappoint your parent,” Suzanne adds. In business discussions, “I don’t go certain places,” she says several times. Power struggles sometimes come up, “but I can roll with it.”
A disadvantage is that “we have less buddy-buddy time together when we work together,” Suzanne says. “The challenge is being together so much, being in contact every day,” Annie adds.
OVALEYE CLOUD SERVICES
Kathy Nelson and her husband Tracy founded Ovaleye in 2006 after years of building and hosting their own websites. The focus is on providing Internet-based (cloud) services to small and home office businesses. The next year the couple added do-it-yourself website building. That year Jenn graduated from the University of Washington and came on board as director of operations, bringing social media and marketing savvy.
Mother and daughter each have a home office, as well as a small shared office on the Nelsons’ property where they work together three days a week. This year, they’ve added VoIP (voice-over Internet protocol) to their offerings and are poised to expand beyond their 200 mostly local client base. They now have another husband-and-wife team as partners and work with several subcontractors.
“Mom is the people-pleaser, the cheerleader, the one who wants everyone to be happy,” Jenn explains as Kathy nods vigorously. “My dad and I are more detail-oriented.”
“They’re organized –more realistic,” Kathy says of her husband and daughter. “They rein me in sometimes.” On the other hand, “sometimes they have a problem with stubbornness.”
Mother and daughter have clearly defined roles, mainly because the organized Jenn insisted on a business manual from the beginning. Kathy is the “CEO and chief decision maker” and does most of the work with clients. Jenn is account manager and director of operations, making sure the services are provided smoothly and heading up social media outreach.
There are virtually no power struggles, they say. “This is because we kids (Jenn and her brother, who does not work in the business) were brought up to believe we can do anything we want; our parents don’t box us in,” Jenn says. “Plus, I know how to deal with the younger generation. Mom has to listen to me.”
When they have disagreements, Jenn says they “deal with the issue as business people.” Later she admits that they have to watch the tendency to make business decisions based on emotions. “Tracy is a good balance for us,” Kathy adds. They agree that if they do argue about little things, they prefer to be arguing with family than with unrelated coworkers.
They’re stumped when asked about challenges of working with each other. “I wonder if sometimes that as a mom, I cross boundaries. Do I e-mail her too much?” Kathy asks.
“I don’t see any challenges. The work fits in nicely with our relationships. We’re both in this business for the long run,” Jenn says.
NICHOLS & ZWIEBEL GRAPHIC ART DESIGN
This is truly a family business. Sharon Nichols’ father started the design company, and Sharon and her husband gradually took it over as he cut back. Her children were raised in the business, says Sharon. “I remember the conference room with parents, grandparents and the kids all in there.” When Sharon’s husband left the design firm, her daughter Jennifer Zwiebel quit her job as an environmental consultant to join her mother in the Belltown office.
Although Jennifer no longer works in the company, they always got along despite having very different personalities, Sharon says. “I’m very creative; she’s organized and detail-oriented.”
There were mild challenges. “It’s a mother-daughter relationship, and we’re always instructing our children through example.” The business dynamic changes the usual family dynamic: “We had to solve problems quickly (in the business); we couldn’t let things fester as a client walks in the door. We might tend to relax and give into feelings if we weren’t in business together.”
Power struggles were rare. “We talked things through. We had a counselor individually and together. You sometimes have to keep your mouth shut as a parent.”
It’s easier to work out schedules and ask for time off when you’re in business with family. “We did vacations together. You have to do a lot of work to prepare to leave, but when you’re family, you can do that.”
“We were able to go to lunch and have fun. Work is not work; it’s part of our lives. A lot of people dedicate their lives to just making money, but that wasn’t us. I really, really missed her when she left.”
GREEN HALLOWEEN AND GREEN YEAR LLC
Corey Colwell-Lipson had the idea for a movement to promote green and healthy alternatives to Halloween when she went trick-or-treating with her two daughters in 2006. “The minute she had the idea she called me,” says her mother, Lynn Colwell. “I told her, “You are the most brilliant person to walk the face of the earth.”
Corey founded Green Halloween, a nonprofit initiative and website the next year, and Lynn signed on as director of PR and marketing. The following year it expanded nationwide and in 2010 became a part of the EcoMom Alliance with members worldwide. The two also founded the for-profit company Green Year LLC, writing a book, Celebrate Green: Creating Eco-Savvy Holidays, Celebrations & Traditions for the Whole Family, in six weeks and setting up speaking engagements and TV appearances. They each work in their own home office, about 15 minutes away from each other, and stay in touch constantly. Corey’s girls work at events, and her father helps keep the books.
“We each have our skills and our talents,” Lynn says. With an eclectic background ranging from coaching Lamaze and writing freelance articles to being a life coach, Lynn likes to jump into anything that’s new and fun. “Early on, her role in marketing was very clear,” Corey says of her mother. “I had no idea how to build the buzz. I bounce e-mails off her to see if I’m approaching different types of people correctly.” A lot of the creative craft ideas on the websites come from Lynn.
“Having fun is much less important to me,” Corey says. “My fun is derived from doing fulfilling work, and I need to contribute to my family financially.” Lynn describes her daughter as “the most detail-oriented” of the pair. “The greatest thing is to watch Corey bloom and grow; she’d never done anything entrepreneurial, but she makes connections and she’s brilliant at it. She’s great with TV and media, and it’s nerve-racking for me. Corey loves research; she loves to delve in; she’s more serious and focused than I, and she’s better working with people.”
For them, resolving differences is easier because they’re dealing with a family member. “There are things you can’t do and can’t say with employers and employees, but you can be up front with personal needs when it’s family. You cut through so much stuff – we don’t have to go through meetings and other people to get things done. We have complete trust in each other.” Compromise is easier, she adds. “We respect each other; if one feels more strongly about something, the other will give in or let it go.”
Handling conflict with a close family member is both “a benefit and a risk,” Corey adds. “We must resolve differences to honor the relationship first. At moments of conflict, you can’t hide with a facade; you can’t put on a ‘game face,’ so we have real honest conversations. She’s taught me a lot. I’m a perfectionist, and she is not. She thinks creatively on the fly, and can turn a mistake into a work of art.” She admits that she and her mother could slip into patterns from adolescence, “but I’ve learned to take a deep breath if we disagree.”
The two – like all of the other women – used the exact words “family first” in describing their business partnership.
“The number one people say to me is, ‘You work with your daughter? You are so lucky,’” Lynn says.
Wenda Reed is a Seattle-area writer who couldn’t have imagined working with her mother, but would love to work with her daughter.