The challenge of being both a parent and business advisor to a young entrepreneur is formidable. Keeping the parent-child relationship and the business advisor-entrepreneur relationships separated was, at least for us, a major challenge.
We always viewed our jobs as parents as that of teachers, spiritual guides, counselors, confidantes and disciplinarians. Our parenting style is a very hands-on, values and rules oriented, sometimes in-your-face approach. While we welcomed hearing the opinions of our kids most of the time, ultimately, we tried to guide them in learning how to make good decisions on their own and made those decisions for them when necessary, usually much to their displeasure. However, being a business advisor was a completely different kind of relationship with Joshua, our young entrepreneur. I saw my role as helping to educate, advise and connect. I didn’t do things for him and I didn’t make business decisions. In my view, that was part of his learning process. He needed to own what he was doing. It was on him to educate himself about product development and business, and somehow balance all that with school. It was a test of his passion and his drive to succeed. It was the only way I knew to prepare him for the challenges of an entrepreneurial life. He had to succeed or fail on his own merits.
Here are some of the things we did to make it all work:
1. We kept our business and family conversations separate – We learned the hard way that we needed to do this. Joshua and I found ourselves mixing many of our normal family conversations with business discussions. The stress this put on our relationship resulted in some rather heated interactions. Gwen, my wife and Joshua’s mom, was inadvertently thrust into the roles of referee and peace maker. We all knew we had to do something different and Joshua and I began to plan our business conversations just like any other business meeting. We did our best not to discuss business at other times especially family meals or when we were around extended family and friends.
2. My business advisor role was confined to educating, questioning, advising and connecting – I don’t believe I ever told Joshua what business decisions to make. I did the best I could to help him figure it out by understanding his options and the potential outcomes. Most of the time he sorted it out and made a sound decision. He learned to make decisions without all the information he really needed. He also learned to own the outcomes of his bad decisions.
2.5 You have to watch them fail – This fits closely with #2 and it was a tough one. To allow your child, excuse me – my business advisee, to make a bad decision that you know will have a negative impact on him is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. The parent side of me wanted to nurture him and step in to take over before it all went south. Unfortunately, failure is part of learning and is sometimes the only way to get the really important lessons in life. As a teenager, Joshua was also trying to carve out his own place in the world and be independent. He thought he knew more than he did sometimes. Teenage naiveté and an entrepreneurial ego are not always a good combination. My philosophy was that it is okay for young entrepreneurs to hit the ground once in a while. My job as an advisor was to make sure he hit the ground hard enough to get his attention, and hopefully learn how not to make the same mistake twice, but not so hard that he didn’t want to get up and try again. Hard to watch and hard to manage but I’m convinced that this is the only way certain young entrepreneurs will learn some of life’s most important lessons. Always having a soft landing doesn’t teach us much.
THE TAKEAWAY – It is impossible to completely separate the roles of parent and business advisor with a young entrepreneur. However, with a bit a structure, strategy and everyone understanding their role, it can be managed successfully. There were times when I felt I was too tough on Joshua. I told him once that “if he survived me he would be prepared for just about anything life might throw at him”. I guess you’ll have to ask him how it all turned out.