Hi, I’m Josh Symonds

I blog about Ruby on Rails, coding, and servers

Interviewing Symonds & Son

Reading time 6 minutes

I’ve had a rash of posts recently about Symonds & Son, and I was intending to write a piece more pertinent to Rails or programming rather than the business side of things… but recently I was approached to do an interview about working with my family. In answering the interviewer’s questions, I thought the results were interesting enough to post on my blog – hopefully I’ll also be able to post the interview itself when it’s completed!

How did you start your business?

Rather accidentally, actually: I fell into it. I’ve been a software developer for about a decade now, since I graduated college, and I’ve always loved it – so much so that I couldn’t put it down when I got home. I was always programming, either on personal projects or side gigs outside my day job. Eventually those gigs got bigger and bigger, and my friends and clients referred me to other people… for awhile, about two years ago, it almost felt like I was working a night job that was almost exactly the same as my day job. Then the startup where I was working full time ran into money problems and had to cut my hours pretty dramatically. I always intended to find another full time position, but I just got so busy with my client work that I didn’t have the time: and that was the start of Symonds & Son.

What did your parents say when you said you wanted to start a consulting business?

“No, don’t!” They hated the idea. I’d mentioned it before – I don’t like having a boss, and I’d frequently wondered what it would be like to work for clients, rather than managers. But for my father, consulting has always been very boom-and-bust: there were times he was so busy he was hardly home, and then times he’d be sitting around being unhappy. My parents told me to find a stable, full-time job at a big company like Apple, or even a smaller company where I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the future. But I had an idea to make my own company and I wanted to do it, and when they saw they couldn’t convince me otherwise they gave me advice on how to make it work… and eventually I managed to convince them to join me!

Who did you bring into the business first, your mom or dad?

My dad.

Why did you decide to bring him in?

I’ve always relied on my dad to help me do contract proof-reading and negotiations. He’s had a lot of experience doing business development and his advice has always been helpful… though, to his annoyance, I haven’t always followed it. Recently my father’s business hasn’t been as busy as he liked, but meanwhile mine has been growing really quickly, and I’ve needed a lot more help than usual on the business end. Bringing him in was a natural fit.

When did your mom join, and what is her role?

Mom started helping me out during the wedding, so about six months ago – she was our wedding planner. She organized speaking with florists, tasting food, talking with photographers… and quickly I found her help (personally and professionally) indispensable. She’s my personal assistant and helps me keep focused on my business by taking care of invoicing and whatever else the company needs.

Do you like owning your own business?

So much! It’s really different than I thought it would be: I imagined myself programming day in and day out, but there’s a lot of overhead involved. Running a business with employees and partners is like two jobs. In the first one, I’m programming and making the product my clients want, and in the second, I’m organizing, marketing, selling and negotiating. But I don’t mind all the work… in fact, I love working with my family on a day-to-day basis. Even if Symonds & Son isn’t around in 10 years I’ll have great memories of the amazing things we accomplished together – but I hope we’re around even longer than that.

How is your working relationship with your parents?

On average, really good. Since college I’ve gotten along with my parents quite well, and I think since I’ve grown into an adult we’ve gotten along better. Our relationship during high school and even during the beginning of college was a little bit of a mess, but now that we’re all adults we can actually be friends, which I think works out really well.

Did you have any reservations bringing them into your business?

Yes, a thousand times yes. My father and I spent most of my high school not understanding each other and butting heads. We’d get into arguments constantly, and I think that’s part of the reason I don’t listen to his advice even when I should: I spent most of high school not listening to him and it seemed to work out pretty well. And mom was always pushing me, to get better grades, to do more extracurricular activities, to practice the flute more… I think that if I told myself in high school that I would literally pay her to keep doing that to me as an adult, I would’ve laughed until I died. But I needed help, and I knew they were competent, skilled people who could help me. So, as I said, it just seemed like a natural fit.

What’s the number one complaint your parents have wth you?

That I don’t listen to them! They definitely want me to communicate with them a lot more than I feel comfortable with. They’re always calling and checking up on me and my husband, both personally and in regards to the business, but I have a very full schedule at the best of times: it can be exhausting to satisfy their demands. And from their perspective, I’m not nearly responsive enough. I don’t return calls promptly or deliver them the information they need to do their jobs in a timely manner.

How are your processes different in the family?

The primary process difference is between me and my father. Dad is very dramatic, as I’ve said before: everything is a crisis, whereas with me, I’m usually calm and collected. So when dad is yelling at me that some work must get done, I quietly tell him that it will, and he goes bananas because he thinks I’m not taking it seriously, and I can’t believe he’s getting so worked up about it. Both of us get our work done in the end, but the meeting of the two processes can be a little difficult, and usually involves a lot of my father hanging up on me and swearing to my mom that he’ll never talk to me again.

Des anyone in your family have a different personality, or personality traits that are different at work than when not working?

Our personalities are very different, though I touched on that in your last question. My mom and I have more similar dispositions, and I’ve seen her handle my dad expertly for years. I know there’s a lot of bluster, but it accomplishes a lot too. He’s passionate and a really skilled negotiator: he’s done some impressive stuff on our conference calls with the same righteous attitude that can get on my nerves. And I know I have that anger in me too – I’ve definitely had moments where I feel like I’ve had to channel my father to get my way. Few people can resist Steve Symonds head on.

I also feel like I’m much more placid at work than I am in my personal life. I try to be clear-headed and visionary in my role as president of the company, but outside the office I cut loose a lot more. I tend to act the same around my parents though, so maybe my “president of the company” personality and my “son” personality are actually pretty close.

How do you usually handle it when your father gives you advice? Is his advice usually unsolicited?

I’d say the advice is about half solicited, half unsolicited… And I usually weigh his advice very seriously. That doesn’t mean I take it though! Dad has been very successful in business, but I feel like I’ve been successful too, with many great things still in my future. If I want Symonds & Son to be the best company it can possibly be, I need to hear his advice, compare it to what I think the best course of action is, and then make a decision… and that’s how I’ve used his suggestions in the past.

Of course this drives him bonkers, but I covered our process differences earlier.

What are some things your dad does that drives you nuts?

Calls me all the time! I have meetings all day long, and when I’m not in meetings I’m programming. I don’t have time to talk on the phone. My employee, when he wants to talk to me, IMs me, which is much more convenient. I need to get my parents to start doing that too. And as I mentioned, the drama aspect.

What are some things your mom does that drives you nuts?

Nags me, which ironically is what I pay her to do! It can be very difficult for me to realize that she’s just doing her job when she bugs me to do stuff, especially considering how she used to do it all the time for free and drive me up a wall. If I’m already very tense, it can be difficult not to snap at her when she’s reminding me about my obligations.