Hi, I’m Josh Symonds

I blog about Ruby on Rails, coding, and servers

Programming the New Family Business

Reading time 7 minutes

In my previous post, I told the story of how I accidentally fell into consulting and turned it into a successful business. But what does a successful consulting business – specifically, my successful consulting business – actually look like?

Symonds & Son isn’t named to sound cute and hipstery. I’m the son; I’m in business with my father, and I recently hired my mother to be my assistant and bookkeeper. The company’s name is intended to evoke images of traditional, reliable family businesses, where trust, excellence, and a reputation for quality products are their cornerstones. These companies, traditionally centered around carpentry and other hand-made professions, are my models for how to run Symonds & Son. We are, if you’ll forgive me using the phrase, a bespoke development shop, where our great output and superb relationship with our clients are our highest priorities.

But building my profession into a company – and a company with my parents, no less – hasn’t been an easy road. There have been a lot of compromises we’ve had to make to get this ship sailing straight. Here, I’ll speak to how I made this new parent/child relationship work… and how I hope to continue making it work for years to come.

Parents Are the Worst

Let me be perfectly honest here: I was not a model child. Quite the opposite, in fact – I was the picture of a rebellious teenager. I was surly, I hated authority, I refused to leave the basement and I would play computer games constantly in lieu of doing homework. My parents and I would have huge fights that would last for hours, typically centered around my grades, and I would go screeching off into the night (in their car, of course) to hang out with my friends at Dunkin Donuts and whine about the many injustices of life, parents, and school.

(I was not a great student.)

My relationship with my parents really did not improve until after college. Though I never liked school, I found my niche in the workplace: arbitrary grades meant little to me, but performance tied to money? Now that was a formula I could understand! As my career flourished my relationship with my parents got better. I like to think that they gradually grew to respect my skills and ambition, but more realistically I think they were just happy that I had launched successfully when so many of my peers had been burned and left un- or under-employed by the poor job market.

But Then So Are Children

My father, a successful consultant in his own right, always advised me never to consult. Every time I eyed doing hourly work, he told me to firmly refocus my sights on a full-time job. He’d speak to the benefits, the retirement account, the possibilities for advancement big companies could offer – and, of course, I completely disregarded his advice. I found employment first with startups (not exactly bastions of job security or big 401ks) and then freelancing.

So if you want to take one piece of advice from my post, it’s this: if you want to go into business with your parents, ruthlessly ignore their recommendations at every turn!

My father’s niche had always been contracts, contacts, and business development, areas in which I am admittedly weak. He’s helped multi-million dollar companies divide and conquer their industries, and find partners to allow them to do so. When I told him I was dead set on making this consulting shindig work, he responded that he’d be available if I needed his help. Thus I found myself relying on him more and more… first to read contracts, then to perform light business development, and finally to properly structure my own growing business and best serve my clientele. In the end I suggested we just incorporate together. He agreed, and thus Symonds & Son was born.

Big Egos, Big Problems

Neither my father nor I are accustomed to knuckling under in arguments, and so our new business relationship has hardly been problem-free. We have some very different perspectives on the proper ways to interact with clients, communicate on a daily basis, and turn single contracts into recurring revenue. For example, I hate answering the phone during the day, as I’m usually busy coding – but he can’t stand getting directed to voicemail when he knows that I’m around and just not picking up.

Our solution for that particular problem is better communication and faster turnarounds. He knows he can get ahold of me if there’s an emergency, and otherwise that I’ll return his call as soon as possible… and in return, he texts me a lot more, which allows me to respond when I’m available and in my own time.

But definitely the most important lesson I’ve learned is that my father is indeed an expert in what he does, and generally knows what he’s doing – and that’s the same lesson I try to impose on him when he starts stepping on my toes too much. It can be difficult to give him the reins during delicate business operations, but I actually find it helpful as well. Like most entrepreneurial people, I love being in control and feel most comfortable when I’m managing as many of the aspects of any situation as I can. But other people are great at what they do too, and they can only prove it when given the chance to shine.

Or, more pithily, if I’m to succeed personally, I have step back and let the people I trust succeed. Only if I allow it to happen can it happen.

Love, Trust, Respect, Nagging

As my business expanded, I found I had less and less time for simple business tasks – invoicing, talking to my accountant, setting up and managing a corporate bank account… My to-do list was growing longer and longer with absolutely no hope of me ever breaking free to accomplish any of it. After all, if I stopped coding then I stopped getting paid, and consulting is not exactly a business that lets one rest on their laurels.

I needed an assistant.

My mother had handled all our scheduling, accounts, and priorities growing up: she was a successful businesswoman in her own right as well, though she left the corporate world and went into non-profit when my sister was born. That changed in the beginning of 2013 when my parents moved. Mom suddenly found herself with less on her plate than when she lived in Connecticut, and it was difficult for her to translate her great non-profit experience in the suburbs of Connecticut to the non-profits in the heart of Chicago.

Growing up, I hated being nagged. But I realized what I needed was an incredibly prioritized, driven person to help me with the day-to-day operations of my business… and my mother had time to spare and thirty years of experience managing me and my time. As much as I hated to admit it, I needed her to really make Symonds & Son a success.

And so far it’s been working out really well – almost scarily well. My mother is an efficient woman, and when I give her a list she turns it around in a timeframe I find just astounding. For my part, I’ve learned to respect her gentle nagging: not only does she have my best interests at heart, but the best interests of our company. She’s working on behalf of the company to make it more efficient. If I stood in the way of that, I would be a bad employer, and while I might not have been the best son in the entire world, I at least want to be a pretty good boss.

Thankshannukah with the Symondses

I never turned to my parents with charity. They are successful, independent people in their own right, and I am lucky they’ve decided to invest their time and energy in my consultancy. But there are lots of people out there who would want the opportunity to draw a paycheck from Symonds & Son, some potentially even more qualified than mom and dad. So why did I decide to go into business with them?

Partly it’s where they were in their lives: they had the time and energy to dedicate to a new venture. But more than that, it’s that I already know, respect, and trust them. I want the values of my company to reflect the values of my family: a firm commitment to client work can only really be achieved if I’m not constantly watching my back for a dagger, or if I’m free from worries about the honesty and priorities of my employees.

I could have gone out, interviewed candidates, selected potentials, hired a few, and eventually learned to trust and respect them. But I had excellent, well-qualified, trustworthy and experienced candidates I already had a good relationship with. To answer my earlier rhetorical question with another, why should I go searching for what I already had?

But What Happens If…?

Of course, I would be disingenuous if I said I was never concerned. What if I had to have some sort of Serious Conversation™ with mom and dad about their performance, or salaries, or any of the other number of difficult conversations any company might have to have with its employees? Or, to get to the heart of the matter: could I really fire my own parents if I had to?

I like to think it’ll never come to that. Symonds & Son is a family business, and we’ll succeed (or fail) as a unit. If the worst comes and I’m forced to close up shop, then it means unemployment for all of us – at least temporarily. It won’t be the end of any of our careers. I’ll land somewhere else doing Rails, most likely, and my father will pick up other clients, and my mom will find a non-profit. It’ll be another chapter in our lives closed, but hopefully an overall positive one.

Certainly working together as a family has been a challenging experience, but it’s brought me closer to my parents in a way I wouldn’t have imagined even a few years ago. I’ve learned to respect them for their talents and abilities, rather than as caregivers with the patience to raise me and my sister. I’m not saying this kind of business is for everyone – maybe it works only for us, and even then, who knows if it’ll work forever? But in trying to model Symonds & Son after traditional, family-run businesses, I’ve found capable, competent employees right under my nose: and my clients seem to enjoy working with us, so we must be doing something right.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least a little advertising here! If you’re interested in seeing Symonds & Son work for you, we make amazing software products and scalable Rails solutions. Get in touch and see what a family business can do for you. You might just be surprised at how efficient and effective the new family business can be.

Josh Symonds performs devops and server wrangling on cloud-scale infrastructures, deploys amazing web applications with Ruby on Rails, and creates awesome iOS apps with Objective-C and RubyMotion. He is founder and CTO of Symonds & Son, a development shop focused on quality and excellence.

Josh Symonds