Letting in the parents
There’s a new kind of “family business” in India’s entrepreneurial landscape: Retired parents who work in their children’s firms. Over the last few months, I’ve come across several founders whose parents (mostly fathers) work in their companies. The fathers are employees in the strictest sense. They are not co-founders or business partners. In most cases, they aren’t even members of the core advisory council. Typically, they manage a support function: finance, compliance or some part of office administration.
It’s an interesting construct: a way to meld the personal and professional, with gains for both sets of people.
The fact is that many of our parents are in better health than people of that generation have ever been. At 60, 65 or even 70, so many of them are raring to go. Free of the burden of being the primary providers for a large family unit, they are brimming with ideas. Many are eager to sketch out a second life as the rhythm of their working lives screeches to a halt and they feel less needed, less relevant.
Adult children, on the other hand, battle with the gnawing guilt that comes from not being able to give their parents time. Co-opting parents, or, at the very least, giving them something worthwhile to do makes for a meaningful family project. It’s smart management too.
Retired parents can be a valuable source of talent. Their unique abilities can add to a young (or old) company’s managerial bench strength. They bring years of experience and can be trusted implicitly. The trope that modern workplaces have been completely transformed with the advent of technology and social media, and aren’t spaces that older employees can be useful in, isn’t always true. Work relationships and dynamics still need wisdom, mundane processes still need discipline, and a small voice whispering caution can still be a powerful companion to risk.
Older employees in general and parents in particular can offer these skills. A recent Harvard Business Review article by Chip Conley, a 56-year-old Airbnb executive, called people like himself the “Modern Elder”, somebody who serves and learns, as both mentor and intern, and relishes being both student and sage. It’s an effective description for parents who are employees.
The added personal joy of being able to spend more time with them, and the sense of pride you get by knowing that you have been able to provide a new outlet for them, is very fulfilling, says a Delhi-based entrepreneur whose father works in his renewable power business.
Yet roadblocks can mine this journey as much as they do any relationship that merges with work. Inelegant though it may sound, the parent employee-child employer dynamic works successfully when ownership is clearly defined. Nobody can afford confusion about who runs the show.
Co-creating businesses with a parent is a different experience altogether. It’s certainly more rife with misunderstandings.
For example, a friend’s father runs a flourishing café. On most days, the much-loved local outlet is crowded with weekday regulars. Groups of college students mill about on the pavement outside. The signature beverages and snacks sell at a brisk pace. The success wasn’t something her father had envisaged when he began the hole-in-the-wall venture more than 15 years ago. It was a post-retirement gig, a way to keep busy.
Last year, the family began to wonder if there was a larger business there. Was there unexplored potential to build a big brand? The friend volunteered to work on a more ambitious plan to expand the outlet to a chain of restaurants. Soon, ideas and rhythms began to clash. Inter-generational ideas of risk appetite and funding models led to niggling doubts.
This family was wise. They quickly spotted signs of possible trouble. They figured the survival of family relationships was more important than the success of a possible expansion.
After all, if there is nothing better than having parents involved in your labour of love, there is nothing worse than the relationship turning into a messy business partnership gone wrong. Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world. The columnist is the spouse of a start-up entrepreneur and draws from real-life experience.