How to Make a Mother-Daughter Business Work

Two women discover that with clear roles, they can make working with their mothers bearable and profitable.
June 21, 2012

Mothers and daughters, no matter how much they love each other, always face issues. My daughter didn’t speak to me for two years when she was a teenager. Now we are friends.

Add in the pressures of running a business together and it can be a recipe for disaster.

Setting clear boundaries, dividing the work and treating each other with respect are the basic ingredients for success, according to the mothers and daughters interviewed for this story. One mother-daughter team runs a cooking school and catering company in California. The other pair owns a successful boutique candle company in Indiana.

Hobby Turned Livelihood

At Linnea’s Lights, located in Carmel, Ind., Laura Cler joined her mother’s small, handmade candle-making business after working as a marketing executive for Levi Strauss.

Joining her mother’s company in 2009 was a turning point for both mother and daughter. Lynn Manley started making candles just for fun when a serious illness forced her late husband, Danny, to stop driving trucks for a living. Making candles and selling them at craft fairs was a way for them to pass the time while he was undergoing chemotherapy. After he died, Manley said she wasn't sure what to do with her life.

Cler had already left her demanding job at Levi’s to spend more time with her three young children. Traveling for work was exhausting, but like her mother, she wasn’t sure what to do next.

“I was wondering, what would my mother do after Danny died?” Cler recalls. “I wanted to help provide for my mom as well as doing something for my family.”

After learning that her mother was open to professionalizing and expanding the candle business, Cler put her marketing talents to work. First, she rebranded Linnea’s Lights, positioning it as a high-end, boutique candle-maker best known for its richly-scented, long-burning soy wax candles. The company, which has sales under $1 million, still makes candles by hand in a studio near Cler’s home.

The company’s candles retail for $30 to $35 and are available through about 300 retailers including Terrain, which is owned by Urban Outfitters.

Splitting the Work

Because they live about an hour and a half apart, Cler and Manley spend a lot of time on the phone. Manley said she focuses on product development and creating new fragrances. She has the "nose" for fragrance. Cler puts her corporate background to work, handling all day-to-day operations, including sales and business development.

“She’s my mom and I love her dearly,” says Cler. “Sometimes working with her is maddening and sometimes it’s endearing.”

Manley says she couldn’t have expanded the candle business without her daughter’s help. “It’s not always easy being a mother and daughter in business,” admits Manley. “Every company has their bumps and we need to sort out the bumps.”

Her biggest worry is that Laura is taking on too much responsibility, but says she lets her "run with it" because her extensive business experience is fueling the company’s growth. Her advice to other parents and children in business together:

“Before you start, sit down and set boundaries,” says Manley.

Setting boundaries and dividing responsibilities has worked well for Terry and Tracy Paulding. Terry Paulding, now 63, has worked in the food business most of her life, starting in the kitchen of Alice Brock, founder of the iconic Alice’s Restaurant. In 1988, she started teaching cooking classes in the local adult education program, teaching about 48 classes a year for 20 years.

Change Leads to Opportunity

Ready to start her own company, she opened a small catering business in Emeryville, Calif., across the street from Pixar Animation Studios. In 2002, Pixar bought the building she was renting. It was upsetting a first, but Paulding established a relationship with the studio, often teaching cooking to Pixar animators, including the team that made Ratatouille. She also recently hosted a Scottish-themed dinner party for the crew that just finished Brave, which is set in Scotland.

Feeling confident about the future, in 2004, Paulding invested about $300,000 in savings to build her own kitchen and office space a few blocks away from her original location. And, about four years ago, her daughter, Tracy, returned to the Bay Area and began working at Paulding & Co. Tracy says she focuses on running a busy summer camp and year-round cooking programs for kids.

“My mom is the boss and she runs the show,” Tracy says. “I help with the teaching and organizing. We realized that running a business is too much work for one person.”

She said they work really well together. “I love working with my mom,” Tracy says. “Every mother and daughter has their ways of getting under each other’s skin. We can get snippy with each other, but she’s really great at what she does and the two of us have really great chemistry in the kitchen.”

Tracy Paulding says she would like to take over the family business when her mother retires, but “my mom has big shoes to fill. I don’t think I could run it the same way she does.”

Could you run a business with your mother?

Interior photos courtesy subjects

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock