I am at university and thinking about going into the family business, which would be very interesting. But I feel there are other opportunities out there, too. Is going into the family business a good idea, or should I get experience elsewhere first? Male, 20s

Jonathan’s answer


The benefits of joining the family business include your deep knowledge from listening to family discussions, that it supports any sense of loyalty and obligation to parents and older generations you may have, and it is a ready-made job where you are (maybe) the only candidate.

However, assuming you have the necessary skills and experience for the role, how much freedom would you have? Would the emotional connection constrain you when making tough but necessary decisions?

As you consider your options, post-university, you will want to run due diligence on any potential employer, however well you may already know the owners. As a note of caution, family businesses are not always the most secure organisations. In a 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review, George Stalk Jr, and Henry Foley reported that 70 per cent of family businesses fail or are sold before the second generation takes over. Only 10 per cent remain active for the third generation.

If and when you do decide to join, ensure you can separate work from other activities, that you treat this as a business, communicate clearly and ideally in writing, and that you develop mentors outside the family business.

The skills you need for the role, and the attractiveness of the offer will depend on what the family business is; for example, a corner shop, farm, or large multinational family businesses such as BMW, Samsung or Walmart, would offer very different challenges and responsibilities. And fundamentally, are you interested in the product or service?

You do have a choice, which is more than can be said for some others, both now and in the past. If you were born into royalty, you would have almost no choice, except via a very public abdication.

At university, you still have an appetite for learning; not joining the business now, but continuing to develop skills and gain experience, will give you more choices in the long term, whatever you choose to do.

You could join the family business in 10 years’ time after a spell working for other organisations, and perhaps acquiring a further relevant qualification, such as an MBA.

The final answer to yourself and the owners offering this job would therefore be, “Yes, one day.”

Readers’ advice

Check the accounts to see if the business is profitable. Do you think you could add value? Steve

Do something else first. There is no better start to a career than having to work for people who feel no obligation to feed you. You will have to do things that you don’t want to do and you will have people treating you disrespectfully. All that is part of life education. You can still join the family business when you have proved yourself somewhere else. At that point you will join as a professional, not as an entitled child. Your life will be better for it. Stefan17

When you join the family business make sure your relations expect more from you than an equivalent hire. You do not want to be perceived as the lazy one given an easy ride. ITU

If anyone is expecting you to a run an established business at 21 they are nuts and you should steer clear. If it’s a large enough business to be able to give you a variety of experience in different areas then go for it. Nick Name