I Started a Business With My Dad. It Didn’t End Well for Either of Us.

Snapshots of life at home.
June 13 2014 2:56 PM

I Started a Business With My Dad

And almost stabbed him only once.

(Continued from Page 1)

I may or may not have told my father, the man who on more than one occasion dug through restaurant dumpsters when I accidentally threw out my retainer, that I was going to kill him on more than one occasion while the shop was open. And, in the throes of despair, sleep deprivation, money anxiety, and the general helpless rage that comes from running a failing small business, my dad may or may not have lost it on me a few times too. We didn’t mean the horrible things we said to each other, it just felt really good to say them.

To write that I did not know my dad before working with him would be inaccurate. I knew plenty about him, but it was all in relation to me. His primary identity was Dad, Father of Laura. Working with him gave me the opportunity to see him through the eyes of suppliers, employees, bank tellers, loan officers, contractors, and architects. He was kind to everyone. Strangers would come into the store and tell me what a decent guy he was. People invested in the store because they trusted him.

Laura1.
Mixing business and family.

Photo by Unison.

But working with your parent is like working with a shadow version of yourself. My dad is a nice guy, and raised me to be the same, and we were both nice—too nice—as business owners, the kind of nice that could also be called spinelessness and a desire to be liked. We were conflict avoiders. Under stress, our natural instinct was to run and hide. We almost never fired anyone and both felt awkward about telling people what to do. In my dad’s defense, running the front end of the store was my job; he handled our accounts and financing. But I could see the sparkle of fear in his eye when he was near the counter and noticed something wrong. “Bob didn’t wash his hands after he handled the money, will you tell him?” he would say to me. I wanted to bark back, “You tell him!” But not because I was some master delegator, but because it felt patronizing to tell an adult to wash his hands. I didn’t want to do it either.

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As Yola sunk further into debt, I stopped picking up the phone and tried to avoid my dad when I could. My stomach used to sink when my cellphone rang because it meant one of two things: 1) It was an employee or supplier calling to say something was wrong, or 2) it was my dad calling to say something was wrong.

The rules of our relationship changed. Previously, lurking in the back of my mind was always the comforting feeling that I had support systems, that if everything fell apart, I could turn to my parents and they would know what to do. But one day, as we were looking at the contract from our equipment financing company, I realized we were both truly screwed. The interest rates on the loan were indecipherable and seemed to change every month, and my dad’s face was pale as we tried to understand the numbers and language on the paper. I realized then that I had been hoping all along that my dad would whip out some secret old-person business savvy that would somehow get us out of this. I thought of myself as independent and self-reliant, but all along, I had just wanted my dad to fix this. “We’re fucked,” he said.

In the end, we weren’t. We both lost money, my dad went gray, but we found a buyer for the equipment and the lease, and nobody died. Two years after this journey began, on the last day the shop was open, friends and family came by Yola to commiserate. I rang up the last customer, and my dad and I counted the drawer. A Champagne bottle was uncorked, and we drank. When we put the key in the door to close up, my mom and my now-husband were there. We all hugged. My dad and I did our usual kind-of-awkward embrace, but I knew he was the only person who could understand what I was feeling.

About a year after the store closed, my dad and I were talking on the phone. The shop came up. I asked him if he regretted opening it. “Yes” was his answer, an emphatic “yes” followed by a laugh that sounded like despair. I had been feeling guilty, realizing that, of all the people who were involved with the shop, I had gained the most from it. I learned more in two years than I probably had in the previous 10. My nerves were frayed, but I was grateful for the experience. I wanted my dad to tell me that he had gotten something out of it too—perhaps that he had learned some business lesson that he could apply to his work now? Had he at least gained some important life insight, like not to sweat the small stuff or one of those other things people say? Apparently not.

We got off the phone, and I went to check my email. A few minutes later, my cellphone rang. It was my dad. His voice was quiet and sheepish. “I regret the shop,” he said. “But I don’t regret doing it with you.”

Laura Smith is a writer living in New York and a Slate intern. Follow her on Twitter.

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