Family-owned businesses & competition

NicheAuthor and consultant Dr. Lynda Falkenstein is the expert behind Ask the Niche Doctor, a Vancouver Business Journal business advice column. Do you have a question for the Niche Doctor? Email

Dear Niche Doctor,

Along with my brother, I’m a co-president of a very old and successful family-owned business. By old, I mean the business was started by my grandfather. Our father worked in it all of his adult life and it was always assumed the kids would run it. Today, the business and our family identity are practically synonymous. The problem is my brother. To say he doesn’t pull his weight is understatement. He is basically a huge drag on the business, spending extravagantly while putting little effort into the job. I’d really like to fire him but it would cause a family war. Another option I’ve considered is selling my share to him or just bailing out. Any suggestions you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Your issue is not unique. Family-owned businesses are rife with problems. Even under the best of circumstances, they regularly confront challenges that, if not dealt with successfully and head-on, can destroy not only the business but the family relationships in them as well. While you didn’t supply much detail, your letter suggests your situation has been dealt with any way but head-on.

Your brother is only part of the problem; you have a big role in this too. It’s time for you to step up to the plate and decide what you want. Are you running a serious business or a playground and status symbol for your brother and family? If it’s a serious business (which I think it is), you need to get your concerns out in the open and fast. I suggest you identify a professional to guide you – someone who works with family-owned businesses and understands the complexities of keeping business and family dynamics healthy simultaneously.

Q. I recently passed the Washington Bar and just opened up my own law office here in downtown Vancouver. Obviously, I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I did well in law school, but don’t have a clue about getting clients. My parents and friends say they’ll refer people, but beyond that I don’t know how to guarantee I’ll have enough clients to pay the rent. Adding to my discomfort is the fact that I just found out several other young lawyers recently moved in down the street. I’m concerned that my mother may have been right: “Too many lawyers and no one will ever tell me apart from the rest of the pack!”

I whole-heartedly disagree with your mother. Her thinking is antediluvian, or at least pre-niche. She clearly doesn’t understand that when you are well-niched, you are viewed as special, singular, unique, one-of-a kind and the only game in town.

When you make a great niche for yourself, you make a whole new pie. The concept of saturation is dinosaur. Worse yet, it can also be deadly if you believe it. Get started making a great niche for yourself now by thinking about the people you want as clients. What kinds of problems do you want to solve? What are your greatest skills? The point is, contrary to popular opinion, you choose your clients. If you don’t decide in advance who you want calling you up, you’ll never be able to market to them.

The first critical step in making a niche that gets the right people calling you is deciding who you want on the other end of the phone. Remember, you are the one who drives your niche. The death knell to any business is trying to be all things to all people or taking anything as long as the check is negotiable. It simply won’t work. Take control now and enjoy a narrow, deep and rich niche later.

Dr. Lynda Falkenstein, business consultant and author of “NICHECRAFT: Using Your Specialness to Focus Your Business, Corner Your Market, and Make Customers Seek You Out,” invites your questions and comments. Reach her directly at: or 503.781.0966. Please note that the Vancouver Business Journal reserves the right to publish your letter or an edited version all print and electronic media.