When Kit Seay retired, she thought she’d tour the country in an old camper. Instead, she found herself running a pie business with her daughter—and loving it.
Seay and her daughter, Amanda Wadsworth Bates, started Tiny Pies three years ago in Austin, Texas. Seay was retired from a career in state government and working as a sorority housemother. Wadsworth Bates was working unhappily in real estate. The mother/daughter duo had always baked together, but hadn’t considered doing it for a living until Wadsworth Bates’ son asked for a pie he could pack in his lunch.
After a few months of testing recipes, Tiny Pies was born. Their handheld pies come in signature and regional flavors, such as strawberry rhubarb and the family’s pecan pie recipe. The business was focused on catering and wholesale until last month, when Tiny Pies opened its first storefront.
Mother-daughter firms are a different type of family business. The women who run them say their businesses directly benefit from their unique bond. An estimated 2.3 million such companies are operating in the U.S., according to the National Association for Mothers and Daughters in Business (NAMDB), and their ranks are growing.
“There’s no competition between us. There’s no ego involved. There’s no lack of trust,” Seay says of the work arrangement with her daughter. “I never give a second thought to anything she says or does.”
Tiny Pies is typical of many mother-daughter businesses that NAMDB founder Jamie Kizer sees. The daughters tend to be in their 30s, with mothers in their 50s or 60s, often retired from a previous career. The younger generation wants more work-life balance, Kizer says, and the older generation is in a position to help them with that.
“In my generation, we worked, and our children were latchkey kids,” says Kizer, who lives in York, Pennsylvania. “We don’t want our daughters to be in that situation. We want to give them flexibility with their own business or self employment.”
Kizer has run a dozen businesses, from an art gallery to a teen magazine. After her daughter Jordan graduated college, she decided they should open a clothing store together. But they quickly found they didn’t work well together.
“I had to make the decision that this business is not worth jeopardizing our relationship,” Kizer says. “My daughter had to be very brave to speak up and say, ‘This is your dream, it isn’t mine.’”
When Kizer had trouble finding resources for their situation, she decided to coach other mother-daughter entrepreneurs through their challenges. It’s an intense bond, and that can be both a strength and a weakness.
Alexandria Keener never dreamed she would open her own retail store, much less partner with her mother, Deborah Daugherty, to do it. In 2012 they launched My Girlfriend’s Wardrobe, a consignment clothing shop in York, Pennsylvania, as a website. A brick-and-mortar store followed last year.
Keener says she and her mother have always been close, but working together puts them on equal footing. They both have strong opinions on things such as how the shop windows should look or which outfits they should spotlight.
“One of us is always right, and it’s never the other person,” Keener says. “Sometimes I yell at my mom, and she knows I’m just frustrated about a whole bunch of other things. And she’ll do the same to me. But if you did that to an employee, they’d be out the door.”
They are learning to divide the labor. Keener says they share the retail operations, with only one other part-time employee. Daugherty, who also works full time with special needs teens, takes the lead on tasks like accounting. Keener handles the website and marketing. And Daugherty is able to step in when Keener can’t be there, because she’s also a full-time student at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. She’ll graduate in May with a degree in new media design and production.
At Tiny Pies, Wadsworth Bates and Seay say they discovered they have complementary strengths. Wadsworth Bates takes care of sales, marketing, and business development, while Seay oversees what’s happening in the kitchen. They now have a staff of 11.
Wadsworth Bates says it’s important for mother-daughter entrepreneurs to separate business and family. Starting a new business is inherently stressful, but they’ve learned not to bring conflicts home.
“If we get crosswise over a work issue, we can still go to dinner, and she can still hang out with the kids,” Wadsworth Bates says. “It’s not changing that side of our relationship.”
Communicate openly and often
Communication skills are important in any business. But successful mother-daughter teams say it’s critical to their survival.
Kizer cautions them not to make assumptions and to check their expectations. Dedicate time to learning how to communicate in an emotionally healthy way, she says. “My motto is, ‘let’s put it all out on the table and clean it up later.’”
Sandy and Stevie Lynn D’Andrea say they almost never stop talking about their company, Jewels for Hope. They run their handmade jewelry business from their home in Stamford, Connecticut. Ten percent of the firm’s net profits go to charities such as the American Cancer Society and Labs 4 Rescue.
Sandy D’Andrea started the company in 2009. She made jewelry to pass the time during her mother’s final months in hospice and gave pieces to the nurses in thanks. Eventually, D’Andrea opened a store on Etsy.com. Stevie Lynn, a graduate of Fashion Institute of Technology, joined the company a year later to handle advertising and marketing.
“I taught my mom how to use Facebook, and she taught me how to make jewelry,” Stevie Lynn says.
Jewels for Hope has been featured in coveted celebrity gift bags for events such as the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Golden Globes. Meredith Vieira, whose husband has multiple sclerosis, has been photographed often wearing her Jewels for Hope bracelet, created to benefit the National MS Society. Other pieces have been worn by stylist Stacy London and actress Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Living and working together can blur the lines between business and family, Sandy D’Andrea says. She had to remind herself to respect Stevie Lynn as an equal in business even when her instinct was to advise her as a mother. They also make a conscious effort to put business aside and have fun, together and separately.
Stevie Lynn D’Andrea says, “I don’t think the business would have done so well if we weren’t working together. We both complete the unit.”
Leaving a legacy
For younger daughters like Keener, it can be an ongoing struggle to convince other people that she is an equal partner with her mother. Sometimes customers and vendors assume it is Daugherty’s shop, and 22-year-old Keener is her employee.
“Mom has taken the approach of telling them ‘it’s her store,’ because she thinks people won’t respect my decisions if she doesn’t,” Keener says.
Kizer says she values how mother-daughter businesses provide both women involved with financial independence, a creative outlet, empowerment, and mentorship. And it builds a legacy that, like any family business, can be passed on.
In the days before Tiny Pies’ grand opening, Wadsworth Bates says, she was struck by how meaningful it was to be opening a shop with her mother, in a space designed by her sister, an architect, and to have her teenage son proudly helping with last-minute preparations, too.
Wadsworth Bates says of working with her mother, “Our relationship is so much better than it would have been. This is a priceless experience.”