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Family affairs: what it’s really like to run a family business

Switzerland has a long tradition of family businesses. According to SWI swissinfo.ch, 99% of companies in Switzerland are SMEs, 90% of which are family-owned. So while for most of us Christmas is a time to take a break from work to spend time with family, for some people family and business aren’t such separate spheres. But is it a good idea to launch an enterprise with your spouse, parent or sibling? We asked several entrepreneurs from family-run businesses based at Biopôle about the challenges and rewards of working with their loved ones.

No matter how well we get on with our business partners, most of us wouldn’t choose to spend Christmas with them. In fact, with so many of us taking time off to celebrate, the festive season can be a rare opportunity for busy entrepreneurs to disconnect from work. But for entrepreneurs in family-run businesses, sharing Christmas dinner with ‘colleagues’ is nothing new.

Semira Gonseth Nusslé, who founded epigenetics-focused life sciences company Genknowme with her husband Sébastien, tells us that work discussions around the dinner table will be discouraged this Christmas, but it’s not always easy: “We’ll do our best not to distract from the festivities with conversations about our business, but we’ll have to watch ourselves: it’s a topic we’re particularly fond of!”

The risks…

Basem Higazy, who launched start-up Consulto with his twin brother Baher to create a clinic specialised in virtual team-based care, notes that maintaining a work–life balance is “a battle, but one worth fighting every day.” He says, “We actively try not to talk about work on holidays. We mostly do activities that completely take our minds off it, like paragliding, skiing or enjoying a good party!”

Basem and Baher Higazy, twin brothers and co-founders of Consulto

Striking the right work–life balance isn’t just a challenge at Christmas. “It’s rare, but we’ve had the occasional doubt about whether running a business as a family is a good idea,” Semira tells us. “Mostly when work is taking up too much space in the family and our children ask us to talk about something else for a change. So we decided to ban business talk during family holidays and as much as possible during family meals and time at home.”

When work and life are so closely connected, it’s not just family life that suffers. Running the family business can be difficult too. Julien Henzelin took over his grandfather’s naturopathy business and set up a centre in his name before his death. Today, both Julien’s wife and sister are involved in the centre André Henzelin’s work. “Surely, the most challenging part of running a family business is that you can’t change your business partner as easily,” he tells us. Continuing such a legacy can be tricky too: “I’ve found that I’ve needed to work on being myself first, rather than just being André’s grandchild. I think that would add pressure for anyone who takes over a family business.”

We decided to ban business talk during family holidays and as much as possible during family meals and time at home

Semira Gonseth Nusslé, Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer at Genknowme

Sean Ghafourian, who helps runs pharmaceutical and medical sterilisation company Medistri with his mother and uncle, also finds that expectations can be high: “The pressure to succeed comes from Medistri’s corporate culture, which is focused on performance. All of us are expected to be technically skilled, focused on excellence and participate in collaborative debates.”

From left to right: Sam Ghafourian, who spends his summers interning at the company (Sean’s brother); Ali Nilforoushan, CFO (Sean’s uncle); Shoko Nilforoushan, Founder & Director (Sean’s mother); Sean Ghafourian, Project Developer

… and the rewards

But, as with most challenges, the payoff is worth it – something all the entrepreneurs we spoke to were quick to point out. “Running any business is hard,” says Julien, “but family businesses can also be an opportunity to create a legacy – something that will last for decades. We all face emotional challenges in life, but this is what makes us human: it helps you grow not only as a person but as a company with great values.”

When it works, the support you can give each other is unconditional. “We love dreaming and making our dreams a reality together,” Basem states. “There is strength in knowing that there is someone who believes in you when no one else would.” It takes time to develop such trust and confidence, but growing up together gives entrepreneurs a strong foundation to build on.

Family businesses can also be an opportunity to create a legacy – something that will last for decades

Julien Henzelin, Strategic Director of the centre André Henzelin

For Semira, this combination of skills is crucial: “It’s easier to share a vision because we’re a couple. Our skills are different, so we complement each other: Sébastien is very good with planning, numbers, scientific processes, and I love project management and working with clients. He’s an optimist, whereas I see potential problems.” And this commitment and teamwork doesn’t go unnoticed by potential partners. “I think investors are reassured by the fact that the business is run by a couple,” Semira says. “They can see that we’re fully committed and are a strong team. Of course, you never know exactly why an investor passes on an opportunity but, interestingly, several of our early investors are couples too.”

Basem notes that the key to such harmony is the effective division of roles: “We differentiate our responsibilities to complement each other as co-founders. My brother takes charge of the medical and clinical development, and I work on the business and technological development – and we both contribute to our vision.”

As for helping a business grow and become independent, Julien – who has a four-year-old son – takes inspiration from parenthood: “A company is like a child. It takes time and effort to help it grow, to give it the resources and skills for it to stand up on its own two feet.”

Taking the plunge

So if you and your spouse, sibling, cousin, or parent have an entrepreneurial brainwave over the festive season, should you write it off as a pipe dream? Or should you add ‘launching a family business’ to your list of New Year’s resolutions?

“Make sure that setting up a business isn’t your very first ‘big’ adventure together,” Semira advises. “Almost ten years ago, we left Switzerland with our two young children to live and work in California for four years. That was our first big adventure, and we were lucky that it worked out for us. This experience gave us confidence in our ability to start a business adventure together, as living in a foreign country with young children was challenging – and setting up a business has been too.”

We don’t think of ‘family’ and ‘business’ as a zero-sum balancing act but as a harmony. When managed well, everything enhances everything else.

Sean Ghafourian, Project Developer at Medistri

If you enjoy spending time with your family members, running a business together is likely to be a positive experience too. “It was a joyful and easy decision to launch Genknowme together,” Semira tells us. “We had been eager to work together for a long time, and we love it.” Sean agrees: “It’s definitely easier for me to work with family than with a regular boss. We’re a strong family with strong values, and we share the same work ethic.”

Finding harmony

In fact, it seems there’s a lot that family life can teach us when it comes to business. “We don’t think of ‘family’ and ‘business’ as a zero-sum balancing act but as a harmony,” Sean explains. “When managed well, everything enhances everything else.” It makes sense: in a family, each member plays a different role depending on their skills but, often, all share values and a vision: “We have different responsibilities and measure our own success in different ways. But we trust each other’s work and, most importantly, we’re transparent with each other.”

Semira Gonseth Nusslé and her husband Sébastien Nusslé, co-founders of Genknowme

Basem believes that a successful family company is built on mutual support: “We always wish each other the best, personally and professionally. We help each other to learn constantly and bring the morale of each other up when one of us is taken down by the tide.”

For Julien, it’s important to let things evolve naturally and to keep your expectations in check. “I believe in the motto ‘happiness is reality minus expectations’,” he tells us. “For my son, for example, I hope that he finds his own way in life. If he wants to be part of the business one day, that’s great – but if he follows a different path, that’s not going to be a problem.”

Julien Henzelin and his grandfather André Henzelin, founder of the EPSN
Centre André Henzelin (cAH)
The centre André Henzelin (cAH) was founded by Julien Henzelin in 2020, from the expansion of the Ecole Professionnelle Supérieure de Naturopathie (EPSN), a school created in Lausanne in 1992 by André Henzelin (Julien’s grandfather) according to the principles of contemporary naturopathy and to preserve the original philosophy of traditional European medicine.
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Consulto was founded by the twin brothers Basem and Baher Higazy. The early-stage start-up is building the world-first virtual clinic specialized in team-based ambulatory care
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Genknowme was founded in 2019 by a couple of passionate scientists also partners in life: Sébastien Nusslé and Semira Gonseth Nusslé. This innovative life sciences company dedicates itself to the transformation of cutting-edge research into epigenetic signatures that measure the impact of lifestyle on your biological age.
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Medistri was founded in 2006 to provide sterilization and laboratory services to healthcare companies. Amongst its employee the company can count several family members: Sean Ghafourian, Project Developer ; Ali Nilforoushan, CFO (Sean’s uncle); Shoko Nilforoushan, Founder & Director (Sean’s mother).
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