The Art of Building a Business with My Sister

“When it stops being fun, we’ll stop working together.”

That was the agreement between me and my sister when we went into business together. Being women of our word – something that runs in the family, we applied a “serious enthusiasm” that allowed us to dominate the wide-open space that lay ahead.

We started informally in 2007. I came to the table as the elder business sister — offering to help with contracts, legal and accounting. Meanwhile, Camilla, a talented artist who was newly discovered in the Pop Surrealism art movement in L.A. galleries, came as herself: the creative. 

Pop Surrealism, and opportunities for Camilla, were emerging at a time when everything else was falling apart. By late 2008, the US housing crash was pummeling markets, causing a global economic recessionary domino effect.

You wouldn’t think this was a good time to start a consumer-facing business, but there is a truth that many entrepreneurs and visionaries innately know: there are always opportunities if you can see them where others don’t and dare to venture where others won’t.

We ventured.

 

Sister-Powered Business

We started slowly, half a world apart. Camilla lived in Vancouver and I lived in Europe, working in a hedge fund in Switzerland. I was in the thick of the financial crisis, while Camilla was coming to terms with the risks and responsibilities of being a full-time artist.

Though this was only 11-12 years ago, it was deemed impossible – at least to conventional thinking, that an artist could make a good living unless they were represented by a major gallery (which takes 40-70% of proceeds!). Additionally, it was thought that if an artist exhibits uses their fine art commercially… well, they are no artist. “You can’t put her art on mugs!,” someone said early on. We replied: “Watch us."

Tell us we can’t do something, and you can be assured we’ll find a way to do it. Besides, when you don’t know what you don’t know, there are no rules, only open a wide-open road. Who’s to stop you?

In 2009 I left the fund and became a full-time entrepreneur with my sister as business-partner. We were a killer team; our partner-in-crime childhood energy came out in full-force.

There was no stopping us!

I managed the business – from legal, admin and ops to marketing, partnerships and business development. Camilla drew, painted and directed her art in myriad forms; from traditional canvas, to snowboards, skateboards and vinyl figures, and created manga-inspired characters that captivated the imagination.

We were having a blast with the creative expression of her art and our ability to create new verticals and leverage the earliest days of social media to build a foundation of fans and loyal buyers.

We operated virtually and across time zones, meeting in cities around the World for conventions and art shows. Our business of creating, selling, and licensing art led us into the pop culture/entertainment industry as well as the fine art scene; her art was in galleries from LA to Hong Kong to Rome.

 

Common Goals & Personality Challenges

We were in our mid-20’s, A-type, stubborn and opinionated. Working together had its share of challenges and there were definitely non-professional outbursts on numerous occasions, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings.  

Born only 15-months apart, we were almost like twins growing up, but you couldn’t imagine two more different siblings. I was all business, and she was all artist, even from a young age.

There was a lot that we had in common: we were both driven, entrepreneurial creators who wanted to express ourselves and achieve success while making an impact for a greater purpose. Though we took divergent paths in life, we came together as two complimentary halves of a whole to do just that.

My linear, analytical and structured ways didn’t vibe with her desire to be a free-spirited artiste. At times, dysfunctional family dynamics, sibling rivalry and childhood patterns still played out: I used the ‘I have a business degree so I know better card’ and she would always pull the ‘artist card’.

But our shared drive and ambition fueled us, and we overcame the challenges of siblings doing business together.

 

Redefining Ourselves

The “Starving artist” archetype; a creator with no business acumen or negotiating power, dependent on donations or, if lucky, a patron, was perpetuated throughout history. We put an end to it.

Within a year, we had an online store, distribution, a dozen licensees ranging from notebooks to handbags, and we were manufacturing our own products. We attended comic-cons surging across the US in spite of the recession; pop culture and entertainment were growing like crazy; people wanted to feel good and escape – art and comics brightened their lives.

 

Business That Brings Us Together

We worked together for 7 years before our goals for the business – and for ourselves – were diverging, and the strain of it was taking its toll. The key quality that fueled us for so long – having fun – was fading away.

The origin of going into business together was my eagerness to help Camilla get her work out into the World. I achieved that, and it was time for me to move on. As a successful entrepreneur, I had a new landscape of opportunities ahead of me. Camilla, firmly established as a creator and a business woman, thrived on her own.

By working together, Camilla and I evolved our relationship in so many ways. We learned who we were, who we had been, who we were becoming and what we meant to each other all along. I can’t ask for a better experience than to be brought closer together with someone so important in my life and make progress toward personal goals with her that also made a huge, positive impact on so many people.  

A version of this story was published on the Women’s Career Site, Fairy God Boss.