Illustration: Kagan McLeod
Minding Our Business: A Series on What It Takes to Work for Yourself.
As anyone who has spent any time at a dinner party knows, understanding or even tolerating family members can be … challenging. For those logged in business with the family, the dynamics are completely different. While many find the idea of having your parents as co-workers unattainable, it’s second-hand for sisters Sarah and Caitlin Lung, who started their popular Chinese food blog The Woks Of Life with their parents, Bill and Judy, in 2013. What started as way for the family to stay connected while Bill and Judy temporarily moved to Beijing grew into a successful multigenerational business that was featured everywhere from the Food Network to Good morning Apepper. The Leungs Cookbook, The Walks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese-American Family, is out November 1 from Penguin Random House, and the family enjoys a loyal following on social media with many mapo eggplant devotees.
“When my parents moved to China, my sister and I didn’t have access to the food we had growing up,” Sarah says. “We liked to cook, but we didn’t know how to prepare some of the traditional Chinese dishes that our parents used to cook for us. A food blog seemed like the right thing to start, and it always felt like we were going to do it together.”But how does one actually work with family without sibling squabbles and heated arguments getting in the way? How do you delegate responsibilities, set boundaries, and not hate each other at the end of the work week? Below, everything the Leung sisters know about entering the family business.
Before you dive in and start a business together, the Leung sisters suggest you honestly assess each other’s work style. “Recognize the ways in which you are compatible and the ways that cause friction,” says Caitlin. Although the Leungs have always been “extremely close” and exchanging food ideas has come naturally to them, spending the workday with family requires “facing personal quirks” and clashing office habits. “That’s the most important thing,” Caitlin says. “As we’ve grown as people, we’ve become quite adept at actively managing our work styles, and that’s something we have open conversations about.”
However, remember that just as you can’t change your non-blood colleagues, you can’t change family – nor should you try. “In our cookbook, we say that each personality is set in stone and each stronger-willed than the last,” says Caitlin. “We all collectively realized: That’s just the way other people’s brains work, and you just try to work with it instead of against it.”
Use your understanding of each other’s strengths, weaknesses and approaches to shape the unique roles each person will have in the business, Sarah says. Things can go wrong when you try to put your hand in too many pots. “Roles are important,” says Sarah. “In order to function harmoniously, we realized that everyone must have their own area of expertise in which they are the ‘go-to person.’ Other tips include making sure the workload is evenly distributed and being careful not to step on each other’s toes and micromanaging. “Everyone is equal in our family,” says Sarah. “Everyone writes and develops their own recipes, and everyone has an equal voice on the blog.” The Leungs are careful not to weigh in on each other’s recipes until each person has had the space to develop them. “You feel like everyone contributes something different and everyone can add a valuable contribution,” Sarah says. At the same time, collaboration and valuing each other’s opinions is critical, even if it’s about how you cut beef. “We need consensus,” Caitlin adds. “If even one person thinks a recipe is not good, we have to correct it.”
“When we’re blogging, we’re equals,” Caitlin says. “When we have family time, we go back to our traditional family dynamic and remember that we’re still the same people we were when we started this thing.” Giving structure to the business aspects of your relationship keeps the work from bleeding into the personal. your life. “Early on, I realized we had to create boundaries,” Sarah recalls.
“We can’t always talk about blog work at the dinner table. So we’d say, ‘Okay, it’s dinner time, no more work.’ It can be really challenging, but you have to set that boundary and enforce it.” Other good ways to add structure to your work days include using shared calendars and to-do lists to minimize unnecessary confusion and encourage more productive conversations, and limiting work conversations to apps like Slack instead of over text.
Giving and receiving criticism and feedback can be difficult in a non-family work environment, and things can become even more contentious in family units when everyone knows (perhaps too well) how to push each other’s buttons. While you may tend to be more open when giving feedback to a sibling than you would if you weren’t a relative, Caitlin says it’s still important to be considerate of each other’s sensitivities. “We all have a keen sense of what will trigger someone, so if we give certain feedback, we try to keep our cool and share criticism with that in mind,” she says.
Coming from an Asian-American and immigrant background, with parents who grew up in tough circumstances and valued hard work, Caitlin and Sarah like to take time to pause and celebrate collective victories at work. “There’s a tendency in our family to celebrate your victories, but do it quickly and move on to the next thing,” says Caitlin. “We’re all trying not to conform to this mode of overachieving that is enmeshed in Asian American identity. We pick up the beat in those moments where we’re like, Wow, we killed the hell out of it! and enjoy it. Remember that working under pressure can be easier with family around. “If we hadn’t been around each other over the years, it would have been a lot easier to get discouraged,” Sarah says. “You get support and encouragement from working with your family.”
While she says there have been “very challenging times” over the years and moments where she’s questioned whether the business is “worth all the stress on our interpersonal relationships,” she now feels the business has changed the family for the better. “We’re a lot closer now,” Sarah says. They’ll all even be taking a vacation soon — “The Woks of Life corporate retreats,” Caitlin says with a laugh.