Entrepreneurship from the Point of View of a Next Generation Member: Edouard Thijssen from TrustedFamily on His Quest to Make a Difference in the World.

Edouard Thijssen is a 5th generation member of the Belgian group Aliaxis, a company in the plastics and transportation industries. He is also an entrepreneur in his own right and the co-founder of TrustedFamily.

Edouard met his business partner Edouard Janssen, a 6th Generation member of the Solvay family—an international Chemical and Pharmaceutical group of the same name—at a FBN meeting. After talking for a while, they realized that they both had the same unanswered questions about their families and businesses: How do you keep the small, close family feeling between family members in a family that has over 100 members? How can everyone keep in touch with one another and feel like they are an important part of the family group? How do you keep those family members that are not involved in the management of a family business informed and feeling that they are a part of that business?

Together they solved these problems by creating TrustedFamily, an online secure networking platform that offers similar features to Facebook, but is specifically designed for family members to share information about their families and their businesses. It started small, but today TrustedFamily has more than 50 clients scattered over 15 countries. The platform serves families of all sizes, from just 10 members through to those with more than a hundred and offers a super-customized service that is tailored to their client’s needs. This is how it all started:

  • How has growing up in a family that owns a business affected you personally?

It’s hard to say. I had a relatively normal life; I went to a normal school… normal everything. I think my parents did a great job with my education. That has helped me to become an entrepreneur. My Dad always told me: “You can do whatever you want in your life, but make sure that what you do has an impact on the world.” By this, he meant that, if you think about something, just don’t do it on a small scale; start small, but make sure that it is something that you can grow and that it can have a big impact. It’s a great value perspective and I think it’s a very powerful way to see the world.

  • Tell me a bit about your journey on the road to becoming an entrepreneur. Who has inspired you?

My father was involved with some entrepreneurial activities, but actually [my entrepreneurial career] started at high school. I was part of a program call “Mini Enterprise”, where over the course of a year, I worked with a team of classmates to create a small company. I really enjoyed it. It was my first experience of what life as an entrepreneur was really like.

Later, I went to University at Solvay Business School, and they were involved in a program called “Start Academy”, which was a business plan competition in which you competed by producing a business plan with 3 other friends. The competition was judged by some of the top entrepreneurs in Belgium and they voted on the projects that were presented to them. That was the second event that really influenced me. Later, during my 3rd year at university, I completed a project on social networking and Web 2.0 and there I had the opportunity to meet some very successful Belgian entrepreneurs who had created very large and scalable web and IT companies. Meeting these guys really inspired me as well.

As far as people that inspire me, as a technology fan, I’m extremely interested in all the technology entrepreneurs that have made a name for themselves. I read a lot about them and all their stories make me excited about entrepreneurship.

  • What is the best thing about being an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurship, in the end, is about changing things. Basically, you have a new idea and you do something differently from how it has been done before. It’s very rewarding to be able to create something that changes people’s lives and how things work. That is the main aspect. You also learn a lot in the process. I like it.

  • What is the worse thing about being an entrepreneur?

Good question! Maybe that the businesses and ideas that you create are in your head all the time. They become a very important part of your life and sometimes it’s difficult to disconnect. You have all these ideas floating around your mind… it’s very exciting, but  they are always there.

  • What do you feel the most proud of in your career so far?

Well, I’m still very young… but if there is one thing to say, it’s that it’s great to feel like I have identified a personal need, solved it, and then realized that a whole bunch of people have the same need and that I have been able to help them too.

  • Trustedfamily was initially founded by you and Edouard Janssen. Later on both your families invested in the company. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using family funding?

If you are an entrepreneur, what you need to be successful is financial resources, business expertise and the ability to add value. We needed some management expertise and some technology expertise, and we found that our families could offer us that, so it was an ideal solution. However, we also took other people on board to bring us other knowledge in areas where we felt we didn’t have it. Raising funds is not only about assets, but also about the expertise that you can get from the investors that join you.

  • How do see you Trustedfamily evolving?

Well, we started from a personal need, now we have proven that it works. We are at the stage where we know that we have something unique, but there are still a lot people that haven’t heard about us. We want to bring the company to the next level to make sure that all the families out there that have the need and believe in our vision, learn about us and use our services.

  • In your opinion, what are the distinguishing traits of next generation family business members that become successful entrepreneurs in their own right?

It’s hard to say… entrepreneurship is like a rollercoaster ride, you go up, down, up, down… I think that entrepreneurship, in the end, is about making sure that you go up on average more times than you go down. It is about persistence and passion… and if you have those, you will be very successful.

  • What is your advice to NG FB members that want to become entrepreneurs?

Start early. The younger you are, the more opportunities you have, and the lower the opportunity cost is. When you are young, you can take a lot of risk. The older you get, the more complicated your life may become, you may have a family, a big job, debt… these types of things make it much harder to take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur. I started right after university. I know many people say that is better to have some experience in a big company before branching out on your own, but I think that is better to start young; if you need experience you can find people that have it and they can help you out. That is what we have done with Trustedfamily.

If you are a next generation family business member and you want to set up a business, you should consider following Edouard’s advice: it has certainly worked well for him!

It would also be great to get your advise on becoming a successful entrepreneur. Please share it here in the comment box. Thanks in advance!


What did I learn about Next Generation at last week’s FFI conference?

From left ro right: Iñigo Susaeta, Borja Raventós, Neus Feliu, Alberto Gimeno and Carmen Lence

The Family Firm Institute is the world’s leading organization for family firm consultants and this year they celebrated their 25th anniversary by offering a conference that was focused on next generation issues. I really enjoyed the conference and felt that I was among friends. The FFI is a collective of people that work to help family businesses succeed over generations, and they are really passionate about it. I suspect that the main reason for such enthusiasm is related to the fact that many of them come from a family business themselves.

I started my journey through the conference by choosing a presentation that reflected on what have we learned about Family Business over the last 25 years. It was called “Persistent 5@25: Key Topics over 25 Tears Through Practitioner and Scholarly Eyes” and was delivered by Jane Hilburt-Davis and Pramodita Sharma. To me, the most interesting part of the presentation concerned the research that indicated that, 20 years from now, there is going to be more female family business leaders than male. That would mean a big jump: at the moment only 24% of Family Business have a female CEO. It was also comforting to learn that there is no concrete evidence in existence that proves that men are better business leaders than women.

The second presentation: “Surviving and Thriving in Narcissistic Family Businesses”, by Michael Madera and Steve Rosenbaum, included a short film that demonstrated the effects that a narcissistic personality can have over future generations. It was actually painful to watch how, despite all the suffering that the controlling personality of the founder had inflicted over his sons, his controlling behavior was something that the children sadly inherited. The 3rd generation approach to deal with their narcissistic parents was to limit their interactions with them in order to protect themselves from their damaging personalities. The advice from the presenters for people dealing with narcissistic personalities in the family business was to “Take responsibility and care of yourself; Establish clear boundaries; Understand the past, or be doomed to repeat it“ and finally, if the misery generated is intolerable, the best thing you can do is to get out of there!

During lunch, Steve Grossman, former President of Grossman Marketing Group, shared with us the secrets for keeping his family business in the family for four generations, and the secret to having a great successful life: “to have a happy life, you have to have a family, a career and give back to the community.” Great advice!

The next presenter I chose to see was Edouard Thijssen, a 5th generation member of the Belgian group Aliaxis. There are about 100 people in Edouard’s family but none of them work on a day to day basis in the family business.  Edouard felt the need to create something that would keep his big family close and in contact and, as no family member worked in the business, he was conscious of the need to keep the “family feeling” element of the family business. So he joined forces with Edouard Janssen, 6th Generation of Solvay, also from Belgium, and together they created TrustedFamily, an online secure platform where families can share information about their family members and their business issues. The company is now working with more than 50 families all over the world. The smallest families they serve have 10 members and their platform is customizable to their particular client’s needs.  Edouard is an inspiration for those Next Generation family business members that take the initiative and decide to create their own business. Well done!

“What’s so Different About Leadership in The Family Enterprise?” by Ivan Lansberg and Wendy R. Ulaszek, was my next choice. Mr. Lansberg explained how the old advice of “ treating your family as a family, and your business as a business…” had proven to be negative for FamilyBiz, as it denied them the use of their competitive advantage of having a family behind the business. In his experience, the most effective leaders for family businesses are the ones that “are able to build ambidextrous capacity, to balance polarizing needs of the family and the business.” One of the examples he cited concerned promoting “nepotism with excellence” which means to, “Invest in the development and mentoring of the next generation of leaders.” I couldn’t agree more.

The panel “Next Gen’s Status in Family Business: It’s Complicated” shared the experiences of John Morris, second generation member of Franklin Morris Associates, Alana Feld, second generation of Feld Entertainment, and Brett Levy, second generation of Riverside Properties, in working for their Family Business. Brett explained how the sudden health problems of his father threw him quite suddenly and unexpectedly into dealing with bigger responsibilities and how that experience made him, and the company, stronger. Alana described how she believes that working in the family business is a “lifestyle” and advised parents to offer their children the right position (avoiding putting then straight into big positions they may not be ready for) to prevent setting them up for failure.  John explained that when he decided to join the Family Business, his father gave him a letter that said “Dear father, I’m leaving the company, no questions asked, no answers needed”, he hopes that he’ll never have to sign it and give it back to his father. It was inspiring to see the passion each of these people had for their business and their willingness to work hard really shone through. With people like this, family business really does have a great future ahead!

The closing keynote by Andrew Lippman from MIT, was not only inspiring but entertaining. Mr. Lippman proved to be quite a showman and threw a few jokes into his presentation that helped all of us to keep focus after such a long day. I enjoyed his explanation about “the rate of change in society is a function of the age at which youth are introduced to the dominant technology of the time”, it made me think about my 3-year-old daughter playing with the iPad… and yes, it seems correct that nowadays the rate of change is at 3 years max…

I learned many things during the FFI conference, but my main take-out is that there is a next generation revolution taking place. Next generation members are, more than ever before, taking the initiative to prepare themselves to become the future leaders not only of their Family Business but of their own companies. Next Generation is not only the future, it is the present!

Do you Really Have a Family Business? Spot the Differences!


Do you really have a family Business?

Noting the differences between “a family business” and “a company run by an entrepreneur with some family members working in it” is a bit like the “Spot the differences game.” At first glance both pictures appear to be identical- a business owned by a family and run by a family member- but a closer inspection reveals that both pictures are actually quite different. Do you want to play?

Imagine that right in front of you there are two similar pictures of a CEO of a mid- sized family business in his sixties and his successor, who looks to be in his mid-thirties. Let’s spot the differences!

Difference 1-

Management approach

CEO A smiles at the camera with the confidence of someone who not only has had an extraordinary life, full of outstanding achievements, but also has been able to put into place the means for those achievements to outlive him. Throughout the years he has assembled a team of strong managers that do not hesitate to challenge his views. He has hired experienced professionals and has coached them to work as a team. They are highly motivated not only by the company’s compensation and promotion policies, but by appreciation and recognition of their achievements. CEO “A” is a firm believer in positive motivation and acknowledges management’s and employees’ contribution to the company’s success.

CEO B smiles at the camera with the confidence of someone who has had an extraordinary life, full of outstanding achievements. Throughout the years he has assembled a team of helpers that obey his orders without hesitation. He has hired inexperienced professionals (he feels that seasoned professionals have their own “ideas”) and has coached them to follow his commands. CEO B is a firm believer in “negative motivation” and reprimands his employees for mistakes while rarely acknowledging their contributions to the company’s success.

Difference 2-

Grooming the Next Generation

Successor A stands up, resting his right hand on his father’s shoulder. Their body language indicates that both men feel comfortable with each other. He shows the self-confidence of someone who is proud of himself and his family’s achievements. He has been involved in the family business since childhood, working on weekends and holidays during his school and university years. After graduating from university, he joined a multinational company and worked for them for several years before entering the family business. He has successfully managed the main business unit in the family company for the last three years.

Successor B stands up, his arms folded in front of him. His body language indicates that he feels uneasy. He shows the uncertainty and self-doubt of someone who does not feel in control of his own life. He also has always been involved in the family company and tried to get outside working experience. His father strongly opposed the idea and convinced him to stay, offering him the job of managing the main business unit. Successor “B” was aware of his father’s inability to delegate authority but decided to take the job and set his mind to getting real responsibility and decision-making power. After years of trying to change his father’s management approach to no avail, he has become another yes man in the organization. His initial frustration has turned into conformism and low self-esteem. He doesn’t challenge his father anymore , is not confident in his ability to find a position at the same level in another company and is afraid that once his father is gone he won’t be prepare  to run the Family Business as he has being train to just follow orders.

Difference 3-

Corporate Governance – The board of Directors

On the desk of CEO A sits an open calendar on which the next board of directors’ meeting is marked in red. The board of directors, including several independent entrepreneurs and professional managers, has been the key to developing a succession plan as well as to assuring the CEO’s accountability.

CEO B, on the other hand, believes that nobody has the right to tell him how to run his business, so he does not have a board of directors. He doesn’t consider planning for succession an urgent matter because he doesn’t plan to retire in the near future.

Difference 4

The family Constitution

On the top shelf of CEO A’s bookcase sits a copy of the “Family Constitution.” This contains the basic rules of how the family relates with the business. For example, it includes a rule that in order to work for the family company, a family member has to have a university degree and five years of experience working elsewhere. The family constitution, developed by the family with the assistance of an external consultant, has helped to avoid conflicts, as everybody knows what the rules are.

CEO B, on the contrary, does not believe that he needs a family constitution. He sets the rules and changes them as he pleases. He is not concerned about what may happen once he is not around anymore, because he likes to believe that he is going to be around forever.

And the final Difference:

Which company do you believe has a better chance of long-term survival?

A family business is not the same as a business run by an entrepreneur with some family members working for it. The case of The Erb Group–a private, multibillion, Swiss

conglomerate run almost exclusively by its octogenarian founder and which collapsed after his death, revealing a lack of accounting controls–should serve as a warning sign for every

entrepreneur. A responsible family business leader should consider if he really has a family business and whether he has developed the means for his business to be successful and

remain in the family in the long run.

So, do you really have a family business? Eliminate the differences!

Written by Carmen Lence of NextGen Consulting & Coaching www.nextgenfamilybusiness.com


To Those Next Generation Family Business Members That Are Being Called “Stupid”: Use The “Trashcan” Technique.


Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. Steve Jobs

Today I took my 3-year-old to a workshop that teaches young kids how to stay safe and defend themselves during potentially dangerous situations. One of the techniques they taught the children is called “The Trashcan”. You use The Trashcan when you are verbally abused and it basically involves catching those abusive words with your hand and, as they are garbage, throwing them away in the trashcan. After that you address the person who was abusive to you with a positive sentence that asserts the opposite of what he or she called you.

I observed my daughter role-playing during the exercise. The trainer was the “abuser” and told her: “You are stupid.” She pretended to catch the words with her hand, throw them away in an imaginary trashcan—so they did not hurt her—and then she looked her instructor in the eyes and said in a clear, assertive voice: “ I’m smart.” As I was watching her I thought to myself: “I wish I’d had this training when I was 3 years old… it would have saved me so much pain later on in life.”

We have all, at some point, experienced someone being mean to us. But the worse, most damaging abuse often comes from the closest people in our lives: our family and “well meaning” friends. Over time, their comments can undermine your self-esteem and make you feel like you are, indeed, stupid.

This is sadly something that many next generation family business members have experienced in their lives. Having an entrepreneur as a parent provides you with a great role model of hard work, dedication and perseverance… but quite often, these traits also come with a controlling, impatient, egocentric Type A personality.

Don’t get me wrong. These parents do want the best for their kids and want their children to be successful in life. The only problem is that they have their own definition of what that success actually means: working in the family business following Dad or Mom’s orders until they themselves decide to retire (actually, until Mother Nature decides its time for them to retire), and you are pretty much left living the life they envisioned for you.

Of course, the best way for discouraging the sheep from discovering the world is to make them fear it. So any occasion is a good opportunity to remind you that you should be grateful for the chance to work in the family business, as nobody out there will hire you… or that you shouldn’t even dream about setting up your own company because you would go bankrupt. You can also forget about a career as a journalist, chef, doctor or whatever it is you dream of if it involves not working in the family business, you will fail for sure… Basically, you are stupid and you’d better stay with Mom and Dad if you don’t want to be eaten alive!

It doesn’t stop there. On top of that, you have those “well meaning” friends that get Goosebumps every time they listen to you dreaming about leaving the family business and give you all the reasons why you will end up starving on the street and begging your parents to give you another opportunity. Yes, they really are scared, but they’re not scared about you not being able to make it… No! They’re scared about you making it, and making it big! It would remind them what cowards they are for not even trying themselves!

It took me some coaching, a supportive husband, and some important achievements in my life to prove to myself that I’m smart and restore my self-belief. In the future though, I definitely plan on using “The trashcan” technique to fence off any further attacks!

What about you?

In memory of Steve Jobs who said: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Written by Carmen Lence of NextGen Consulting & Coaching  www.nextgenfamilybusiness.com