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Mother's Day special: Sweet success for family biz

Ooh La La Candy proprietors Sara Stevens, right, and her daughter Rebecca Zorowitz.

(MoneyWatch) In 2001, after years in the corporate world, mom-of-two Sara Stevens become an entrepreneur, starting a boutique candy business called Candy Care. In 2008, her daughter Rebecca, a recent college grad, joined the team. Her decision was brought on in part by her mom's diagnosis with ovarian cancer, as well as her own layoff from her first entry-level job.

Along with the transition into a mother-daughter business, the company name changed to Ooh La La Candy to reflect the fashion-forward feel of the New York City-based brand, which focuses on chic, colorful cupcakes crafted out of candy and paired with greeting cards. In honor of Mother's Day this weekend, I spoke to Rebecca, 26, and Sara, 61, about their crash course in running a family business.

What has surprised you about going into business together?

Sara Stevens: I don't think I could have anticipated the joy of working with my daughter. In the past four years, I have seen her blossom into such a confident, competent, and mature professional. Her ideas and insights have taught me so much. I beam with pride when she speaks at a meeting, not only because she is my partner, but because she is my daughter.

Rebecca Zorowitz: What surprised me most is how amazingly well my mother and I work together. Where one slacks, the other one usually picks up that slack, and it just works so perfectly. We truly compliment each other in such wonderful, functioning ways.

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What has been the greatest challenge of working together?

Sara: One difficulty I have working with my daughter is keeping a lot of the financial dealings to myself. I don't share cash-flow issues or collection issues as much as I should. I am sure she would have good ideas to help manage our business.

Rebecca: The hardest part of running a business as a mother-daughter team is remembering that work is not our entire lives. It is so easy to get consumed with work and completely forget all the other aspects of life we enjoy together.

What advice would you both give to others thinking of starting a family business?

Sara: It is very important to establish what each family member wants. If the parent wants to "be the boss," make that clear up front. I think most problems come from two family members wanting the same things or from no clear roles. Is the family member a full partner or an employee? What plans do each of you have? For example, I plan to phase out of the business or retire in the next couple of years.

Rebecca: Make a point of having family time that is not concentrated around work and the business. You always keep that personal element within your lives. Also, when hiring [non-family] employees, it is important to be very conscious of the fact that someone is coming into a family work dynamic. Sometimes you need to hold back a bit so that the workplace remains professional and doesn't turn into a family home.

Do you run a family business? What's your best advice for others thinking of starting one?

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.