Sisters Marni and Willa Blank never thought they’d go into business together. In fact, they’ve both witnessed first-hand the failures of sibling-run businesses, and their careers had led them down entirely different paths. But Willa, 33, who was working in fashion and spent a lot of time in photo studios, realized that the available options were either extremely expensive, lacked amenities, or were inconveniently located. Determined that she could provide a better experience than what was currently offered on the market, she consulted her sister, Marni, 36, a former lawyer working in real estate. Without any intention of going into business together, they started looking at spaces—until it became clear that their complementary skill sets would make them optimal business partners. They decided to launch Blank Studio NYC: a daylight rental photography loft in the heart of SoHo in which clients like Vogue, Rebecca Taylor, and La Mer host everything from events to photoshoots. While the sisters admit that starting a business with a family member is just as challenging as you’d expect, it turns out that having a business partner who’s related to you is invaluable. Here, they open up about how they’ve made it work from day one.
Before opening Blank Studio, had you ever thought about starting a business together?
Marni: I would occasionally come up with some random idea, bring it to Willa, and she would be like, “Absolutely, not. We cannot work together. This is a terrible idea.” Not terrible the idea, terrible the idea of working together. So when she pitched this idea to me with me being involved, we really took time to think about whether it made sense. We thought through what the division of labor would be and how it would look because we wanted to maintain a good sister relationship—you always hear the horror stories. Actually, the real estate company I was working for, a startup at the time, was run by two brothers and it was a horrible working environment where they would just scream at each other. They ended up divorcing, with one brother firing the other.
How do you recover your personal life after that?
Marni: They haven’t as far as I’ve heard. So we really sat with it for a while before we decided to move forward with it. It took us about six months to find the space and then I think we probably sat with it for a month or so before we agreed to work together.
Who is responsible for what in running the business?
Willa: I am the creative director, which can be a bit vague, but I was in charge of the creation of the space, the design and feel of the space, producing studio sponsored events, and handling more of the client relationships.
Marni: You do the creative; social media and marketing, designing our website, and the tone. I do the operations, more of the behind the scenes. I do the contracts with the clients. I do a lot of email communication. I do the taxes; the boring back-of-house stuff.
Willa: I’m the luckiest business partner in the world; she pays our credit card bills. I always tell her whenever we’re in a rut or something, “This business would not exist without you. You literally make it run.”
Marni: And I feel the same about her. This space and the reason people want to be here is because of her.
Have any of the fears and concerns that you had before about working as sisters turned out to be true? How do you cope with the challenges?
Willa: They’re all true, but, we’re both pretty self-aware and we’re completely opposite personality types. Somehow I think because we’re siblings it works so much better, because we try to have radical honesty. I can be annoyed at something Marni’s doing or vice versa, and if we just say, “This is bothering me,” we might fight about it, or we might let it roll off our back. But either way, 30 minutes later we’re like, “Okay, let’s talk about this. Are you okay?” And then we just move past it because we have to. Inevitably, we both care more about each other, so it’s not that those things don’t bother you and they don’t come up, it’s just that you learn how to fight faster.
Marni: Yeah. And obviously we come with 33 years of history and we deal with things that may not bother normal coworkers or business partners. But on the other hand, because we know each other so well and we have more skin in the game, we’re able to move past things. With a business partner that isn’t related to you, it would be harder to be brutally honest and to say exactly how you’re feeling and to fully trust each other.
Willa: And that it’s in both of our best interests. I’m never worried about Marni making decisions; even if I don’t agree with it, I know that her intention is for both of our wellbeings.
How do you separate your business and your personal life?
Marni: We’re still working on it.
Willa: It comes up a lot because we have mutual friends. We’re very close to our family and our cousins live in the city. We can’t avoid seeing each other socially, so we are trying to figure out how to hang out when it’s not a family-related thing and when it’s not a work-related thing.
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Marni: The boundaries are sort of fluid and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes we’re in a good place; everything’s going fine and we can spend all of our time together. We have work things that we’re on the phone or texting essentially all the time about. And sometimes it reaches that breaking point where it’s like, “Okay, we need time apart. I love you, but I don’t currently like you, and we need some time away from each other.” We’re also trying to implement not bringing up work when we’re in family gatherings and when we’re with our friends. Sometimes that’s hard to do so it’s just practice, repeat, practice, repeat.
Willa: I talk to her 25 times a day. We also live seven minutes apart from each other and we care for each other’s pets, as well.
Marni: It’s very intertwined.
Would you say your relationship has changed at all?
Willa: I think that it has. We obviously spend more time together, but I actually think that we appreciate each other more or respect each other more, just seeing how we deal with work and life. When we lived in the city but didn’t work together, we didn’t see each other that much.
Marni: Yeah. We lived pretty separate existences for many, many years. I think it’s also that what’s great about having Willa as a partner is obviously there are things that come up in life like personal things that are hard, that are difficult, and to have someone there who says, “Don’t worry about it. You take your time. You do you. I’ve got it handled,” is hugely important. At various years, various times, both of us had to lean on each other for that kind of support and it was never, “You’re not showing up to work. You’re fired,” but rather, “Take care of yourself. I get it and we’ll handle it.” I think that has been really amazing in growing this.
Are there any, I don’t want to call it issues, but things that come up that you have to consult a third party on?
Marni: We’re both a big proponent of therapy and having someone to bounce things off of. There’s always going to be things to work on, but we haven’t had someone within the business.
Willa: We’re looking for a second space right now, so sometimes we’ll have questions about a lease or a situation or how to deal with something and neither of us knows the answer. So Marni will talk to her friends in real estate or ask people advice, kind of like advisors. And same for me, when I have a question or when I’m second-guessing a creative decision, I have a ton of friends who are creative directors and photographers I lean on. But I think that’s with anyone, working with just one other person is challenging. We talk about it a lot. I miss having a broader group of people to collaborate with creatively and bounce ideas off of. I love that sense of being in the trenches together.
Marni: I think we try to balance that out by doing things at the studio that we can bring in other people to help collaborate with us. So for instance, every year we put on at least one fundraiser, but we do a holiday fundraiser in support of some organization or charity that we believe in. We’ve partnered with individuals or companies to help make these programs more successful and bring in other opinions and ideas for a bigger impact. We also host workshops at the studio where we bring in speakers that we think our community would want to hear from around love and relationships, personal finance, and career. We try to be consistent with this so we alleviate some of the “we only have each other to lean on” issues.
Are there any misconceptions about starting a company with your sibling that you’ve found not to be true?
Marni: We’ve both seen other sibling relationships falter because of business relationships. And the truth is that it’s hard.
Willa: But it’s hard with anyone.
Marni: The important thing is when you run up against things that are constantly creating friction, sit and think, “Okay, how can we alleviate this? Is there something we can do to make this not an issue?” And for instance, in our first year, we were very scrappy and at the end of every day, we were the cleaners and were literally mopping the floor every night on our hands and knees. That was causing a lot of friction between us because Willa is more…
We've both seen other sibling relationships falter because of business relationships. The truth is that it's hard.
Marni: Detail-oriented in cleaning than I am and it would cause arguments about is it clean enough? And it became an issue. The solution was we hired a cleaning service. That way, something that was causing us issues was no longer an issue. We’re much happier partners, because of someone cleaning our space for us.
Willa: Also for siblings, setting boundaries is important and respect for each other needs to be prioritized. I also worked for siblings and like you said, when they’re yelling at each other in front of other people, it’s very unprofessional and it just causes everybody else to feel stress and discomfort.
Have either of you ever worked for a successful sibling-founder duo?
It’s interesting that you both were first-hand witnesses to how it doesn’t work well, and yet you decided to give it a shot.
Willa: Yeah, it’s bizarre.
Marni: Witnessing what not to do also allowed us to do it the right way when we started. We had a lawyer look over our partnership agreement. We didn’t just rely on the fact that we’re sisters. We’re like, “This is serious and we want to make sure that if something’s not working, we have an exit strategy. How are we going to handle this thing?” I think it’s just important to remember that ultimately our relationship is bigger than this business. I love having this with my sister, but I love my sister more than the business, and so ultimately that’s what makes it work.
What’s your best advice for other siblings looking to start a business together?
Willa: Be very intentional in how you set it up from the get-go. Outlining your roles also is super important because if you’re both doing the same things, then you start stepping on toes.
Marni: Yeah. Just open communication, in any relationship, and not letting things boil under the surface. If something’s important enough to bother you, talk it out. It’s worth having the conversation now and not let it blow up later.
Willa: And trust each other; trust is huge.
5 Tips on How to Work With Your Sibling
- Clearly outline your roles and responsibilities from the get-go to avoid stepping on each others’ toes.
- Practice separating your private life from your work life.
- Bring in other people for collaborations to alleviate some of the “we only have each other to lean on” issues.
- Have open communication and be brutally honest; if something’s important enough to bother you, talk it out.
- Remember that your relationship is bigger than the business.