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Before I dive in, I’d like to clear something up. Ethan Hellman, the vivacious, dashing, brilliant 20-year-old co-founder of Toucan, is my brother. And he’s 2 years younger than I am. It’s important to me that people know this, as the older - and wiser 😉 - sister. But, also, we get asked about our relationship all the time. No, we’re not twins. And no, we’re not married.
Now that that’s all settled, I’d like to address one of the questions I get asked most frequently: “What is it like to start a company with your brother?”
Honestly, at the very beginning of Toucan, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Ethan would be an excellent co-founder. He’s smart as a whip, incredibly personable, and the most driven person I know - not to mention, hilarious. Neither of us had started a company before, so we were both walking into something very new and unfamiliar. We were both slightly intimidated by what was to come, but we knew that everything would be ok since we were in it together. We walked into every new experience with a smile and an open mind.
Was I at all worried about starting such a massive project with my brother? Yes, of course. You hear horror stories of siblings or family members starting companies together, having destructive disagreements, and never speaking to each other ever again. I heard a few of those early on, and I will not lie; it scared me a little bit. But then I remembered that every family is different. And as we progressed with Toucan, we started coming across more and more people who told us that they, themselves, either started companies with their siblings or funded companies with sibling founders. There are people like us out there in the world, and many of them have seen great success. The important lesson: There are tons of stories out there. Everyone can speak from their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that your experience will be the same. People usually try to be of assistance whenever they can, but sometimes the anecdotes can be unhelpful or even counterproductive. Being able to discern which those are is a skill.
I think that I should give some background information on my relationship with Ethan. I mentioned in the first paragraph that I am 2 years older than he is. For a significant portion of my life, I used to reminisce about those 2 years that I spent as an only child. (Of course, I couldn’t actually remember any of it, but the concept seemed nice.) I got irritated easily, I took a long time to learn how to share, and, just like any little kid, I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t get my parents’ full attention. Ethan and I fought all the time as children and probably drove our parents crazy. We both were, and still are, extremely competitive, so to say that there was a sibling rivalry is an understatement.
But I have a theory. With siblings that don’t get along perfectly, as the age gap between them becomes a smaller and smaller fraction of the total time that they have been alive, their relationship gets better. They can understand each other better. They can put aside any petty disputes and cherish each other’s company. They can have real conversations. And that is exactly what happened with me and Ethan a few years ago.
I won’t bore you with the cheesy young-adult-novel-version of this story, where two siblings find common ground and grow to appreciate each other, but that’s pretty much what happened. A real-life encapsulation of this shift is our tennis game. We used to play tennis against each other and try to make the other either cry or collapse on the court - whichever came first. But around my sophomore year in high school, we realized that we’re actually far more formidable when we play doubles as a team. Plus, we have way more fun.
Just like in tennis, we’ve found that we’re much stronger as a team in business than we would be alone. We laugh all the time about how, looking back, we used to argue incessantly. Contrastingly, in the past year, we have hardly ever disagreed with each other. We’re on the same page and can practically read each other’s minds. I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with the person who knows you best in the entire world.
The two most vital and valuable aspects of our relationship - both professional and familial - are trust and respect. Growing up together for the past 20 years, we have seen each other’s highs and lows, and we know what makes the other tick. We know how to make the other laugh, and we understand each other’s boundaries and capacities. And because of that, we are acutely aware of what we can each put on our plates and when to step in to help out.
Looking back on this past year, I am so proud of how much Ethan has grown and how much we have been able to accomplish together. I was inspired to write this piece because I recently witnessed an unfortunate spat between two young siblings. It reminded me a little of what my relationship with Ethan used to be like, which is why I felt that it was important to write this. Ethan is my absolute best friend, and he is a phenomenal co-founder, leader, confidante, and support system. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have admitted that 10 years ago. I am very lucky to have grown up alongside such a fantastic person and to have progressed to a place in our sibling relationship where we can declare with pride that we are, in fact, better as a team.
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Antonia Hellman is co-founder and CEO of Toucan.
She is a recent graduate of Stanford University, having studied political science and economics.
She enjoys long walks to explore new cities, listening to audiobooks on 1.2x speed, a cup of hot water, and re-watching mediocre movies.
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