When Meg Cadoux Hirshberg fell in love and married entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg, who was struggling to make a success of Stonyfield Farm, his organic yogurt company he co-founded with Samuel Kaymen, she asked him for just one financial commitment: Never to touch the $30,000 legacy that her father had left her.
It was meant to be her nest egg, a down payment on a home in what she expected was the likely event they lost the business and the associated farm they were living on. Entrepreneurs continually run into crises scrambling for new money. In 1987, three years after they met, as she increasingly hid from her husband her lack of belief he would succeed, a co-packer went bankrupt, and he needed a quick infusion of cash to hire new employees and get some unused equipment on the farm running within three days.
She was his last resort. He needed the $30,000 – immediately. She couldn’t straddle any longer. She had to decide: Was she in, fully committed, or was she, in effect, out, not fully supporting the venture?
“Well, Gary, I’m in, I guess. I’m in because you’re in, and we’re married, and my loyalty lies with you,” she recalls in her insightful book on the struggles of entrepreneurs and spouses, For Better Or For Work, being released next week
“So goodbye fantasy bathtub. Goodbye thermostat mirage. As I wrote the cheque for $30K, the door of my dream home shut with a thud. In my heart, I made a plea to my father. ‘Dear Dad, wherever you are: Please don’t think your only daughter is a fool.’ ”
She calls the question of whether she was in or out “the third rail” of their marriage, a topic too explosive for them to discuss. And in talking with other entrepreneurs and spouses over the years – for her highly popular monthly column, Balancing Acts, in Inc. magazine, on the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families – she has found she was not alone in her hidden distress. “These kinds of moments put you to the test. But all along, the issue was simmering. I was feeling out but didn’t act it or express it. I kept it to myself,” she says in an interview.
Most businesses don’t go as planned, she notes. The entrepreneur is not just putting himself at risk, but the entire family, by taking lower salary than could be gained elsewhere, or re-mortgaging the house, or asking for that $30,000 nest egg. Only the entrepreneur has sufficient knowledge of the business to judge whether the investment he or she is begging for will be successful – to judge, as Ms. Hirshberg says, whether the latest problem “is a hurricane or a hiccup.” But how objective is the entrepreneur? Has passion for the business overrun passion for the family and good sense?
Another major stressor for entrepreneurs and families is the fact that work never ends. Many jobs today, of course, require huge hours, but she believes with an entrepreneur the pressure is even greater. “There is no work-life balance. There is just one life,” she says.
In her case, and those of many entrepreneurs, the family home is not just a dwelling place but in the initial stages the head office and perhaps manufacturing plant. The business starts at the dining room table, then suddenly the living room is filled with file cabinets and boxes, and then there are strange people working in the basement.
“Living with Stonyfield, we had zero privacy. Trucks groaned up our narrow gravel driveway at all hours. Employees were ever present, glancing at what was for dinner and frequently using our bathroom when the public one was occupied. (The employee restroom was the only one with a bathtub. I love a good soak, but if I tried to grab one late at night a worker’s more urgent requirements would invariably send me scrambling.) When our best yogurt maker had to work the night shift and couldn’t find a babysitter for her son, yours truly would rock the boy to sleep. Our kitchen table overlooked the yogurt works, so we couldn’t get through a meal without distractions from outside,” she writes.
One Sunday morning, while she and Gary were in bed, an unfamiliar teenager wandered into their room, announced he had been hired to clean the offices, and asked for a broom. By the next day, their apartment had a lock on it. One afternoon, she walked into her kitchen carrying bags of groceries and found a young man she didn’t recognize removing cutlery and plates from her cupboard. “We have a lunch meeting in the office,” he explained nonchalantly.
“I was speechless, feeling invaded at the most basic level,” she recalls. “This was my kitchen. My stuff. Then I chided myself. These people were keeping the company afloat, and we all believed in using fewer disposables. Why couldn’t I feel good about sharing? Why was I being so uncool? Still, I thought, there have to be boundaries. The only question was where did they lie?”
It’s boundaries that she believes entrepreneurs and their spouses need to set, not just on family financial security and home invasions but also on using money from relatives. Often the easiest money for an entrepreneur to access is from the family, and Ms. Hirshberg became increasingly distressed as her mother kept putting more and more money into their enterprise, making her the biggest shareholder. It turned out OK: The business succeeded, and her mother is at ease in retirement, able to help pay for the college education of 10 grandchildren with her return on her investment. But it might not have turned out quite that idyllic. “As long as things are aired in advance and labelled, you can avoid a lot of headaches and heartaches,” she says.
Her final advice, as a spouse to entrepreneurs: “Entrepreneurs have many wonderful characteristics. They are creative, inventive and exciting. But they need to recognize a successful family life also takes creativity, inventiveness and passion.”
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg hopes For Better Or For Work will be the guidebook for other entrepreneurial families that she wished she had when she met her husband, and so she ends every chapter with issues for the entrepreneur and family to talk about. Some samples:
- What is the best outcome you can imagine for the business? What is the worst? How will either one affect your marriage?
- If you want children down the road, how will the business influence that timetable?
- How informed does the spouse wish to be about the business?
- Will the entrepreneur share bad news, or will he try, as much as possible, to preserve her peace of mind?
- What steps will you take to rope off your private life from an entity that tries to shoulder its way into everything?
- Personal relationships don’t always translate neatly into professional environments. How will you behave toward one another in the workplace? Is it OK to question or criticize each other in front of employees? Should all personal subjects be verboten?
- Entrepreneurs tend to attract outsize attention. Spouses often feel eclipsed. How can the entrepreneur ensure that her spouse receives due credit in the eyes of others?
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.
E-mail Harvey Schachter
Special to The Globe and Mail
Follow us on Twitter: