Or: I married a founder but didn't know it. A veteran business writer confronts the metamorphic power of company building, viewed from across his breakfast table
I didn't exactly discourage my wife, Anne, from starting her own company. The fact is, to my surprise, she didn't want advice from me at all, let alone a list of reasons why the thought of it made me queasy. So I held my tongue, except for generic expressions of spousal support, and kept my questions to myself.
I'd written about entrepreneurship for most of my career, including a memorable decade at Inc. I'd visited hundreds of hopeful start-ups and seen the stress and anxiety that accompanied even the most successful ones. I couldn't imagine why my wife would want the headaches.
During her 25-year career, she had built an impressive reputation, moving from human resources to consulting, outplacement, and executive coaching, but she'd never shown any interest in being on her own before. Why take the risk now? She earned a generous salary for doing work she loved with colleagues she prized, and she still had time left over for nonprofit-board work and a network of friends and former clients. Why give up all that comfort, not to mention her four-day workweek?
Some of my misgivings were professional. She'd never written a business plan, plotted out cash flow, or met a payroll, and she hated to sell. Where would she find the skills? More important, she didn't know yet what her company's story would be, let alone what unique value-added service or product she would create. How far could she get if she didn't know where she wanted to go?
I had personal misgivings, too. I'd been self-employed for most of my career, moving from project to project; her paycheck had always been our safety net. We had both fantasized about retiring by 60. If she failed, what would happen to that dream? And if she succeeded, what would happen to our relationship? Who wants to be an entrepreneur's spouse, competing for time and attention with the relentless demands of a start-up?
But getting too comfortable, she insisted, was the real risk. She wanted to be in control for a change, to build something of her own. She'd figure out the what and how as she went. She'd had enough of reacting to other people's plans. It was time to test her own ideas. She was tired of being consulted for "the woman's point of view" on "soft human issues" like service quality and personnel, but being left out when the men thrashed their way through the "hard business" decisions involving strategy or finance. She'd make the decisions herself, treating customers the way she'd want to be treated, and prove that "soft" versus "hard," "human" versus "business," and "woman" versus "man" were outmoded distinctions.
Then she proceeded to demonstrate how dreams become companies--and to remind me of the difference between entrepreneurship lived and entrepreneurship written about. One looks forward. The other looks back.
Within a week she was taking courses and going to workshops, working out pricing plans and poring over spreadsheets. Within two months she'd written the business plan for Career Investment Strategies, a career- and leadership-development company, set aside $50,000 of her savings for working capital, created a logo, signed incorporation papers, and opened an office in Boston's financial district. By the end of her first week of operations she had letterhead, her first customers, and an advisory board. A month later she was in the black.
It might have stopped there. But she wanted more than something of her own; she wanted something bigger than herself. So she moved into a five-office suite; invested in computers, fax machines, furniture, and phones; refined her marketing plan and sales strategy; and started forming a network with other entrepreneurs. Within a year after the move, she was in the black again, with a buyout offer on the table from a bigger company. But she had more ambitious plans: new investments in new services, a bigger staff, a network of overseas alliances, and an electronic interface--all pointing toward a multimillion-dollar exit strategy for 2004, one year before she'll turn 60.
I don't want to make it sound as if it was easy, or is easy now. She works most nights and weekends and wrestles with worry and frustration that tie her neck muscles into knots. And she still pours every cent back into the company, although she hopes to pay herself this year. But I was wrong about entrepreneurship, it turned out. Focused on my own fears, I'd imagined only the potential downside, the headaches, the stumbling blocks, and the inevitable disappointments--and had forgotten just how much the creative act of entrepreneurship can transform a person.