We should all know better by now, but still the myth of the entrepreneurial "type" lives on. It comes matched with the idea that building a company is above all else about individual drive, monomania, and kicking relentless ass--including (no, especially) your own. Hence the only true entrepreneur, goes the myth, is the one willing to pay the price, take the pain, set life aside, and sacrifice all for the goal. The only true--and admirable--entrepreneur is, well, a little crazy.
And then you meet Laura and Pete Wakeman.
By any description other than the mythological one, the Wakemans are as entrepreneurial as you can get. For most of the past 25 years they owned and ran a growing collection of whole wheat bakeries called the Great Harvest Bread Co. They began in the '70s, as kids just out of college, newly married, and newly moved from the Northeast to their suddenly adopted new home state, Montana. They grew the business slowly but steadily--organically. Eventually they expanded by franchising because people asked. By the '90s they had gradually turned their network of nationwide stores into a grass-roots example of the "learning organization" that big-company consultants evangelized about but rarely found. And in 2001, with 140 stores in operation, they finally sold Great Harvest. "For cash," Pete Wakeman says, "the only way to really get separate from your business." As much as they loved their company, it was time for something new.
Still, their Great Harvest stewardship lasted a quarter century--a long run. It was successful both financially and strategically. But what matters about the Wakemans has ultimately to do with neither money nor management; it has to do with art, and the too-often overlooked reason that most company builders start building their companies in the first place, which is to get the life they want. To live in a way that will make them fulfilled and secure. To be happy.
That's what the Wakemans accomplished. While growing a company, they simultaneously pioneered the art of keeping life in balance and making entrepreneurship a sustainable, instead of personally depleting, pursuit. The art of the long run. Not that their way is the only way, the Wakemans are quick to point out. (Which is why this is art, not science.) For one thing, their particular way meant leaving town--regularly. From the start, the couple typically spent one to three months a year away from their business to travel and chase other interests. That was one of the reasons, Laura Wakeman says, "we were still fresh after 24 years--we still loved our business. How many owners can say that?"
The Wakemans taught us that finding one's own right way requires both an honest recognition of what you want your life to be like and a brave commitment to the boundaries that will keep your company from preventing it. For the Wakemans, that meant rules. "Handrails," they called them--"physical things that make it almost impossible not to live the way we want," Pete explains. Examples: the two-day-weekend rule (they neither worked nor took calls on Saturdays and Sundays), the 1,000-hour rule (a yearly limit), and the long trips.
"We worked so we could take trips," Pete says. "We loved our work, but we never skipped the trips. As the business got more intense, it was easy to get confused and begin to think the trips were to refresh us so that we could work better. We fought that thought like the poison it is.
"And it was the inviolate nature of these weekends and trips that forced us to hire right, and train right, and invent systems for our people as the business grew. That was fabulous for the business. Imagine a little bakery whose people knew they had to do Sundays alone, August alone--and there was no way to call if they got in trouble." In the Wakemans' commitment to absence, it turned out, were the seeds of a self-reliant company culture.
The real lesson of the Wakemans, though, isn't that CEOs need trips. It's that the myth of the entrepreneurial "type" is wrong--not every entrepreneur needs to suffer. It's that company building doesn't need to be a martyr's work.
It's that if you value it enough, it's possible to live the way you want and expand a company, too. Even, Pete Wakeman would tell you, "to make the perfect life."--Michael S. Hopkins
Michael S. Hopkins is an editor-at-large.