When your marriage is hitched to a business, life is one long test of allegiance
Slide into bed with an entrepreneur, and you wind up cuddling with his business. At a certain point, the entrepreneur's spouse has to answer the question: Are you in or are you out? It is a question that surfaces in many forms over time. Are you in? In for as long as it takes this business to succeed? In for what is potentially a lifetime of financial risk? Or are you out? Out of patience, out of tolerance, out of your mind with stress and the bitterness of dreams deferred? The entrepreneur usually doesn't pose the question overtly. Yet the spouse does answer it, by giving or withholding support, encouragement, warmth, and reassurance -- the manifestations of love.
First base, second, or all the way home. How far are you willing to go?
I fell in love with an entrepreneur -- my husband, Gary, co-founded the Stonyfield Farm yogurt company -- before he really was one. The characteristics, though, were already evident. In 1984, Gary was a charismatic, humble-but-cocksure maker and seller of things, though at that time all he had to sell was himself. Two years after meeting him, I agreed to buy all his stock, and we married on a perfect June day. Gary never tried to hide his entrepreneurial nature, and I was too smitten to notice or care. I didn't think through the implications of a business on our life together. After all, the business was only a handful of cows and a few hundred cups of yogurt made per day.
Gary's partner, Samuel Kaymen, had started a rural education school at Stonyfield Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire. Gary was on Samuel's board of directors, and the two decided to convert Samuel's organic yogurt recipe into dollars to fund the school. By the time I moved up to live at the farm, they were selling three flavors -- plain, maple, and vanilla -- to New Hampshire stores. Then a call came in from a large supermarket's dairy buyer, who demanded that Stonyfield supply his stores with yogurt. When Samuel told him that we couldn't produce any more yogurt from the milk of our 19 cows, the buyer responded, "Then get some more goddamned cows!" That was the true beginning of our business.
During the nine painful years it took us to reach profitability, we endured countless disasters, mishaps, and near-death experiences. That meant there were countless times we could have rid ourselves of the misery we called a business. Gary and Samuel were overworked and exhausted but determined to persevere. I never had a voice in the decision to carry on, but there were many moments when I was forced to answer that question: Was I in or was I out?
The truth is, I was out, but I acted in. I believed in the product and in the company's mission to support organic farmers. (When I met Gary, I had been managing an organic farm for a nonprofit.) But I hadn't bargained for the endless stress of an entrepreneurial business. Gary never said or even implied, "Love me, love my dream." And I did love the dream. But there had to be a less harrowing way to save the world.
I was out, but I acted in. More precisely, I gave in. There is a difference between acquiescence and agreement. I was out the night Gary was called into the factory for a machine breakdown at 2 a.m., and the acid in the boot wash ate a hole in the heel of his foot. I was out when he built a new factory with money we didn't have and personally guaranteed the loans for several expensive pieces of equipment. I was out when, as a result of errors in inventory counts, Samuel had to lecture the warehouse and production staffs on the difference between writing 4s and 9s. (Fours are open at the top!)
I was out, but I never told my husband that. I simply couldn't voice my fears to him. He had enough to worry about with creditors nipping at his heels, potential investors laughing in his face, and employees writing 9s where 4s should be. Gary shouldered the great weight of our collective doubt. I refused to openly stand with the doubters, though I shared their skepticism. Instead, I would offer Gary halfhearted congratulations for new accounts secured, batches unspoiled, sales slightly increased. Most of our victories were merely disasters averted. Our bar of success could not have been set lower.
I had my rebellions -- begging my mother not to invest more money in the business was one. Mostly, I surrendered to the tide -- working in the factory and in sales. But my attempts to help only sharpened my doubts. It was plain that our farm factory was grossly inefficient; we lost vast amounts of product to spoilage. Sales calls were depressing; most supermarket buyers treated our low-volume brand as a hassle. Board meetings reminded us that our cost of goods was too high and our cash burn would continue for another quarter (always another quarter). We lost money on each cup sold. So why on earth were we trying to sell more yogurt?
Gary and I didn't quarrel much -- we were too busy just trying to keep the babies fed and the business alive. But after a while, we noticed a pattern. The fights we did have were about stupid things, unrelated to the business, and always took place in the car on the way back from my mother's house in New York. Back then, those trips were our only real vacations (unlike us, she had a bathtub and thermostats), and we dreaded returning to our life at the farm. That dread would convert to bickering on the bleak drive home.
The moment of truth came, as I suspect such moments do in most marriages hitched to a business. I had to decide whether it was possible to declare allegiance to my spouse but turn my back on the business with which his identity had become so entangled.
When we married, I asked Gary for just one commitment: that he never touch the $30,000 that was my father's legacy to me. It was to be my nest egg, a down payment on a home in the (likely) event that the business failed and we lost everything else.
In 1987, we moved production off our farm and began co-packing at a factory in Massachusetts. Without warning, our co-packer went bankrupt. We had three days to clean and relight the boilers at Stonyfield, hire new employees, and buy fruit, milk, and culture. And, of course, we had no money for any of that, except my $30,000. Gary came to me and said, "I need the cash." I couldn't straddle anymore. No weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth would provide relief now.
In or out? Gary never put it that way, and I'm sure he didn't think about it that way. But that's what it came down to. I'm in, I guess, because you're in, and we're married, and my loyalty lies with you. I'm in, because we have employees and shareholders and customers who expect us to climb out of bed every day and do the entire scary and depressing thing all over again. I'm in, because I believe in your vision of a saner planet. I'm in, even though I'm convinced we're going to lose our shirts and take a lot of people's money down with us. I'm in, because your passion, your courage, your willingness to have a dream and run with it are a large part of what attracted me to you in the first place.
Goodbye, fantasy bathtub; goodbye, thermostat mirage. As I wrote the check, the door of my dream home shut with a thud. In my heart, a plea to my father: Dad, wherever you are, I hope you don't think your only daughter is a fool.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is a writer married to Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm. She will be writing a regular column about the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families.
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