Thanksgiving dinner or meeting of the board? When your family members are investors in your business, the lines get blurry.
During the 1980s, our first years in business, I felt great relief each November as we left behind the ruts of our New Hampshire dirt road, glided onto the interstate, and headed south to Mom's New York home for Thanksgiving. But around Hartford, my anxiety meter would start ticking up. My mother and three brothers had invested heavily in our company, Stonyfield Yogurt. And I knew that soon after our arrival, the conversation would turn to the fate of their cash. Their questions were sheathed in a kindness that barely covered the sharp blade of concern within. Profits? Not even close. Margins? Come on. Cash burn? Lots of that. I would sympathize with the turkey as slivers of explanations and excuses were sliced from our tender hides. In those early days, our carcass of a business felt cooked, too.
Fortunately, those discussions were for the most part supportive. My brothers (two physicians and a lawyer) were entertained and challenged by entrepreneurial problem solving. They enjoyed offering advice. My husband, Gary, profited from talking things out and getting some fresh thinking. At the very least, it was a break from making yogurt. But there was a lack of ease in the air, as our Thanksgiving reunion morphed into a literal kitchen-cabinet meeting. At times, I wished we could just hold a shareholders' Q&A beforehand and enjoy the pumpkin pie in peace.
Building a business requires sacrifices. When the business is funded by relatives, those sacrifices may include the carefree family gathering, the casual lunch with a sibling, and the lighthearted phone chat with Mom and Dad. Anxious and exhausted, entrepreneurs yearn for the solace and support usually provided by families: a sheltered place to lay their weary heads. But relationships change whenever money enters the picture. After all, the adjectives traditionally paired with cash are cold and hard. If business problems also endanger the family treasure, the entrepreneur may find her weary head resting on cold, hard stone.
Of course, you have to get money from somewhere, and founders naturally balk at the constraints and pressures imposed by institutional investors. Yet relying on the kindness of intimates can be even more fraught. Recently, I heard from an Inc. reader whose husband, unbeknownst to her, had borrowed money from his sister to cover payroll. She was furious when she found out. "I don't want people looking at me funny because we owe them money," she told me. "Debt erodes healthy relationships. I would have preferred a loan from a bank."
The people who love and believe in us are also those whose fortunes we least want to imperil, and whose positive regard it hurts most to squander. Venture capitalists understand this, which is why they often prefer that friends and families invest before they consider a deal. As one CEO said to me, "Venture people know you don't care about them, but that you'll work hard to make sure not to lose the money of loved ones." The decision to invest is about the business, but it's personal, too. After all, businesses reflect the passion, dreams, energy, and vision of their founders. What could be more personal than that? Entrepreneurs strive to keep people believing in them. But when things go wrong, losing the confidence of venture capitalists is far less painful than losing the faith of one's family.
Some stress fractures are so severe, they bring down the whole familial structure. Around the same time we were building Stonyfield, a friend of mine and her husband started what became a hugely successful consumer goods company. They were desperate for money, so early on, her parents bought 20 percent of the business. She tried persuading them to sign a minority shareholder agreement, but they were offended at the mere suggestion. Then, a few years later, her parents tried to force a sale or an IPO. My friend's voice still shakes when she tells the tale. "That was probably the most painful thing I've been through," she says. "You look at it as a child being supported by loving parents. They look at it as a calculation. What -- money is more important than me?"
My friend, who had been close to her parents, eventually saw them only in the presence of both sides' attorneys. She didn't speak to them directly for years. "It was horrible for me. Resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die," she says. "The bottom line is that this was my life, and to them, the business was nothing more than an asset." My friend's advice: If you must take money from relatives, get them in and out quickly, with short-term debt. And whenever possible, structure the transaction as a loan rather than equity, so valuation does not become an issue. If you do give up equity, press for a shareholder agreement.
Our situation was different. My torment stemmed not from what my relatives were doing to me but from what I feared I was doing to my relatives. My mother, Doris, in particular, had invested far beyond what she could comfortably lose. I was terrified of the risks she was taking: how our potential failure might affect her retirement, her relationship with Gary and me, and our bond with my brothers. At one point, I begged her to stop. Each time Gary phoned her asking for another cash infusion, usually to meet payroll, I would call on the other line and urge her to say no. My mother -- an angel in more ways than one -- didn't stop lending and investing, though eventually she and Gary agreed to stop telling me about it. She continued to invest because, more than believing in Gary's endlessly evolving business plans, she believed in Gary. I saw her and my brothers as financial innocents -- whom Gary and I were leading to slaughter. "It's gonna work, Meggy," she would reassure me. "I'm a big girl." But from my perspective, she may as well have been shoving quarters into a slot machine.
Our personal story had a happy ending. My mother is at ease in her retirement. Her risky investment in Stonyfield secured college educations for all her grandchildren. Our family is as close as ever and feels great collective satisfaction at having been part of building a successful business. And Gary's success has spawned entrepreneurial dreams in other members of the clan. Some of what our family made on Stonyfield stock has been invested in my nephew Jon Cadoux's start-up. Mercifully, this Thanksgiving it will be Jon's hide on the carving plate instead.
But Jon has an unfair product advantage. His business is the Peak Organic Brewing Company. As we spend the evening sampling new flavors of Jon's beer in my mother's living room, I expect that his quarterly financials -- no matter what they are -- will start to look just fine.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is married to Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt.
Contributing editor MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG writes a regular column about the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families--based on her experiences being married to Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, the organic-yogurt company.