New Year's resolutions have always been good for Stonyfield Yogurt. Our sales invariably spike in January as a result of nearly universal vows to shed that extra 20. The season inspires people to set down concrete plans for improving themselves -- and their relationships.
In that spirit, I approached my husband, Gary, for help with composing a list of rules for entrepreneurs who aspire to a happy marriage and thriving family life. Some of the following derive from our own experiences, and some were offered by other entrepreneurial couples. (I've cast the entrepreneur as male and the spouse as female because that's our situation. But the rules apply equally when the reverse is true.)
At work, you're accustomed to running things and to being in charge. But when you walk through the front door of your house (or emerge from your home office), you emigrate from an autocracy into a messy democracy, with all its attendant chaos, conflict, and need for compromise. Your spouse should understand that this transition is not always quick or easy and that she must be patient while you adjust. But there's an upside. Though it's true that at home you can't command by fiat, you can relax in the knowledge that there, at least, someone is sharing the load.
It's difficult for spouses to make time for each other, much less take that desperately needed vacation. This challenge is here to stay: No matter what stage the business is in, it will require your all. But a vacation can be a cup of coffee together or a short walk around the block. Sometimes that's all you'll be able to manage. Any couple needs uninterrupted time -- even if it's incremental -- to share those grace notes and headaches that make up lives. Being together reminds you that you enjoy being together. And that reminds both of you why this enormous undertaking is worthwhile.
OK, you can leave it to buzz and bleep sometimes, or even most of the time. But be disciplined about carving out stretches that are technology free. Even if you don't respond to its whining, its mere presence on the dining room table, at the restaurant, or by the bed changes the nature of your shared space. Plus, it will be easier to pry the kids loose from their cell phones and video games if you can show that it's possible to resist technology's allure. In any case, your BlackBerry looks great in black leather. Slide her into that holster, and everyone will be happier.
Certain business decisions will affect your mate, too. Acquiring another company, launching an IPO, or expanding into other states or countries will require more travel, which increases the pressure on everyone at home. Thinking about signing a business loan using the house as collateral? Hello -- your spouse lives there, too! You can also consult her about business issues that don't affect the family. You've made smart decisions about your home life by combining perspectives; your mate may provide a fresh approach to work dilemmas, too. And unlike employees who might be nervous about disagreeing with the boss, you can usually trust her to be completely honest.
In many ways, you are fused with your business: Your very identity is bound to and dependent upon its fate. You have invested endless energy, time, imagination, and willpower in its success. Much of your conversation revolves around its ups and downs. Though your mate intersects with and cares deeply about the business, it does not contain or define her in the same way it does you. She spends her day in other worlds, consumed by other matters. Talk to her about them. Better yet, join her at a conference, read her student's paper, play audience while she rehearses a presentation, weigh in on the tile grout color, drive your child to the dental appointment. You'll understand each other better.
Your spouse knows you are busy and that you receive scores if not hundreds of messages a day. She wouldn't contact you at work unless it was important. (When I call Gary at the office, he knows I'm not phoning to see how the yogurt is coming out today.) Your spouse is busy, too, and can likewise be tough to reach. You will both feel more relaxed if it's easier to get in touch, and if you know that each other's missives will move to the top of the queue.
Emergencies or changes of plan aside, don't try to chat with your spouse from the airport. She likely feels frustrated when the conversation is drowned out by loudspeaker warnings not to accept packages from strangers or cut short because your row is called to board. Likewise, she's probably not keen on getting a phone call five minutes before your next meeting starts. Much as she misses you during your travels, it's no fun conversing when she's braced to hear her least favorite three words: "I gotta go."
You win clients and customers by courting them, by offering not simple attention but true attentiveness. You are solicitous, observant, mindful, and aware -- eager to anticipate and fulfill their needs. Your spouse is your No. 1 life client and most important connection. Court her -- with a thoughtful gift, a just-because hug, morning coffee in bed -- as though you really want to keep her business, too.
Often, the entrepreneur lives in the spotlight, while the spouse works behind the scenes. But the spouse plays an important role in the success of any venture. By keeping the domestic machine well oiled, she allows you to enjoy family life while reserving most of your energy for the business. She has saved you money by working inside the company and made the family money by working outside of it. She's proud of your business but also of the contribution she's made to the life you are building. So, go on, crow about her! To employees, co-workers, suppliers, family, friends. Post an accolade on the website! You're the boss -- name a product after her! (Note to Gary: Yo My Baby? Apricot Meggo? Get the marketing department on it.) Most important: Tell her directly that you value her contribution. Some things go without saying…but not that.
Spend time remembering all you've created together, all you've managed to survive. Maintaining a marriage through years of strain, sacrifice, and uncertainty requires both grace and grit. You have so many wonderful, horrible, heartbreaking, and hilarious stories -- about the company, about the kids, about the rich history you share. To paraphrase Neil Young, you've had your ups and downs, but you're still playing together. The music might not always be in tune, but take a moment to rejoice that you're still making it.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is a writer married to Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt. She invites readers to e-mail her their own rules for maintaining marital harmony when hitched to an entrepreneurial business.