BALANCING ACTS

Bed and Boardroom

There's nothing like a home-based business for increasing family stress.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

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From 1986 to 1991, my husband and I lived in the dilapidated 19th-century farmhouse at Stonyfield Farm (the land for which our yogurt company is named). The huge, wood-heated building housed the offices and yogurt works, as well as two apartments: one for us and one for our partners, Samuel and Louise Kaymen, and five of their six kids. Newly engaged and fresh from living in my own apartment, I adjusted easily to sharing quarters with Gary. It was shacking up with his business that was hard.

We had zero privacy. Trucks groaned up our narrow gravel driveway at all hours. Employees were ever present, glancing at what was for dinner and frequently using our bathroom if the public one was occupied. When our best yogurtmaker couldn't find a babysitter for her son, yours truly would rock the boy to sleep while his mom worked the night shift. Our kitchen table overlooked the yogurt works, so we couldn't get through a meal without distractions from outside (Did that guy really just throw a lit cigarette into the Dumpster?). Hosting guests was a challenge. Arriving for a relaxing weekend in the country, they'd inevitably get caught up in the madness -- grabbing a shovel to help dig out a truck stuck in the mud -- before going to bed and nearly freezing to death in our unheated spare bedroom upstairs.

One afternoon, I walked into our kitchen cradling bags of groceries and found a young man I didn't recognize grabbing cutlery and plates from our cupboard. I stopped in the doorway and stared. "We have a lunch meeting in the office," he said nonchalantly. I was speechless, feeling completely invaded at the most basic level. This was my kitchen. My stuff. Then I chided myself. These were the people keeping the company afloat, and we all believed in using fewer disposables. Why couldn't I feel good about sharing; why was I so uncool? Still, I thought, there have to be boundaries. Only, where did they lie?

That question was answered a few months later. One Sunday morning, Gary and I were in bed when into our room walked an unfamiliar teenager. He announced he'd been hired to clean the offices, and did we know where to find the broom? By Monday night, our apartment door had a lock on it. But that bit of iron was mostly symbolic, a finger in a leaky dike. Employees, job applicants, investors, and suppliers still flowed freely through our home -- only now they knocked first.

The moment you create a business, you step into a twilight zone where the barrier between what is work and what is not starts to break down. The deterioration accelerates for entrepreneurs who work out of their homes. You may start off with a home-based business but soon find yourself with a business where you and your family also happen to live. I got an earful about this from Anna Breyer, whose husband runs a construction business. She is irked that trucks and trailers are always parked in her yard and feels awkward having employees walk through her house when it's piled high with dishes and laundry. "Sometimes, I'll have to sign for an early-morning lumber delivery while I'm still in my PJs and the dog's barking and my kid's screaming," she told me recently. Anna says things have improved with small changes, such as putting a coffeemaker and microwave in the garage for employees to use, instead of having them in her kitchen.

Privacy isn't the only issue. In homes shared with companies, living space may be drastically reduced by the demands of workspace and inventory storage. Sandy Abrams, an acquaintance in California, described to me how she was once literally imprisoned by her business supplies. Fifteen years ago, when she started Moisture Jamzz, a company that makes skin-conditioning gloves and socks, Sandy filled every room of her L.A. apartment with fabric rolls and shipping boxes. The dining-room table was piled high with packing tape and stationery. One day, an earthquake caused the fabric and boxes to tumble in front of the door. Sandy and her husband spent 10 terrified minutes clearing a pathway so they could exit.

Sandy still runs Moisture Jamzz out of her house (though she doesn't manufacture or keep much inventory there). But now she has strategies to contain it. She limits the company's impact on her space by storing stationery and press kits behind closed doors in her home office, and limits its impact on her time by letting business calls go to voice mail after 5 p.m. She also protects her family's privacy by meeting with vendors at the local Starbucks.

Of course, certain hazards of sharing a home with a business apply to anyone with a home office. We're all familiar with that slippery slope of nipping in after dinner -- just to clean up a few e-mails -- and emerging at midnight. (A friend of mine who frequently found herself making middle-of-the-night visits to her home office eventually put a sign on its door -- "Get a life" -- to remind her somnambulating self that she was being obsessive, and whatever it was could wait until morning.)

But for home-based entrepreneurs, daylight brings an additional challenge: diplomatic separation of the family's waking hours from the company's operating hours. A friend who wrestles with this commented to me that most people, including his wife and kids, have an ingrained belief that work is something you leave home to do. They assume that if he's home, he ought to be available to the family. Sometimes, his wife pokes her head into his office to see if he'd like to take a break and have lunch together. "She doesn't understand that I just don't want to break the work spell," he said. "I'm in the zone and need to stay there during the workday. But she takes it personally."

This resonated with me as I recalled those times I'd walk into Gary's home office while he was on a business call, only to watch him wince at my intrusion. And I realized that I react the same way. When Gary or one of the kids interrupts me on a work call, I brush them off with that frantic wave that is more desperate dismissal than greeting. Such behaviors inflict small hurts, little bits of damage that accumulate. Over the years, Gary and I have learned to deliver messages by silently slipping in and placing sticky notes in each other's line of sight. We have trained ourselves to distinguish between physical presence and availability. Though my eyes tell me that Gary is in his home office, he is not, for my purposes, at home. He is not available for figuring out where to meet friends for dinner or how to celebrate Danielle's birthday. I don't take it personally anymore, nor does he.

Cohabitating with a business increases the stress level of entrepreneurship exponentially. When home and company share an address, entrepreneurs and their families need to find ways to create the emotional equivalent of physical distance -- a gap that keeps worlds from colliding. Sometimes, the only means available will be closed office doors or a new location for the microwave or some sticky notes placed in front of your spouse. It might not hurt to scrawl "Get a life" on one or two of them.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg (mhirshberg@inc.com) is married to Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt. She writes a regular column about the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2010

MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG | Columnist

Contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is the author of For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at mhirshberg@inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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