The four words an entrepreneur’s spouse dreads hearing: “I have an idea.”
As a resident of New Hampshire, I do not fear earthquakes. But I live in terror of four little words: "I have an idea." When my husband utters them, the ground beneath me trembles.
We were hiking a local mountain when Gary revealed his brainstorm for a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants. This was in 2000; his first venture, Stonyfield Yogurt, had been profitable and stable for several years. Gary saw this new business as a logical extension of the mission of our organic yogurt company. My husband sometimes refers to himself as a "pathological optimist." To me, this plan was just pathological.
When you live with a serial entrepreneur, you are never safe from the siren song of new ideas. As one repeat offender told me, "The personality of a serial entrepreneur is almost like a curse. You see opportunities every day." Danny Meyer cites a practical reason for populating much of Manhattan with his eclectic restaurants and food businesses: The new ventures provide development opportunities for his 1,500-plus employees. But as fundamentally, "I can't stop thinking of ideas that excite me," he says.
That creativity and independence are what attract people like me to entrepreneurs in the first place. As Gary points out, I knew what I was getting into when I married him. "While you didn't sign on for multiple rounds of pain, you signed on with me," he says. "You were drawn to the upsides of entrepreneurial business -- the excitement, the fascination, and the fun." All true. It had never crossed my mind to request a one-company-only prenup.
But when Gary broached the restaurant idea, I had not recovered -- in fact I have still not recovered -- from the extended trauma of the yogurt company's start-up. Stonyfield took nine agonizing years to reach profitability. Even though Gary said he intended to hire a CEO to run the restaurants, I anticipated a return to the grueling hours and constant distractions I thought we had finally put behind us. Serial entrepreneurs are like women who suppress the recollection of labor in order to marshal the stamina to give birth again. For their families, such selective memory is not so easy to muster.
Then, of course, any new business entails risk. Here I thought we were on terra firma, only to find Gary gazing longingly at rough seas. Entrepreneurs, as I knew from experience, are masters at defining risk down. So in my brain: "Gary knows nothing about the restaurant business." In Gary's brain: "I'll bring in smart people and figure out the rest." For many spouses, life stages enhance that sense of risk. Entrepreneurs launching second, third, and fourth companies are by definition older than when they started out: If they fail, there are fewer years to rebound. No wonder when the adrenaline kicks in for the serial entrepreneur, the cortisol spikes for the spouse.
Yet who would want to quash a loved one's dream? That way, unhappiness and resentment lie. "It's a crappy part for the spouse to play," says a friend whose husband started a second company. "To say 'no' or 'have you thought of this or that problem?' The way I dealt with it -- and I'm not proud of this fact -- is, I said, 'You want to go through this again? Fine, but I don't want anything to do with it.' We agreed on a certain amount of money he'd sink into it -- but we passed that number long ago."
Inc. reader Mallary Tytel, an entrepreneur married to a serial entrepreneur, tries to be realistic. "You have two choices: fighting it or going along with it," says Tytel, founder of the consultancy Healthy Workplaces. "As an entrepreneur myself, I know there's no percentage in going against the grain."
Nor could I go against the grain with Gary. Painful as the prospect of this new business was, I kept my mouth shut. As long as he wasn't jeopardizing the roof over our heads or our children's college funds, I figured he was entitled to his next dream. I comforted myself with the fact that he'd succeeded once. This time the learning curve should be less steep. Would be less steep. Had to be less steep.
At what point, though, does the spouse get to say enough? Let's assume that the first business was successful, and financial need is no longer a compelling motive. When does a spouse's desire for calm and security outweigh the entrepreneur's desire to be "who I am"? The answer, of course, is different for each couple and set of circumstances. Is it selfish to discourage a loved one from doing something he or she desperately wants to do because it makes you uncomfortable? Or more selfish for him or her to persist in spite of your discomfort?
Among other things, the spouse should consider whether the entrepreneur is truly succumbing to an irresistible opportunity or driven by a darker motivation. He or she may be depressed or bored, or seeking to fill a psychic or emotional void. One man told me that he kept creating businesses to escape his marital woes. Unfortunately, he didn't have that insight until after his divorce. At that point, he realized other ways that starting multiple businesses had made him less fit as a mate. "Entrepreneurs feel they have to have all the answers," he told me. "Starting several businesses only reinforced that. The control issues became habit forming, a way of being. When you apply that trait to your personal life, it doesn't go over very well."
Fortunately, there are less risky ways, both personally and professionally, for an entrepreneur to flex those creative muscles. Passive or active investing and mentoring can be like methadone for the entrepreneur, providing some of the thrill without all of the risk. Gary loves to mentor because, he says, "what I remember most about Stonyfield's dark days was the loneliness. I'm rewarded by the idea that with a little of my extra time and money, I might be able to help others avoid some pain."
And running an existing company -- even a mature one -- offers some of the charge of a start-up. "In my work at Stonyfield, I'm inventing new enterprises all the time," Gary says. "I take huge risks every day."
Not that that stopped him. Gary launched the first O'Naturals -- recently renamed Stonyfield Café -- in Falmouth, Maine, in 2001. As I'd feared, the business has consumed considerable time and energy. Also cash: Gary has put in much more than either of us expected. (We have since agreed on a total amount that he can risk on entrepreneurial ventures, including this one.) The café is now in two locations and is still finding its way as a business. I avoid discussing it with Gary and try not to think about it too much.
Recently, Gary assured me that he wouldn't start another company unless I was fully behind it. If this is true, he won't be starting another company anytime soon. Or, actually, ever. But somehow I suspect that our lives will continue to be rocked by seismic activity. I hope Gary's next idea will score lower on the Richter scale.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg (email@example.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.
Read more recent articles by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg: