Living With Doubt (& Doubters)
Someone should develop a kind of general anesthesia for spouses of entrepreneurs. They could descend into merciful oblivion during the excruciating company-building process and regain consciousness only after the enterprise had achieved sustainable profits or been deep-sixed. The entrepreneur would be spared a lot of agony as well. Nothing hurts like disappointing a loved one who may have prepared for a long, hard road but not the Trans-Siberian Highway.
The journey is easier when the entrepreneur manages his spouse's expectations. But hopped up on optimism and in thrall to his bold idea, he forgets that it's better to underpromise and overdeliver. Before launch, he sits down with his spouse to review the business plan: "I'll draw down on savings, use the house for collateral to secure an SBA loan, and won't take a salary for a while, but my most conservative estimates show me breaking even in two years, and after that, we're looking at double-digit growth until I figure out the best time to sell."
Benchmarks come. Benchmarks go. And so the question--at once solicitous and reproachful--inevitably arises: "Honey, why haven't you made it yet?" Often the question is not verbalized but instead surrounds the couple like smog, polluting their every interaction.
Entrepreneurs are among the few types of people who get to define success on their own terms. (So do artists, but a lot of them are starving too.) By announcing those terms, the entrepreneur makes an implicit promise. And the people listening--not just the spouse but also children, parents, siblings, and friends invested and not--believe in that promise because they think the entrepreneur is in control. After all, don't people start companies to control their destinies?
When success comes gradually, the believers get impatient. In 2007, Loren Brill founded Sweet Loren's, a New York City company that manufactures all-natural frozen cookie dough. Friends and relatives pepper her with questions: Why aren't you more profitable? Why can't I buy your products in California? "So many amazing little things happen every month, but people are not wowed by it, because we haven't gone nationwide and haven't been on Oprah yet," Loren said. "They don't understand what it takes to build a brand."
"I think one enters entrepreneurship believing that you'll make it, and it will take less time than you think," said Fred Newcombe, founder of PJC Ecological Land Care, a Massachusetts manufacturer of organic fertilizer. "So as we get going, we tend to market to ourselves. Who else hears that marketing? Our spouse, family, and friends."
Entrepreneurs create approximate timelines to manage the risk of a business launch. But those measures are mere reference points against which to track the company's progress. In unpredictable circumstances--the only kind of circumstances that exist for start-ups--creating milestones is less science than art, and less art than crapshoot.
Unmet milestones can be psychological land mines, because though success is relative, relatives don't always recognize success. When the company fails to pay out or scale up at the rate anticipated, family morale erodes. Facing the doubts of his nearest and dearest, the entrepreneur may discount those things he has managed to accomplish and start to wonder whether he isn't a bit of a failure after all. More often, he dusts himself off and shifts strategy, which almost always requires more cash. He believes that success will redeem the plan retroactively.
His wife is not so sure. Even spouses who understand that setting milestones is a somewhat futile exercise can't help fixating on outcomes rather than on process and possibility. Encountering incremental failures, they view the company as failing.
I asked Wendi Goldsmith, CEO of Bioengineering Group, a Massachusetts firm devoted to ecosystem restoration, whether the initial reassurance that milestones provide to spouses is worth the eventual disillusionment. "Entrepreneurs fake it till they make it, even when we start out with a detailed plan," Wendi said. "You can't have a legitimate discussion with yourself--let alone your spouse--about what you are getting into. It's just words, not a profound understanding. I'm not saying don't have the conversation. I'm just saying you should both recognize the futility of it."
That's little comfort for spouses waiting for the bacon to be brought home. And so entrepreneurs use various tactics to keep judgment at bay. I spoke with one CEO who regularly showed his wife customer testimonials praising his financially shaky service company. After promising to look for a job before pulling from savings to support the company, he withdrew $10,000 from their account. Attempts to butter her up with appreciation and assurances that he "heard" her concerns didn't wash. "She knows when I'm trying to work her over," he told me. "Her response was, 'Don't pull that bullshit life-coaching stuff on me. Just give it to me straight.' "
Sometimes the deception is mutual. Neither spouse nor entrepreneur wants a relationship in which one judges the other, so they live a rose-colored lie. I spoke with a woman, herself a company owner, who pretended to swallow the upbeat reports of her husband, the co-founder of a technology company. She explained their dynamic: "I didn't want to admit that I wasn't being fed the truth. It felt like there was a thin veneer. You could punch a hole in it pretty quickly by asking questions. I didn't want to embarrass him, and I didn't want to know that things might be rotten at the core." She called their arrangement "an uneasy truce"--a truce that dissolved with the marriage.
Ideally, the question "Why haven't you made it yet?" is posed not as an accusation but rather as a challenge to recalibrate and rethink. The spouse isn't tapping his foot with impatience but extending a hand. If the spouse is familiar with the company or with business in general, he can help the entrepreneur create new, more realistic milestones and address pressing concerns. At the very least, he reminds the entrepreneur that she isn't in this alone.
Gia Machlin already had two successful start-ups under her belt when she launched EcoPlum, a green shopping-reward site based in New York City. So she had reason to be confident. But not as confident as she was. "I didn't have a good plan for growing EcoPlum," she said. "I thought the stars would align." Her husband, Corey Sclar, who works in private equity, had cheered on Gia's earlier ventures. When his wife fell behind on her numbers with EcoPlum, he didn't become judgmental but rather initiated frank conversations about next steps.
In the course of those discussions, Gia realized that her resistance to outside investment and the resulting performance of her cash-starved company were unfair to Corey. So she relaunched the business and prepared to take on investors. "Entrepreneurs think of outside forces that limit or guide them as impediments, and they chafe at any restraint," Gia said. "But being answerable to Corey made me recalibrate in a way that made both my business and my marriage stronger."
And, of course, many doubting spouses aren't concerned exclusively with finances. Business plans don't include projections of when the entrepreneur's migraines and insomnia will disappear. Corey Sclar is not alone when he reports worrying more about his wife than about her company. "Usually Gia's trying to get 3,000 things done in a day," said Corey. "She's so overwhelmed and stressed. Sometimes I say to her: 'Are you happy? Is this really what you want to do?' "
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.