Of Drivers and Passengers. Or, How Entrepreneurs' Families Cope
Telling your own story is cathartic. In 2008, when I first wrote about the early years of my marriage to a cockeyed-optimist entrepreneur, his company, Stonyfield Farm, had at long last become successful and our financial future secure. But as I wrangled my memories into a feature article--"Hitched to Someone Else's Dream" was the title--the old anxieties, the exhaustion, the material privation, the tension of being at once crazy in love and crazy afraid, surged back. I had never repressed my feelings about the business (as my husband, Gary, will attest). Still, laying it all out on the page felt strangely liberating.
This is my last column for the print version of Inc. And I am so glad and grateful that what began as a catharsis for me has proved cathartic to so many others. Because my story was never just my story. Or it was my story only in the details. For although the specifics may change from family to family, the joys and burdens of entrepreneurship remain essentially the same.
Every business launch marks the beginning of a new family saga. The pioneer-entrepreneur may stride solo through unconquered territory, but a covered wagon full of kin bumps along precariously in his wake. For the past five years, I have chronicled those family stories from the perspectives of both passenger and pilot.
In the process, I have spoken to or corresponded with hundreds of entrepreneurs, their spouses, romantic partners, children, parents, and siblings. I have heard from men and women; twentysomethings and eightysomethings; people living in the United States, England, India, Australia, New Zealand, Bolivia, Poland, France, Brazil, Cameroon, and Bangladesh. Such a large, sprawling community. And yet so many people wrote to me about loneliness. As one woman in Boston put it, being married to an entrepreneur "feels like being part of a weird, underground cult."
My readers already knew that everyone finds the business part of entrepreneurship hard. They were relieved to discover they weren't the only ones struggling with the domestic side as well.
In the column, I have tried to look at all the ways entrepreneurship affects families, including how it can unite them around a shared purpose and identity. But as longtime readers know, I write more often about pain. So, not surprisingly, the stories I've heard from others have been more dark underbelly than sunny side of the street. My correspondents talked about infidelity, illness, and insolvency, about anger and estrangement. Mostly they talked about fear. But as one spouse put it, no matter what the issue, the column "gave us permission to talk about difficult topics because someone else wrote them down."
My readers also asked me questions that I couldn't begin to answer. Where does loyalty end and sanity begin? Can you love someone and not be on his side? How much sacrifice can you demand of your children? Is this too much? Is it time to quit?
Others wanted reassurance I couldn't give:
"I'm writing because I need to know that there is light at the end of this bleak tunnel. That all our years of misery will work out. That the sleepless nights will subside. That someday we won't need support. That we'll be able to stand strong on our own someday and live peacefully…I need to know that it's going to be OK…I'm exhausted and overworked but can't afford help at work or at home. I need to know this is all worth it."
Yet there have also been extraordinary professions of gratitude and faith. My first column, following that autobiographical feature, described entrepreneurship as a never-ending test of spousal allegiance. I wrote about my agonizing doubts of Gary's ability to turn Stonyfield into a viable business and my decision to stay the course anyway because I loved and believed in the man who seemed to be condemning me to penury. A reader sent me this:
"Your article had me in tears. My wife has been my biggest cheerleader for eight-plus years now (yes, I'm eight years closer to being an overnight success). I sometimes fear failure but I cannot ever accept the idea that I would fail her. She believes in me and my abilities sometimes so much more so than I believe in myself. Mortgaging the house, maxing the credit cards, the highest highs, lowest lows, biggest promises, greatest disappointments....she keeps shouting (and often whispering), "keep going, you can do it, I know you can."
I'm glad I received that particular letter early on. It reminded me that drama isn't tragedy so long as hope and love are present.
As a columnist, I've become a collector of stories, and I am deeply grateful to those who've shared them with me. Maybe I'm biased, but I think company-building lives are more dramatic than the lives of the more conventionally employed. There is no end of people hanging from cliffs by their fingernails or going out for that Hail Mary pass. There are a lot of great characters, too. Entrepreneurs live life large, and their family battles--like their business ones--tend toward the titanic.
I was horrified by the saga of an entrepreneur who sold 20 percent of her business to her parents, who then threatened to sell those shares to a competitor unless she sold the company. I felt for the woman who co-owns a business with her bipolar husband; she described in painful detail how she covers for him with employees when he doesn't show at the office or behaves strangely. I couldn't help chuckling when one entrepreneur told me that his former spouse so resented his business that every time he bought a new piece of machinery, she went out and purchased expensive jewelry.
If you distilled all the relationships I've written about (including mine and Gary's) into the story of a single entrepreneurial marriage, it might sound a bit like the one described in this letter:
"I run my own business and my husband works full time. I have been struggling with my business for the past two years as I made some bad decisions. It had a huge impact on our marriage--I lost a lot of money and we are fighting to survive. Couple months ago my husband said he's out and he doesn't want to hear about my company. He says I work a lot and we're still in the same place. He doesn't understand that it takes time to make everything right. He doesn't support my dream. He thinks I can change everything--go get a nice job with a good salary but I don't want to. I am an entrepreneur and I don't want to work anywhere else. Besides, I love what I do and I really believe it will succeed. I cut all the expenses in my company and I'm fighting for more sales.
I strongly believe I should keep it going--I'm getting a lot of new opportunities, new contacts, my company is becoming a brand. Yes, I work a lot but I always have time for my husband and I put him first. But I think it's unfair of him to ask me to shut down my business and I'm in a lot of pain knowing he doesn't support my dream. We are starting to fall apart. I can't concentrate on my business when we fight all the time. I don't know what to do. I love him so much and I kind of understand him--we're in debt, we can't go on vacation, we can't dream of our own house. But I can't make the decision to close my company because he wants to. I'm afraid that I won't be happy if I do it. What should I fight for? My marriage or my dream?"
It's all there: the crippling financial stress; the anxious, neglected spouse; the incompatible dreams; the entrepreneur's (justifiable? baseless? who knows?) optimism; the back-burner-ing of domestic milestones; the anger; the despair; all coming down to the self-imposed ultimatum. By the entrepreneur's account, the couple sounds irreconcilable. Yet I can't help wondering whether her tenacity and optimism and big dreams aren't part of what brought those two together in the first place.
What I think--or hope--the column achieved is captured in its title: Balancing Acts. That's meant to be aspirational, not prescriptive. Because entrepreneurs owe the best of themselves to both their companies and their families, work-life balance is impossible. But that's no excuse for not trying.
Imagine your life like one of those old-fashioned balance-beam scales, where you are constantly inching the weight back and forth, a notch at a time, gradually edging up on equilibrium. A silenced cell phone. A few hours of sacrosanct family time on the weekends. College funds squirreled away in an inviolate account. The bar will continue to sway--sometimes work will win, and sometimes the family. But it can sway a little less, or a little less wildly.
It's a truism that no success in business can compensate for a personal life in tatters. As one of my readers put it, if you build a business but lose your family in the process, you've had your eye on the wrong ball. So my core message has always been pretty simple: Communicate, and be conscious. Try to see things from the other person's perspective, and do what you can to make life better for those you love.
And the column has had some impact in that respect. Among the most gratifying stories I've heard are these:
Two readers wrote to tell me they had decided to start families after a column convinced them to stop endlessly postponing life's major milestones for the sake of the business. It makes me smile to think there might be a child or two toddling around right now because of "Balancing Acts."
I received a postcard from Lake Tahoe written by a reader on his first vacation in years. (Regular readers will know I'm as boosterish on the subject of vacations as the Travelocity gnome.)
A young entrepreneur I talked to about the stress of asking friends and family for money decided, as a result of that interview, to finally talk to his grandfather about the older man's investment in his company--money the young man would probably never be able to pay back. To his surprise, the grandfather neither judged nor blamed him.
In 2011, I wrote a column about how serious illness--of either an entrepreneur or a family member--affects a business. I interviewed both Jerry Gonzalez, founder of the food company Maria Elena's Authentic Latino, and his wife, Karen, about Jerry's Stage 4 colon cancer, then in remission. Karen told me all she wanted from life was to lower the family's stress level and spend more time with her husband. When Jerry read that (I had interviewed them separately), he was so moved that he decided to sell his business and take a regular job.
Soon after Jerry did that, his cancer returned. But because he now had medical benefits, his treatments were covered. Jerry passed away a few months ago. He was a passionate entrepreneur who, in the end, tipped the scales toward his wife and family.
I started this column writing about Gary, so it makes sense to conclude with him as well. I asked Gary what he had learned from my years of writing "Balancing Acts," and he said this:
"There are threads that connect. The specific topic almost doesn't matter. First, most couples undercommunicate. Second, entrepreneurs are routinely unrealistic about time--they think they're going to make it in much less time than it will actually take, if in fact they do succeed at all. Third, entrepreneurs have a different risk profile with money. They see an investment as a sure bet where their mate sees only calamity. And finally, entrepreneurs need to realize that there isn't enough time to go around. They have to make choices and set rules based on joint priorities. The couple needs a plan."
Gary and I have a plan. He will continue to throw himself like a man possessed into new ventures--his own and other people's. I will continue to challenge him with questions and advocate for stability and admire the hell out of him.
It keeps life interesting.
You can continue to reach me at email@example.com and @meghirshberg on Twitter. In the fall, I will begin blogging on Inc.com.
Of Drivers and Passengers. Or, How Entrepreneurs' Families Cope
What I've learned in five years of thinking and writing about the tense, chaotic, fearful, and occasionally over-the-top-joyful family lives of entrepreneurs.
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.