'My Wife Knows I'm Crazy and She Lives With It'
Tom First was so work-obsessed that when his fiancée wanted to get married in her hometown, he saw it as an opportunity to do deals before the wedding rehearsal. Since then, the co-founder of Nantucket Nectars has achieved better life balance, but he hasn't slowed down much. After selling the company to Ocean Spray in 1997, Tom founded another beverage company, OWater, now a Polar brand. He is still chairman of the OWater board, and helps run a fund that invests in entrepreneurial businesses in the beverage industry. Tom and his wife Kristan have three children, ages 12, 9, and 7. He recently spoke with me about how being an entrepreneur affected his family life.
How did Kristan feel about your work mania in the early days?
Kristan was in architecture school. She was as obsessed with work as I was. Even so, my preoccupation with work took some getting used to. She grew up in L.A., and we got married out there. At that time, Nantucket Nectars was not doing well in L.A., so I saw our wedding as a great opportunity to go out and meet with distributors. She saw me for the first time at 4 PM the day of the rehearsal dinner. She said, "You've got to be kidding me!" At the time, I didn't get it. I feel bad about it now. I thought I was doing the right thing for everybody. It bothered her, but there was an understanding that this is what I'm like. At that point it was still a matter of survival.
Did having a child change things?
Definitely. It put the business in perspective. I was the most compulsive obsessive worker that I knew. For the first time it became ridiculous to work seven days a week.
Yet you started a couple more businesses.
We lived in Cambridge for eight years before we moved to Concord, Massachusetts. We had become dependent on the Cambridge Fresh Pond Market. So I said to Kristan that we should open our own market in Concord. She said, "We don't need to be opening more businesses!" But I got obsessed. I wanted to understand retail. I found a building, negotiated the whole deal, and got the liquor license before I told her. We opened a grocery store: Concord Provisions.
How did Kristan react?
She rolled her eyes. She ended up being excited about it. After the store was open, she looked at me one night and said, "You're bored stiff, aren't you?" I had finished opening the store but wasn't running it. She could tell that I was thinking about the next thing I was going to do.
She sounds like a saint.
I'm not that bad. It's tough because I always have something I'm excited about. Most of my friends do things like market research. That's not me. Kristan knows I'm crazy, and she lives with it. It's a personality type.
Has this mode of being worked well for your personal life?
For the most part. One of my personality disorders is a high level of distraction. Sometimes Kristan will tell me a long story that's important to her. But other stuff comes into my head, and I get distracted. It's not that I don't care. But I am a multi-tasker. At work I'm a juggler. That kind of personality is not always so good at home. I have trouble sometimes.
Looking back on your own life and business, what do you wish had been different?
I wouldn't have changed anything. For me, there's been an experiential evolution that is necessary. Your view of the world through the life of your family is dynamic and changes over time. The same thing happens in a business. So my vision, my fears, my level of understanding, and my degree of patience evolved over time. I fired someone for the first time when I was 25. I cried in front of them. I wouldn't say to someone new to business, "Don't have that emotion." It made me understand the situation so much better the second time.
You can't tell someone, the first time the truck doesn't show up, or that people steal stuff from you, you shouldn't feel that the world is falling apart around you, because that's how it feels the first time. Those experiences changed the way I dealt with that stuff when it happened again. I have perspective on business and life and family and relationships because of what I've gone through.
What advice would you give other young entrepreneurs with families?
Any would-be entrepreneur should make sure the family is up for it. I wonder if I could have started a business if I launched it as a married guy with kids. I have started other businesses when I had kids, but they weren't complete start-ups. Kristan has always been a great cheerleader, making me feel good about what I was doing at a difficult time.
I would advise any entrepreneur to not neglect the personal side of their life. I make time for my family, and I make time to work out. I cook and do the dishes. I love being involved with everything. But I'm never going to come home at 5 and turn off. I'm incapable of that.
But there are times in a company's life when there's no way around the fact that you have to work all the time. Kristan was lonely for long stretches during our early years together. But my partner Tom [Scott] and I were on the label. We had 150 distributors that wanted to be seen twice a year. That makes 300 visits. The only solution for the family is for the entrepreneur to be open with them and as present as he can be when he's around.
Now that I have kids, I feel bad about some of the things I thought back then, like laughing at people for commuting home all at the same time and dealing with horrendous traffic. Now I have much more sensitivity for the fact that people have families to get home to.
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.