Following on our previous post, Agreed to marry an entrepreneur? Some spousal advice, we spoke with Meg Hirshberg, author of For Better or For Work: A Survival Gide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. The book and her Inc. Magazine column, Balancing Acts, are based on her experience married to business owner Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest organic yogurt company.
Hirshberg, who married at 30 and began raising a family during the 9 years it took Stonyfield to become profitable, offers these 7 pieces of wisdom that might help you adjust a little easier to the particular brand of wedded bliss you’ve agreed to.
1. Ask questions now. There’s no time like before you’ve exchanged vows to ask crucial questions of your entrepreneur and perhaps even a lawyer to understand what’s at risk if the business goes belly up. Many entrepreneurs take out a line of credit or use their home as collateral for a small business loan, Hirshberg says, so it’s completely appropriate to ask, “What's my exposure? Can we lose the house?”
In the most recent installment of her Inc. column Hirshberg points to financial, personal, and endgame questions you should ask if there’s a startup in your family’s future. “Many questions certainly apply to the newly engaged,” she says, such as: "How vulnerable are the family assets? If something happens to you, will I be on the hook for anything? Assuming your business becomes profitable, what do you commit to doing with that cash? How long do you anticipate being in startup mode? What happens if the business never becomes profitable?”
2. Befriend other couples in similar situations. A theme running throughout the 1,000 or so reader letters Hirshberg says she has received in response to her column about life with a business owner is, “I’m so glad to know I’m not alone.” Hirshberg says she and her husband were isolated from other business people in the early years of their startup. “None of my friends or their spouses started businesses. Now I have friends who are other business people, but that process took 25 years.” She advises: “When you’re with other entrepreneurs you share solutions and strategies and you know they’re not judging you; they’re dealing with their own issues that are like yours."
3. Stay honest with each other about the business. There are two permissible answers when outsiders ask, “How is your business doing?” Hirshberg says: “Good” or “great.” That’s because “when you own a business you need to keep people—employees, friends, investors, bankers, and really everyone you connect with—believing in you and your ability to pull it off,” she says. “But it’s important between the couple that there be honesty disentangled from ego.”
Hirshberg says it’s not uncommon to feel like you’re betraying your spouse if you raise doubts. “Entrepreneurs are so heavily identified with their business. The devotion, passion, and commitment are beautiful on one hand, but it can make spouses uncomfortable about challenging the prospects.” You need to agree to discuss these issues openly, without fear or resentment about legitimate questions. “It’s very tough to do, which is why I recommend they all read my book!” she says.
4. Recognize that business ownership does not equate to freedom. As the new spouse of a business owner, you might expect that if your partner is the boss, she can leave work whenever she wants to. “When people start businesses they look first at the benefits it can confer: you can take vacations when you want, you can leave early to go to soccer games, you can go away for long weekends,” Hirshberg says. But it’s precisely because they’re the boss that they often can’t do those things, she warns.
5. Carve out undistracted time together. Indeed, even when they are home, business owners’ minds are often elsewhere. Workaholism isn’t a rule among entrepreneurs, but Hirshberg notes that many are known for being wedded to their devices, taking business calls late at night and during vacations. “This is where the spouse can start to feel resentful,” she warns. She recommends orchestrating distraction-free moments by prohibiting electronics at the dinner table or taking walks together without the smartphone just to talk and connect. “In the time that we live in, the greatest gift we can give anyone is the gift of our complete undistracted attention,” she says.
6. Clarify what your role will be in the business. When one person owns a business it’s easy for spouses to fall into parallel tracks, Hirshberg says: “The entrepreneur has all kinds of stuff going on, they’re busy, they’re traveling. Your worlds can become disconnected.” Hirshberg suggests that even if the spouse isn’t involved in the day-to-day business, they get to know employees and investors, visit the business place occasionally, attend holiday parties, or work the booth at a trade show. “It’s important to try to stay connected, and not just personally.”
7. Know how much information you can handle. Hirshberg recently wrote a column about how couples can decide what they will discuss about the business and what will be off limits, based on how much risk a spouse can stomach. “I got to the point where I couldn’t hear about our finances anymore,” Hirsherg says. “I said, ‘talk to me about new products or investors, but finances are too stressful.’” She adds, “I’m not saying you should baby your spouse, but everyone’s got different risk tolerance, and you have to respect that.”
Hirshberg concludes her recent Inc. column with this advice: “While you're grilling the entrepreneur, ask yourself this question: 'Am I committed enough to this person to put up with whatever crazy, unanticipated, impossible-to-iron-out-in-advance stuff happens along the way?'” For her, she says, "the answer has always been yes."