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How does someone who is obsessed live peacefully with others who are not? That question summarizes the quandary faced by company founders and their families. To answer it, author Meg Cadoux Hirshberg examines the impact—for better and for worse—of ...
How does someone who is obsessed live peacefully with others who are not? That question summarizes the quandary faced by company founders and their families. To answer it, author Meg Cadoux Hirshberg examines the impact—for better and for worse—of entrepreneurial businesses on families and relationships, and vice versa.
Practically, this is a vital guide to navigating the emotional and logistical terrain of business-building while simultaneously enjoying a fulfilling family life. From the trials of co-habiting with a home-based business to the queasy necessity of borrowing money from family and friends to the complexities of intergenerational succession, no topic is taboo.
Psychologically, this book is a reminder that no entrepreneurial family trudges the hard trail of company-building alone. If you have embarked on such an enterprise, you and your spouse will find comfort and guidance in the experiences of others like you. Meg draws on the struggles and triumphs she and husband Gary Hirshberg experienced as he built Stonyfield Yogurt, and also shares powerful stories and insights from other families, gathered through hundreds of interviews.
For Better or For Work will remind you that the long hours and late nights—spent on the business or with the family—are worth the effort and will give you tools for making both endeavors successful.
Entrepreneurs are easy to love, but the trials of a start-up may test a spouse's loyalty.
I'm writing this while bathed in sunshine on the dock of our beautiful vacation home by a pristine New Hampshire lake. I am still astonished that we were able to afford this place, our good fortune due to the highly unlikely ... no, that's too mild a description ... to the wildly improbable success of our business, Stonyfield Yogurt.
To an aspiring entrepreneur, the story of our company is an inviting fairy tale. Driven by a mission to make a difference, Gary and his business partner, Samuel Kaymen, started churning out delicious cream-topped yogurt at their New Hampshire hilltop farm in the early 1980s. Our business is now successful beyond anything we could have imagined. With $370 million in annual sales, Stonyfield is the fourth-largest yogurt company in the United States and the largest producer of organic yogurt in the world. Today, company literature romanticizes the early years as "seven cows and a dream." But Stonyfield was more a place than a brand back then, and not quite the pastoral utopia those curated photos on our website suggest.
I came into the picture when I met Gary at an organic-farming conference, about a year after he and Samuel had started their enterprise. I was an agriculture-school graduate who'd taken a job managing an organic vegetable operation in New Jersey. Knee-deep in milk and muck, Gary and I fell in love.
Entrepreneurs are easy to fall in love with. They are charismatic, interesting, creative, and energetic. They dream big and with resolution—not "I'd like to do this someday" but rather "I'm going to do this soon." Before meeting Gary, I had a vague desire to heal the world by organically cultivating one small piece of it. That instinct was trumped by Gary's concrete, bold, and much grander vision for achieving the same end. Seeing the future through his eyes was like watching my own aspirations unfold on an IMAX screen. So I hitched my life to his dream and allowed myself to be drawn along on a Big Adventure.
With little exposure to the trials of entrepreneurship, I had no conception of the endurance it would require. If you've never owned a company or lived with someone who owns one, you cannot imagine the emotional whiplash it can induce. Smitten and naive, I had not thought through the personal implications of living with a business: how it would affect our lives, and those of the children we planned on having. Turns out, neither had Gary.
In January 1986, we moved my things into a rambling, dilapidated 18th-century Federal-style farmhouse on 134 acres. The large building was divided into four sections: an apartment for us; another for Samuel, his wife, Louisa, and five daughters (their adult son lived elsewhere); the offices of the business; and the tiny yogurt factory. Our honeymoon was short. With no locks on any of the doors, we had zero privacy. A stream of employees, many of whom I barely knew, flowed constantly through the house. Our woodstove could not compete with the farmhouse's leaky windows; my hair would ruffle in the winter wind, indoors. Unidentified furry creatures skittered across my slippered feet as I loaded laundry in our dirt-floor basement.
One winter when my brother Bob was visiting, the Dumpster caught fire and nearly incinerated our barn, which held all of our nonperishable inventory. After Gary dealt with the fire, Bob—on the way back up to his freezing bedroom—remarked that Stonyfield was "a hard place to crash." The moniker stuck.
Even the coming of spring heralded problems. The effluent from the yogurt plant was piped into the leach field adjacent to our bedroom. As soon as the weather warmed, the sickening odor of fermenting curds and whey wafted through our windows as we tried to sleep. I didn't want the stench to be drawn in with our newborn's first breath, so when I was nine months pregnant with our first child, Gary and I laid polyethylene tubing through an overgrown field to direct the leachate away. But the field turned out to be overrun with poison ivy. I went into labor a couple of days later, my skin itchy and red.
Our first two children were born at the farm, in 1988 and 1990. Who knows what the employees were thinking as they vicariously endured my labor pains, which were audible through the house's thin walls. I was grateful, at least, for the roaring refrigeration compressor that regularly lulled our colicky babies to sleep. We considered recording the sound and selling tapes to other desperate parents. At the time, Gary suggested it might become our only profitable product line.
In those early years at Stonyfield, our life was the business and the business was an endless parade of catastrophes: spoiled product, broken filling machines, delivery trucks futilely spinning mud-spattered wheels as they groaned up our mile-long dirt driveway. From my first day there, it was all hands on deck. Donning a hairnet and factory whites, I went to work in the hot, noisy dairy. Although back in New Jersey I had routinely shoveled manure, being a yogurt maker remains the hardest job I've ever had. Sweating from heat and panic, I labored to keep raw milk separate from pasteurized; to avoid overcooking the yogurt in the incubator; to feed the machine cups and lids of the right flavor; and generally to not screw up the production on which we all depended. I soon traded that job for sales, which I thought would be easier. Driving around to New Hampshire supermarkets, I felt my heart sink as I repeatedly saw our yogurt cups damaged, out of stock, or past the "sell by" date.
Draining and dispiriting as the work could be, it was our precarious financial situation that tied my stomach in knots. There was no escaping scowling creditors, mountains of debt, and looming bankruptcy. At times it seemed Gary and Samuel were working as hard as they possibly could in order to lose as much money as they possibly could. The only consolation for having no real income was that, living as we did, we had nothing to spend it on. "It was the land of the cup and the lid," as Gary put it. "We did a lot of coping."
It's hard to say which was our darkest hour. We had so many of them. One incident that still raises a shudder occurred in April 1988. At that point, Stonyfield was burning through $20,000 in cash each week. In our just-completed fiscal year, we'd lost $500,000 on sales of about $2.3 million. Then, suddenly, light broke through the clouds. A large dairy agreed to partner with us and retire our debt. Gary worked with them for months on a detailed agreement.
Gary and Samuel drove to Vermont to sign the papers. But the meeting did not go as planned. The dairy executives and their lawyers knew we were in trouble and had changed the terms of the deal. The new offer amounted to dropping a few coins in our shabby hat and running off with the business. Gary and Samuel refused. Worried and dejected, they got back in their car for the long, dreary trip home—during a freak spring blizzard, no less. But as they hashed over what seemed like a calamitous setback, my husband and his partner emerged from their funk. Gary asked Samuel what he thought the minimum cost would be to build a bona fide manufacturing facility. Samuel confessed he'd been wondering the same thing. He pulled out a scrap of paper, turned on the car's dome light, and began scribbling numbers. As they drove, the two concocted a bold plan to raise money for their latest scheme.
When they arrived back late that night, I excitedly greeted Gary at the door, eager for confirmation of the newly minted deal. "Oh, no, that didn't work out," he told me. "But for just over half a million, we can build our own plant!"
I wept that night, pressing the damp pillowcase against my nose and mouth to filter out the stench from the yogurt waste still souring in our backyard.
EVEN THOUGH YOUR HEART IS BREAKING
Keeping a brave face through the fear
It was typical of us that in such a situation I saw only disaster, while Gary saw a way forward. Only later did I discover that our interpretations weren't so far apart—just our responses to them. I recently asked my husband what he was thinking during those years, a question that, strangely, had never before arisen between us. It turns out Gary had been as realistic as I had been, but far more philosophical. He told me:
The devolution of our business into a tar pit happened slowly. But that's how it works. You don't wake up one morning and say, "This is awful." It's a series of lots of little things that happen each day. As the business grew, the weaknesses began to be magnified. We were like those frogs in the slowly heating water. I had a certain amount of denial, but mainly a lot of innocence. I had never done this before, and couldn't see the warning signs. I do think a certain amount of naïveté is essential. Without it, I probably wouldn't have gone forward.
The rural isolation and primitive accommodations of Stonyfield made our experience worse. If Gary had launched a software start-up in Palo Alto, we would have at least enjoyed ordinary physical comforts while losing our shirts. As it was, I envied our old college friends, most of them traditionally employed. Nose pressed against the glass, I gazed hungrily at their seductive "normal" lives and tried to figure out where Gary and I had gone so wrong. I didn't expect the white picket fence. But I had to wonder: wasn't there a less harrowing way to save the world?
No matter where it is or what it does, a business forces its founders to endure, in varying degrees, exhaustion, privation, and most debilitating of all, uncertainty. The entrepreneur—sure of himself, abuzz with excitement—sees those hardships as just paying dues. He may even welcome obstacles for the challenge and satisfaction of overcoming them. Gary likes to quote Winston Churchill's famous observation that "success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." Churchill would have applauded my husband, who remained calm, determined, and focused while ricocheting from crisis to catastrophe. "Eventually I became numb to the crises," Gary admitted to me. "I didn't really notice the privation of our personal lives, and even if I had I couldn't have afforded the luxury of thinking about that. Solving our endless problems required complete concentration. I felt bad that you were always freezing and that the circumstances were not of your choosing. But I had to keep moving."
Repeated failures are a lot easier to swallow when, after each one, you get to return to doing the thing you love. Gary certainly didn't love the disasters, but he was stimulated by the work. "I considered it a great adventure," he told me. "The setbacks were the price I paid for learning. How a cash flow statement worked, and spreadsheets. I learned what a private placement was, and how to manage dairy cows. I loved the marketing and sales, the creativity involved in package design, coming up with print and radio ads, giving out yogurt at events."
As for me, I was undeniably proud of what Gary and Samuel were trying to accomplish. But I wasn't doing what I loved. And in addition to accepting my own sacrifices, I worried about the adverse effects of the struggle on my husband and on us as a couple. Was he so obsessed with the company that its demise would crush him? Would the long hours and stress affect his physical and mental health, or take a toll on our relationship? Would we ever be able to buy a house or put our children through college? Would we be able to afford to retire someday?
Such concerns chew at the mind of an entrepreneur's spouse like termites in a wall. And at some point, she must ask herself a question. Am I in? In for as long as it takes this business to succeed? In for what is potentially a lifetime of financial risk? In for years of simmering on the back burner while the entrepreneur tends a pot that is always threatening to boil over? Or am I out? Out of patience? Out of hope? Out of my mind with stress and the bitterness of dreams deferred?
That's a hard question to answer. The entrepreneur's identity is so closely entwined with his creation that the spouse's rejection of the latter is implicitly a rejection of the former. Or if not a rejection, then at least a vote of no confidence. If the spouse pronounces "I cannot do this anymore," the entrepreneur may interpret that as, "I don't believe in your idea." Or "I don't believe in your ability to execute on your idea." Or "I don't trust you to make decisions that are in the best interests of our family." It's not a message conducive to an affectionate relationship.
The entrepreneur rarely poses the question—Are you in or out?—to the spouse. ("I assumed, more than I should have," Gary later said, "that you were there for the adventure too.") Yet the spouse does answer it, by giving or withholding support, encouragement, warmth, and reassurance—the manifestations of love.
Hate the sin, love the sinner is not viable in this situation. Consequently, many spouses stay "in" for the sake of the marriage. I spoke to one woman whose husband recently started a condiments company. She is not living the life she signed on for, but she can't bring herself to deflate her husband's grand plans or to pile on his already straining back the additional weight of her unhappiness. As she put it:
Sometimes I feel like saying, "Can't we just stop and do real things? Things that aren't so hard and grueling for our family?" I'm sick of doing demos on weekends. I'm not that interested in it. I'm interested in how our family is going to survive. It's great that he's created something he's excited about. But I'm in the background wondering, how are we going to pay the bills?
My attitude toward Gary and Stonyfield was similar. I was "out," but I acted "in." More precisely, I gave in. There is a difference between acquiescence and agreement. I was out the night Gary was called into the factory for a machine breakdown at 2:00 am, and the acid in the boot wash ate a hole in the top of his foot. I was out when he built a new factory with money we didn't have and personally guaranteed the loans for several expensive pieces of equipment. I was out when, as a result of errors in inventory counts, Samuel had to lecture the warehouse and production staffs on the difference between writing 4s and 9s. (Fours are open at the top!)
I was out, but I couldn't let other people know it. Even on my most miserable days, I was careful to conceal the tiniest sign of doubt for fear of scaring off investors, employees, suppliers, or other stakeholders. The smell of an ailing business is strong and carries far, so a certain amount of bravado is necessary. We might have lost a morning's worth of product because of a problem in the yogurt works and had the fouled curds trucked away to feed some farmer's pigs. But if an investor or friend called that evening and asked how things were going, I cheerfully assured them, "Great! Couldn't be better!"
I was out, but I never told Gary that. Skeptical as I was, I refused to stand openly with Stonyfield's doubters. Gary had enough to worry about with creditors nipping at his heels, potential investors laughing in his face, and employees writing 9s where 4s should be. Instead of criticisms, I offered my husband halfhearted congratulations for new accounts secured, batches unspoiled, sales slightly increased. Most of our victories were merely disasters averted. Still, I raised my arm feebly and stuttered out "Rah!" so Gary wouldn't know that mentally and emotionally I had left the stadium.
Though he didn't—couldn't—tell me at the time, Gary suffered his own dark nights of the soul. But he always rallied. He had to. As he put it:
Most of the time the business felt immensely fragile. But I had to keep believing that we could make it. If I stopped believing, we would have lost the business, and that would mean all our friends and family would lose their money. It would mean that I had failed. I didn't want you to know me as a failure. So I kept writing business plans. For a long time, the company was held together on the strength of my promises—to investors, lenders, and suppliers. As we got deeper into the hole, I felt that instead of staring up at the big blue sky of possibility, I had fallen into a well and saw only a narrow slit of salvation. My goals weren't grand anymore. All I wanted was a ladder to climb out.
Excerpted from FOR BETTER OR FOR WORK by MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG Copyright © 2012 by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg. Excerpted by permission of AN INC. ORIGINAL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Posted August 3, 2012
Business journalist Meg Cadoux Hirshberg’s article “Hitched to Someone Else’s Dream” appeared in the September 2008 issue of Inc. magazine. She described the early, stressful beginnings of Stonyfield Farms, the company her husband co-founded. Though it is now the world’s largest organic yogurt firm, nine years of hard work passed before it made a profit. That article and the subsequent response from entrepreneurial couples and families led Hirshberg to write this book, where the advice ranges from the truly informed inside perspective to a few pretty obvious tips. getAbstract recommends her hilarious, heartbreaking, essential guide and its many family business war stories to current and aspiring entrepreneurs, their spouses and families, and other busy professionals seeking work-life balance.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 15, 2012
I could hardly put this book down once I started it! Meg Hirshberg has done what few have attempted – brilliantly described the real life side of entrepreneurship. Her writing is unapologetically/boldly/starkly frank, yet warmly encouraging. The format of the book is unique too. As she tells her and Gary’s story, she weaves in the stories of - and quotes from - scores of other entrepreneurs and their families. The result is a vivid, vast picture of what it means to dream, build and live with your own business – or the business of someone you love. Every entrepreneur, spouse/partner of an entrepreneur and person linked to an entrepreneur by blood or belief should read this book – if they dare!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2012
No text was provided for this review.