In addition to working at Mountain BizWorks, I also happen to be married to a small-business owner. As such, I am intimately familiar with both the joys and challenges of entrepreneurship — and the role of providing support through thick and thin.
But as any spouse of a small business owner will tell you, being supportive 100 percent of the time is not an easy thing. Being married to an entrepreneur is a constant balancing act of applauding and worrying; it requires putting a lot of trust in your partner’s abilities, skills and instincts.
Of course, this is not quite what I expected when I initially encouraged my husband to follow his business dreams. Like most founders and their partners, we were a bit naïve about the work that would be involved, the amount of time that it would take to make a profit, and the emotional extremes we would be subjected to. And while we both have extremely supportive family and friends, we certainly spend more time sharing the successes rather than the challenges, which can make the whole undertaking feel a bit lonely sometimes.
So it’s almost difficult for me to express how profoundly I appreciate For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families, by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg. Her husband founded Stonyfield Farm, which is now a multimillion-dollar business. But it took 10 years of standing on the edge of financial and emotional ruin before the business managed to turn a profit. During those early years, Hirshberg was plagued by endless doubts and both internal and external conflict that, she says, “created periods of distance and suffocating tension” between her and her husband.
This book should be required reading for all entrepreneurs, their life partners, and anyone considering starting a small business. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in business for 10 minutes or 10 years or whether your endeavor is large or small. I cannot imagine anyone connected to small business who wouldn’t gain insight from the fresh perspective this book offers.
While many guides for entrepreneurs focus on how-to logistics or you-can-to-it cheerleading, For Better or for Work offers a revealing glimpse into what it’s actually like to share this journey together — to work with your spouse, borrow money from family and friends, share a home with inventory and employees, raise a family in the midst of financial chaos, or endure the heartbreaking failure of a business. It’s a very honest look at dynamics that can easily threaten long-term relationships, and it guides the reader through questions and issues that should be discussed in order to avoid unhappy endings.
But this is not to say that the book is all gloom and doom. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes, chapters about the satisfaction of handing down a family business and the “magic moments” that can only come from being connected to a small-business owner’s dreams. Throughout, Hirshberg’s writing style is approachable and uncomplicated — which makes her topic all the easier to relate to. It feels like connecting with a trusted friend.
For example, in one chapter, Hirshberg tells the story of the time her husband and his business partner took a road trip to finalize a deal that would have retired their extensive debt. As she tells it, "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 laughed out loud when I read this. I’ve been in Hirshberg’s shoes several times — supporting and helping my husband through weeks of preparation, waiting by the phone to hear how the meeting went … and then learning that not only did it not go as planned, but — almost mentioned as an afterthought — that my husband and his business partner have decided to take a different tack. While these challenges make my heart sink into m stomach, he seems mostly undisturbed. It can feel like we’re worlds apart.
While such experiences don’t exactly seem “funny” when you’re experiencing them, hearing Hirschberg’s tales in For Better or for Work let my husband and I share a chuckle. Seeing our situation from an outside perspective underlines its absurdity, illuminates why we each react the way we do, and, frankly, makes us feel less insane. It strengthens our empathy for each other during the long and challenging process of building a business.
So, if you only read one business book this year, make it this one; your partner, your family, and your business will thank you for it.
Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.
Mountain BizWorks supports small businesses in Western North Carolina through lending, consulting and training. For more information, visit mountainbizworks.org.