What you share, and how and when you share it, is an important thing to consider as you meet the challenges of entrepreneurship, particularly during those early, uncertain days.
There are several strategies that are useful in mitigating the out‑of‑control feeling that the spouse may have during any business startup. I derived these not only from my own experience, but from the over 250 people who I interviewed for my book. During any business launch, the spouse is going to need to decide just what he or she really wants to know about the business. Business launches are by definition very tenuous times financially. And the spouse may not have the risk tolerance that the entrepreneur has to deal with every kind of up and down and hiccup that the business encounters along the way.
Once while my husband and I were driving down U.S. 1 in California we realized that the experience was a great analogy for the difference in how the entrepreneur and the spouse experience a startup. Because the driver, who was him, is actually in control of the vehicle and therefore they don’t really experience all the twists and turns because they can prepare for them. Where the passenger is the person who’s getting jostled and thrown about and therefore they are the ones who can start to feel sick.
It’s important to recall that while the spouse’s fate is tied to the fate of the business, he or she usually has very little control over how the business is run. Our early years were so tenuous that I got to the point where I wanted to hear a financial report as much as I watched the movie “The Shining” which is basically running out of the room during terrifying scenes. Gary and I often compared ourselves to the three wise monkeys because I would sort of cover my ears and eyes to see and hear no evil. And he went along by covering his mouth. I don’t really recommend this as a way to proceed because the problem is in that situation, the entrepreneur is really bearing their burden alone and unshared and that can lead to separate lives. So while knowledge may be scary, ignorance isn’t bliss.
So it’s important that the entrepreneur and spouse be able to discuss at least certain aspects of the business. If not the particulars about finances, then maybe they can talk about new products or new accounts secured, or just something positive that looms in the future of the business.
This isn’t to say that the entrepreneur should baby the spouse in anyway, it’s just important to respect that different people have different risk tolerance. And I found in 30 years of being around entrepreneurs and spouses, that almost always the spouse has a lower risk tolerance than the entrepreneur.
When it comes to sharing business news and information between spouses, there are a few things that I recommend doing. First, be careful about when you share the information. For example, you don’t want to tell your spouse that you just lost a major account while you’re brushing your teeth at night before going to bed. Because anything at that time of day is bound to provoke a problem. You want to set a time when the two of you can sit down together, maybe 30 minutes a week if you can, to review what happened that week and things that may have changed in the business. And it becomes a time when your spouse will feel free to air some of his or her concerns or questions.
It also helps to have a Plan B. And I think for couples I know who have done that, who figured out what they will do if the business fails, what the entrepreneur will do, how the family may recover financially, that can really put the spouse’s mind at ease. Because even if something happens, they know that there’s a pathway that the couple has chosen to take.
A third thing, and this really helped Gary and me, is I attended his board meetings. And if you do have a board I highly recommend that. Because the information that’s given in a board meeting is delivered dispassionately and stripped of emotion. And the spouse can hear it in that context and see how the entrepreneur presents it and deals with the challenges in a very business‑like setting.
I think that most entrepreneurs actually fake it ’til they make it. And part of the people who they are selling, they are selling friends and family and investors, but also themselves and their spouses. So that can lead to disappointments when certain benchmarks aren’t met. But ideally the spouse’s questions about the business won’t be taken as challenges but maybe as helpful suggestions. Of course, the spouse’s advice isn’t always correct. And the spouse needs to understand that it’s the entrepreneur who has to make that call. Because it’s the entrepreneur who’s really familiar with every aspect of the business. But still, it’s helpful if spouses can have these exchanges and if the non‑entrepreneurial spouse feels welcome to offer suggestions and ideas.
An open to a dialogue will an insure that neither the entrepreneur nor the spouse will bear the burdens and the anxieties of a business alone.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg. “How Much About the Business Should You Share with Your Spouse?“, Inc. Magazine, September 2011.
MGroysberg, Boris and Robin Abrahams. “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life”, Harvard Business Review, March 2014.
Matt Blumberg. Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ. 2013. Chapter 45.
Questions for You
How much of the day to day struggles can I share with my spouse without causing undue stress?
What are the essential things that need to be shared (especially those that relate to finances or our future)?
Tools and exercises
Have a conversation as a family. Identify what you need to share, what you want to share, and how you’ll share. Talk about whether you’ll have a regular family meeting, or share on an as needed basis? Are there good or bad times to discuss as a family?