A candid conversation about topics critical to the family can set the stage for healthy communication during the early, stressful days of founding a company.
Ideally the entrepreneurial couple will sit down and have a conversation about the risks and opportunities of a startup before the actual launch. This doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t usually happen. But it is ideal for the couple to do that. Some of these issues will inevitably arise. And it’s helpful to become more conscious of them and identify potential solutions before they’re actually at your doorstep.
There are three principle areas that I think families would do well to examine before they launch into a startup. And I would divide them into personal issues, financial consequences, and end‑game discussion about where this is all going.
In terms of personal issues, I think it’s very legitimate to discuss how will the family’s life change. Should the spouse, for example, consider trying to bring in more income as a result of losing potentially one income during the startup years? Will the spouse be more responsible for taking care of the home, taking care of kids? And if so, how can the entrepreneur help to offset some of that increased responsibility?
It’s also helpful to discuss whether the entrepreneur expects the spouse to be involved in the business. And if so, what’s that going to look like. It’s important to define what that role actually is. Because a lot of times spouses start working for a company, they just kind of slide into it. And they find themselves doing things that they may not actually be interested in or well‑suited to doing, but they just want to help out in the business. And they don’t necessarily have any role or official responsibilities, but they just wind up taking up a lot of the slack. And I think that can breed resentment down the line.
When I moved up to Stonyfield Farm to live with Gary I got sucked into working in the business. It was kind of all hands on deck, as it often is in a startup. And I wound up doing sales and making yogurt actually. I learned how to be a yogurt maker, which was a very stressful job. I didn’t enjoy either job. And yet I felt compelled to help out as spouses often do. And it didn’t work out. In the end I left the company after a couple of years by mutual agreement with my husband that this was not good for our relationship to be working under him. Especially doing things that I really don’t enjoy doing. But that said, I’ve interviewed many couples who do work together and can’t even imagine building their life’s dream with anyone other than their spouse. And I really tip my hat to those people. Because I think it requires a certain ability to compartmentalize. Because things are very different in a personal relationship than they are in a work relationship. And you have to be able to disentangle the two.
There are a number of potential financial consequences to starting a business that would be helpful to get out on the table before the actual launch. What exactly is going to give financially in the family in order to launch this startup? For example, will they cut back on the number of vacations? Or will it come down to things like home repair, they need a new roof or a new kitchen? What is the vulnerability of the family’s assets? Does the entrepreneur plan, for example, to use the house as collateral for a loan? The spouse may not be on board for that extent of financial risk.
What happens to the spouse if something happens to the entrepreneur? Will he or she be on the line, be on the hook for anything financially? What about keyman insurance, health insurance, disability? This will help insulate the spouse from any misfortune that life may bring.
The spouse may also be interested in knowing what will the entrepreneur do with any profits, assuming that there are some at some point. Most entrepreneurs are really tempted to roll any profits back into the business to help it grow. But the spouse may want to see some of that being returned to the family.
And finally, the spouse may want to establish a cut bait number, a point beyond which the family will not go in terms of devoting financial resources to the business.
I would say of all the discussion points that I have mentioned, the most important one, if you’re going to have one topic of discussion, it would be that cut bait number. Where are you going to draw the line in terms‑‑ really in terms of finances? What is just going to be too much? And most business people I know, even when they’ve actually had that discussion, have exceeded that cut bait number. And yet what it does more than anything, is it provides a reason to sit down once that is reached. It provides a reason to sit down and really discuss the business, where’s this going, how much more resources do we really expect to put in, how is this going to really benefit our family.
The third category has to do with where is this all going. And that entails some sort of idea of what’s the exit strategy. Does the entrepreneur hope to start this business and stay in it forever? Or are they hoping to build something that they can eventually sell?
If the business fails, and as we all know 50 percent of businesses fail in the first five years, what’s Plan B? What will the entrepreneur do instead? I made this list for a column that I wrote for Inc. Magazine. And after I made it I showed it to my husband who’s an entrepreneur and asked him his thoughts. He agreed that it would have been very helpful to have this conversation before he started the business. This is a conversation we did not have. However, he said that his responses would have varied according to how much sleep he’d gotten the night before, what mood he was in, whether he managed to snag a desirable investor. So he cautioned me that his responses would not have provided that sort of bedrock of security that I craved. Because truthful answers, it’s important to remember are not always accurate answers. There is so much the entrepreneur cannot foresee.
So have this discussion, sure, it’s important to air these issues and become conscious of them before they rear their heads as problems. But neither the entrepreneur nor the spouse should hold the entrepreneur to these answers because there’s just too much that’s unknown in any launch, any startup.