After my family sold its 50 year-old, 100-employee business, I worked for the new owners for a while, but grew disheartened at the way it was being run. Being pretty hard-headed and independent anyway, I decided to strike out on my own. I was young, had no kids yet, and the sale provided enough of a nest egg to buy me a little freedom and opportunity.
Being the supportive, philosophical, Zen-like soul that she is, her answer was fantastic, and I'll never forget it: "If you are going to look back when you're 80 and regret not doing it, then you should do it. I have faith in you." An angel investor, albeit of the non-financial variety. So I started the company that eventually became Skooba Design, and for the past 11 years she's been a passenger on my crazy ride. I wonder if, looking back, she'd buy the ticket again.
Not everyone is as fortunate. I've spoken to many entrepreneurs for whom the discussion and decision were not so easy. Issues of money, family roles and responsibilities, job security, time/availability, and risk can make spousal buy-in a challenge, to say the least.
Here are four things you must discuss with your spouse before you quit your day job:
- Your business plan: Spend the time clearly explaining what you want to do and how it will (hopefully) work, just as you would to a lender or investor. In many ways this is the most important investor you'll have, and giving him or her a clear vision of your plan will engender understanding, hopefully calmness and confidence, and if all goes well, the support you need.
- Finances: Though there are many family issues that come into play when starting and running your own business, obviously in the end money is the biggest for almost everyone. You must be brutally honest -- with yourself as well as your spouse -- about finances. Talk about what you have, how much of it you plan to invest/spend/risk, and what you hope to achieve financially in the short and long term. Understand and be sensitive to your partner's tolerance for the risks you are proposing to take. Starting a business can be self-indulgent ("I've always wanted to..."), but you need to remember that it is not just your life and future that will be affected.
- An honest assessment of scenarios: Explain the best, the "middle ground," and especially the worst that can happen. Obviously everyone hopes and believes they will succeed, but the reality is that many don't, so your spouse is most likely to be concerned with the worst-case scenario. Are you going to max out your plastic, take a second mortgage, ruin your credit? Will you have to go into belt-tightening mode? Might you even lose your home if it really goes to hell? Anything but unvarnished honesty could come back to haunt you later.
- Timelines and decision points: Are you an all-or-nothing entrepreneur who will never, ever stop trying until you're broke or dead (or both), or are you willing to set some goals, milestones and decision points? Is there a point at which you'd even -- gasp -- call it quits if it ain't happening? Make it known.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, wife of Gary Hirschberg (the founder of organic yogurt-maker Stoneyfield Farms), writes excellent first-hand stories about the business/family dynamic for Inc. Magazine. Her experiences will resonate with many entrepreneurs, and I recommend them to anyone about to pull his or her family into this world.