How to maintain love, and your sanity, as an entrepreneur’s wife

Even with your mom’s savings on the line
Julia McKinnell
So you married an entrepreneur
Getty Images; Newscom; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Meg Hirshberg realizes that the wildly improbable success of her husband’s organic yogourt business, Stonyfield Farm—now the world’s largest producer of organic yogourt—is like a fairy tale to other entrepreneurs. The business started with 18 cows. Meg and Gary shared living quarters in a dilapidated rural New Hampshire home with Gary’s business partner Samuel Kaymen, his wife and five of the Kaymen children. It’s a rags-to-riches story that started in a cold farmhouse with leaky windows, and caused Meg’s hair to ruffle in the winter wind, indoors.

“Entrepreneurs are easy to fall in love with,” she explains in an indispensable new guidebook for entrepreneurs and their spouses called For Better or For Work. “They are charismatic, interesting, creative and energetic.” But, she warns, “you cannot imagine the emotional whiplash [they] can induce.”

Meg shovelled manure and drove around to New Hampshire supermarkets where she repeatedly saw their yogourt cups damaged, out of stock, or past their sell-by dates. As dispiriting as this was, nothing tied her stomach in knots more than their precarious financial situation. “Would we ever be able to buy a house and put our children through college? Such concerns,” she says, “chew at the mind of an entrepreneur’s spouse like termites in a wall.”

With advice at the end of each chapter, Meg urges other entrepreneurs and their spouses to decide at the beginning how much bad news will be shared. “We came perilously close to losing the business several times. Frankly, I wanted to lose the business—anything to get us out of our plight,” she writes. The couple started acting like the three wise monkeys. “I covered my eyes and ears and Gary went along with covering his mouth.” This way, Gary “avoided what he calls the ‘double penalty’—intense stress at work compounded by intense stress at home.”

In a chapter on raising money, Meg refers to friends and family members as the entrepreneur’s low-hanging fruit. Gary raised over $5 million for Stonyfield, all from individuals and none from venture capitalists. Meg’s mother, who didn’t even eat the yogourt, was the third-largest shareholder, with Meg’s three brothers also heavily invested.

“In those early discussions with my family, Gary painted Stonyfield’s prospects in rosier hues than I felt was warranted,” confesses Meg. “I couldn’t follow his logic through my own maze of doubts. If Gary didn’t make sense to me, how was he making sense to all these people I loved and respected?” As Stonyfield continued to lose money, Gary started calling Meg’s mother on the sly. “I would dial her on another line and implore her to say no.” Meg’s mother would tell her, “I’m a big girl. I know what I’m doing.” Meg would think, “They’re both insane. The two people I love the most are nuts!”

Her advice to entrepreneurs: “Don’t sugarcoat. Clearly state the risks of the investment. Be transparent, and warn friends and family that future rounds of financing could dilute their investments or even change ownership of the company.” To this, Gary adds, “Every day is a test of your integrity. Are you up to it? If you fail, you’re not only the s–t who lost their money, but you’re unworthy of their respect. There’s a lot more at play than money.”

Meg’s mother lent more money when an investor lost confidence, bringing her investment to well over $1 million. This time, Gary, who acknowledged things were not going well, actually urged her not to do it. But in 2001, the gamble paid off. Non-employee stockholder shares were sold to Groupe Danone. “I remember the lump in my throat melting away,” Gary told Meg. “I once again could be part of your family instead of the person who held their financial destiny.” “Money changes relationships,” Meg warns. “Sometimes it changes people. Conversations may grow less frequent and comfortable.”

In the end, Gary’s advice is to read Meg’s book. “Share at least parts of it with your significant other. You may not agree with every issue, but you’ll agree on what the issues are, and that you’re going to do what it takes to resolve them.”