Ten years ago, when Beth Nielsen started her first business, a private school in Michigan, she left her husband in Chicago for days at a time and worked on the project during the weekends.
“We talked about it for a long time before I decided to pursue this,” she recalls. “He said he was fine with it, but when it actually happened, he wasn’t so fine with it.”
The marriage ended, and Ms. Nielsen moved to Michigan.
“There were other issues, but the business was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the relationship,” says Ms. Nielsen, 38. “He wanted to spend more time with me. He didn’t understand that this was my baby. At 2 o’clock in the morning, I could still be up because I can’t shut my mind down from all these ideas, things that need to get done.”
Ms. Nielsen’s experience is not unusual.
Most successful entrepreneurs would probably admit that, deep down, their first love really is their business. If love can be measured by time spent, the business would usually come in No. 1 (especially in the start-up phase), with spouses, kids, parents, siblings and friends running a distant second. This isn’t to say that entrepreneurs are heartless. It’s just that starting a business and shepherding it is enormously time- and energy-consuming — far more so than most non-entrepreneurs can fathom.
And that’s where discord often begins.
“Being an entrepreneur just takes an extraordinary amount of time and commitment, and there are also huge financial pressures that create conflict,” says Lloyd Shefsky, co-director of the Center for Family Enterprises at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “The owner wants to put more money into their business, and their spouse is saying, ‘I’d rather put it into our savings account.’ ”
Some of the nation’s most prominent entrepreneurs come to Mr. Shefsky’s classroom to tell his students about their rise to the top and “more of them are on their second, third and fourth marriages than on their first,” he says.
Still, small-business owners who can put family first at least some of the time can beat the odds.
Ms. Nielsen, for example, now helps run Waukegan-based Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc., a 102-year-old vanilla manufacturer with annual revenue of about $11 million that’s been in her family for three generations.
She also has a 1-year-old daughter with her partner, a chef who runs his own, separate business.
It helps that her significant other also is an entrepreneur and understands her drive. But, she says, their relationship works because they deliberately carve out family time, declining invitations to work events on the weekends and scheduling date nights at live music venues where it’s too loud to talk about business. Ms. Nielsen also makes an effort to meet her partner halfway. “I’m always conscientious about saying, ‘And how was your day?’ ” she says.
Building a life with an entrepreneur is not for the faint-hearted.
Andrew Keyt, executive director of the Loyola University Chicago Family Business Center, ticks off a few reasons why: “The entrepreneur is usually more comfortable dealing with risk than other family members. Life seems to revolve around the business, and kids often resent that. And it’s not uncommon for an entrepreneur to lack empathy for what the rest of their family is going through. The needs of their business can become all-consuming, and they just lose touch with what’s important for their family.”
Marriages involving workaholics are twice as likely to end in divorce, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
VACATIONS IN KANSAS CITY
With an eight-year-old business and 10-year marriage, Andrew Limouris, 37, is holding it together despite the challenges. His wife, Maria, and their family know the sacrifices of entrepreneurship firsthand.
The year he launched his health care staffing firm, Medix Staffing Solutions Inc., Mr. Limouris moved his family into his father-in-law’s basement to cut costs. Since he was devoting every waking hour to work, his wife was left to take care of their new baby largely on her own.
Then, the more offices Medix opened, the more Mr. Limouris needed to travel, stealing time from his wife and three kids. Today, Lombard-based Medix generates $30 million a year in revenue and has nine offices across the country.
Now, the recession is forcing Mr. Limouris to work twice as hard to keep sales up. “It’s not exactly the perfect deal for Maria,” he acknowledges.
But he works at keeping in touch. “If I get a phone call from home, I take the call,” he says. “If I miss the call, I call back. I don’t ignore communications throughout the day, because it’s a long day.”
In early April, Mr. Limouris canceled a family vacation to Sedona, Ariz., to spend a few days in the Kansas City, Kan., office — “I couldn’t say, ‘Guys we need to dig in and work harder’ and then go to Arizona for a week,” he explains — but he brought his family with him. He also took two afternoons off to explore the city with his brood, visiting a petting zoo and going to a “Disney on Ice” show.
The fact that he tries makes a difference to his wife. “I’d like for him to be home a little more, but I know the bigger picture is more important,” says Ms. Limouris, 31. “What he’s doing is his passion, and he’s good at it. We just try to savor the time we do have.”
A NEED TO SHARE
With their big dreams and boundless confidence, entrepreneurs often want to play the hero in their families’ lives as well as in their businesses, keeping bad news about declining sales and failed projects to themselves.
“Psychological isolation for the entrepreneur can be a real source of trouble, especially during high-stress times such as a recession,” says Michael Komie, a clinical psychologist and affiliate faculty member at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. They snap at their wives when they find receipts from Bloomingdale’s; they get grumpy when their sons talk excitedly about applying to private colleges.
While providing a sense of stability for children, in particular, is a noble goal, “it is not realistic to think that entrepreneurship is not going to impact the family,” Mr. Komie says. It’s important that entrepreneurs let their families know about business events that might affect their lives, he says. They may even help.
A few years ago, a storm ripped the roof off one of the warehouses owned by Laura and Robert Engel, 45, whose Chicago-based company, Angel Sales Inc., manufactures and sells “as-seen-on-TV” products like the Bible Search board game and the BraBaby, a gadget that protects bras in the washing machine. The company has annual sales of roughly $5 million.
Rain poured in, destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise. The Engels rented two Dumpsters and spent the weekend throwing out their damaged products. They brought their three children along, and their two boys helped smash more cardboard into one Dumpster by jumping up and down on it.
“They were having so much fun, it actually made us smile,” says Ms. Engel, 43.
Accidental Entrepreneurs: Adjust Expectations
With 9% unemployment in the Chicago area and widespread hiring freezes, it’s no surprise that laid-off executives are going into business for themselves. If you’re one of these refugees from Corporate America, you very likely expect business ownership to change the way you work. But starting a business will also transform the way you and your family live. Here’s how:
1. You’ll have less time for family than before.
That’s because you’ll be doing more. In addition to designing products and making deals, you’ll need to create all the contracts and processes your business requires, keep on top of paperwork like filing taxes, and replace the toner in the copier — at least until your business can afford employees to do these jobs. You’ll spend time figuring out how to write press releases and update your Web site. And your customers will want to see you more than clients at your corporate job did because “you really are the brand,” says Art Stewart, president of Alexandria, Va.-based Stewart Strategies Group LLC, a consulting firm that works with family businesses.
2. Your high-wire act will make your family anxious.
It’s unavoidable, even if your spouse agrees with the financial gamble you’re taking. “Your family has different perspectives on all of this,” says Lloyd Shefsky, co-director of the Center for Family Enterprises at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “You’re doing something new,” and that can make them nervous. Take the edge off their fears by keeping them updated on your progress so they know how you’re coping with your new role. “Also, as you get people to buy your product or service, it’s not bad if your family meets those people so they get to see others have confidence in you,” Mr. Shefsky says.
3. Your family will judge you based on your business.
Your employer doesn’t pay you a bonus this year because the economy is slumping? Not your fault. But if weak sales at your business mean you have to dip into your kids’ college fund to cover payroll, your spouse may question your competence. “There are probably not too many spouses haranguing their husbands about losing their job at General Motors,” says William “Marty” Martin, an associate professor at DePaul University’s College of Commerce. “There’s a heck of a lot of spouses haranguing their entrepreneur husbands about ‘How did you let it get this way?’ ” What’s more, business setbacks can reactivate problems from the past. A couple may have worked through a husband’s extramarital affair, he says, “but now the business is crummy, the wife pipes up and says, ‘If you hadn’t spent that money on her, we’d have it now.’ ” Defuse the situation by inviting your family to help you find solutions to the problems your company’s struggles are causing at home, such as checking out honors programs at state colleges if private colleges are out of reach.
©2009 by Crain Communications Inc.