Small Business

Keeping Your Family Intact While Building Your Business

Meg Hirshberg|Guest Columnist

Guest columnist Meg Hirshberg is author of the forthcoming book For Better or For Work.

For Better or for Work | Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

It’s a given that any entrepreneurial business sucks up the time, attention—and usually the cash—of the company builder. My husband, an entrepreneur, once told me that business is all about solving problems.

The entrepreneur becomes an EMT responding to an endless series of crises. What looks merely “important” to an outsider becomes upgraded to “urgent” in a twinkling, when you are where the buck stops.

With the entrepreneur perpetually on-call, the spouse and family can easily feel lower on the priority list, and even left behind. But as one business owner cautioned, if you build a successful company and lose your family in the meantime, you’ve had your eye on the wrong ball.

What strategies can entrepreneurs adopt to make sure they stay connected to their families while building their own professional dream?  As the spouse of a hard-driving entrepreneur, I have a few suggestions:

Play small ball. Runs can be scored with a big blast or through a series of smaller base hits. In both cases, you score, but the odds of success are greater when you take it one base at a time. Likewise, you may not be able to score the big runs routinely with your family — a two week work-free vacation in the tropics, for example. But don’t let that take your eye off the smaller wins: That 10-minute walk down the block with your spouse; chatting with your daughter in the car on the way to her basketball practice. Cultivate small moments. Short exchanges can be meaningful—as long as you’re not glancing at your smartphone at the same time.

Hold regular family meetings. My husband, Gary, and I did this with our children, but not frequently enough. Though the kids initially felt awkward about speaking frankly, over time they grew more comfortable and in the end, these meetings made us all feel better connected. In the course of interviewing hundreds of entrepreneurs, I spoke with several who faithfully held family meetings every week or two. They used the time to check in with how everyone was feeling and asked for suggestions about how the family could function more smoothly and with less friction. If you decide to gather regularly with your family, be prepared to let the process work both ways: The kids should feel free to offer ideas about how Mom and Dad can improve their behavior, too. 

Invite your family to your workplace. This will help them understand and appreciate what you deal with every day. One entrepreneur I spoke with takes his kids out of school one day every six months to spend a day with Dad at the business. My husband often invited me to attend board meetings. These were helpful in giving me a better understanding of the pressures he faced, and a sense of the enormous scope of his responsibilities. Hanging out in your office, it won’t take long for your family members to see that other livelihoods depend on you. They will be proud of your leadership role.

Spend time in your family’s worlds. Go to that soccer game, of course, but also make sure to enjoy unstructured hang out time with your children. Watch a TV show together; volunteer to help at school; strap on some ice skates when you daughter goes to practice her jumps; read to your young son—or ask him to read to you. With your spouse, play audience while she rehearses a presentation, read the novel her book group is discussing, go with her to pick out bathroom tile. (Above all, see item 1, above: During these together times, no glancing, surreptitiously or otherwise, at that smartphone.)

Take vacations. This is often one of the first “extras” to be sacrificed, especially during the start-up years. The family can’t afford it financially; the entrepreneur can’t afford to leave his business, mentally or physically. But even a little time away — spent together, in a different locale — can produce important memories, and sometimes life-changing experiences, far out of proportion to the amount of time set aside. You don’t need to go far, or for long. Make economies elsewhere. Take those trips.

While you spend most of your day putting out business fires, make sure your family is not consumed by the flames. In many small ways, you can show them that they matter most.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is married to the founder of Stonyfield Yogurtand writes the “Balancing Acts” column in Inc. magazine. Her new book, For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families, will be published in March 2012.