David K. Williams, Contributor
Lifelong entrepreneur, CEO of Fishbowl and writer for HBR and Forbes.
One of the most critical (and most unsung) roles in an entrepreneurial company is not the founder or owner—it’s the role of that person’s significant other or spouse. This has always been true, but the challenges (and importance) of these individuals is even greater and more crucial in the challenging business climate we currently face.
Paula Williams, with David Williams, enjoying the highs and the lows of life as an entrepreneurial spouse.
There is a somewhat prevalent myth that being the spouse of an entrepreneur is highly desirable—that it’s great to be married to someone who loves their work and is taking creative risks. That “being your own boss” leaves you with a greater income and higher flexibility to take time off for vacations or to attend to family needs.
In actuality, the opposite is far more typically true. The truth of the entrepreneurial life is a tornado of long hours, high risk and uncertainty. Despite their good intentions, entrepreneurs can be the world’s worst spouses, since they are very typically investing the majority of their time and interest in their companies, even during prosperous times.
If an entrepreneurial company fails, it can often take the family’s finances down with it, which can lead to marital troubles or even trigger divorce.
Forbes contributor Dale Buss recently reviewed a book by Meg Hirshberg on the topic – For Better Or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. In addition to the typical topics, Meg addresses some of the tougher issues such as how to handle the failure of a startup, the strains of “serial entrepreneurship,” and how to handle some of the extra stresses that happen when a company owner falls ill.
Meg concludes her book on a positive note, Buss says, encouraging entrepreneurs and their families to strive for and focus on the “magic moments” when owning a company “makes possible a family’s most remarkable experiences.”
There are ample articles that discuss the negative aspects of being an entrepreneur’s significant other or spouse. But today I’d like to take the opposite approach and to highlight and acknowledge several highly inspiring individuals for the roles they’ve played in their spouses’ success.
The first is Darlene Hatch, the wife of Brent Hatch, CEO of Profire Energy. This exciting company began in March, 2002 with just four people, as pioneers in the technology of burner management. They make fossil-fuel combustion operations safer, greener, and more efficient by ensuring the burner that keeps the fuel at the proper temperature for operation is safely lit, or remotely and safely re-lit, and that it is operating at maximum efficiency.
Today the company is a multi-million dollar organization with presence in the U.S. and Canada, publicly traded, and on its way to making an impact on the oil and gas industry worldwide. But prior to Profire’s success, Brent recalls, it was his wife Darlene who bore the worst of the brunt of failed prior entrepreneurial efforts. “She took the calls from creditors. She gave up vacations—endured the long hours when I couldn’t come home.”
“People look at the joy we’re having now and say ‘I’d give anything to be able to play at a business like that,’” Brent observes. “What they don’t realize is that the entrepreneur’s spouse already did give everything—in some cases has done so multiple times—in order for the entrepreneur’s dream to have the possibility to succeed. I would not be where I am with this company were it not for Darlene.”
Hatch notes that the role of spouse is so critical to an entrepreneur that Profire interviews spouses as well as individuals when considering key hires.
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Jeanne Hall, wife of Forbes contributor and lifetime entrepreneur Alan Hallis another example. Those who follow Alan’s articles know that prior to his homerun successes with MarketStar, Mercato Partners venture capital, and his vast base of early-stage investments, he had experienced several entrepreneurial failures. He recalls the worst moment of his life being when, in his forties, one of those failures left him with a business debt so deep that it required Jeanne going back to work as a teacher and counselor to help to pay it back off. “She managed to raise our children on a salary that was below the poverty line for an entire two years,” he recalls.
Even now that he has vast entrepreneurial holdings, Alan notes with humor that while she fails to be unduly impressed with his standing, her lifestyle (and theirs) has remained largely the same—she drives a car with enough miles on it that he claims to have been tempted to buy her a new vehicle and pretend he had won it on “Let’s Make A Deal,” but he fears that even at that point, she’d refuse it and find a way to give it away. While she would have the option of affording herself every leisure, she prefers to spend her time in work on philanthropic efforts through their church and through their Hall Foundation instead.
In my own case, prior to my opportunity at Fishbowl, the inventory softwarecompany I now lead, my wife Paula Williams has had ample experience with the highs and lows of being married to a “all or nothing” entrepreneur.
We have been married for 33 years. While bearing and raising 5 beautiful children, Paula has endured moving 20 times. A highly conservative person by nature, married to someone who envisions himself as full-on warrior, she has been steadfast in her devotion, whether the bacon was being brought home or not.
In her other life, entrepreneurial spouse Paula Williams sings with the globally acclaimed Mormon Tabernacle Choir
In either situation, she has allowed me to go and be “me.” Ten years ago I had “bet the farm” on a massive land reclamation in our valley. After three years of investing everything we had, all in a day, it seemed, it was gone. Everyone jumped ship and I was the last man standing. I anguished and sought counsel over what to do. Should I declare bankruptcy? Not knowing if the house would be lost or the utilities shut off could force many significant others, spouses and children to pile onto the equation with their own additional negative stress. My family remained steadfast in cheering me on. We had a close friend who literally forced his way into the endeavor with additional investment and when the deal went south, he left threatening messages on our phone and wrote letters to my children telling them what a loser of a father they had.
Three years later, we had survived the process of repaying more than $1 million in debt. We paid off 72 credit cards (without missing a payment). The leases, everything we owed,were all paid off. At any time, if the negative pressure I faced had been coming from within my home, I would have foregone my entrepreneurial life and chosen a different path. Because of Paula’s patience (and because the creditors had been willing to work with me, thankfully) I was able to avoid bankruptcy and to remain standing when the opportunity to discover and lead Fishbowl came along. Without the strength of our Fishbowl family we would have been unable to endure losing our oldest son, Cameron (our CAM Courage Above Mountainsfoundation is named in his honor) to a rare cancer just four years ago. The trials we face can either make us or break us. When the challenges have nearly broken me as an entrepreneur, my wife and my family have remained strong.
In conclusion, I’d like to issue a challenge today to every entrepreneur who is supported by a steadfast spouse or a significant other – don’t ever forget that your ability to “be who you are” and accomplish business miracles is equally dependent on them. Let us always appreciate, respect and reward the vital roles that they also play in your ability to reach an entrepreneurial goal.