What it's Really Like Being Married to an Entrepreneur

At the end of 2004, when my husband Matt told me he wanted to quit his job as a vice president for AOL to buy a small website selling chess sets on the internet, I thought he had lost his mind.  I knew he had not been happy the last couple of years at work, but to leave a great-paying job with bonuses, health insurance and stock options to sell chess sets seemed absurd. 

Only four years before, AOL was on top of the world and was for a time the largest company in the world by market capitalization. But now, it was hemorrhaging customers, many going to traditional cable companies which were offering broadband internet connections. 

Matt would often complain that it was no fun working for a company whose only goal was to stop customers from leaving.   Gone were the days when the company talked about world dominance.   Now there wasn’t even any talk about growth.  The only real question became, when would subscriber numbers stop declining and level off?  I remember Matt telling me that he would joke with his colleagues that whoever was the last one there should remember to turn out the lights when they leave.

When Good People Do Stupid Things

Knowing he was going to leave, Matt interviewed with a few companies, but none seemed right. In his mind, he really wanted to do his own thing.  We had moved six times in 12 years and with three young children at home, each move was more difficult.  We hadn’t lived near family since we started having children, so the prospect of moving back to Utah was enticing.  I liked the idea of my children growing up near their cousins, and grandparents. 

To convince me it was the right thing to do, Matt shared with me the financial performance of the chess website.  It had been in business for less than two years, but the current owner was making a nice profit and the business had seen a lot of growth in that short time.  As Matt modeled out various growth scenarios it seemed like maybe it could be a viable business in the future.

Matt also talked about how nice it would be to be your own boss.   He would have flexibility in his schedule and would have more time with me and the kids. That all sounded great, but as I soon found out, it was complete nonsense.

After much discussion and a lot of prayer, we sold our house and moved the family 1,200 miles to Utah to start our new lives as entrepreneurs.  


The Early Years

From 2005 through 2008 Matt was completely consumed with the business.  The business was growing, which is a good thing, but we didn’t have the staff, systems, or infrastructure in place to operate as efficiently as we should. 

The warehouse was too small, and I was happy when Matt signed a lease on a bigger space only five minutes from our home.  I thought I would see him more often as he would now save an hour a day on his commute, but it didn’t work out that way.  It was just another hour a day he spent in the office. 

The holiday seasons were the worst.   Matt would be at work 16-18 hours a day, only to turn around and do it again the next day.  Even trying to find time to get a family picture with Santa at the mall became a scheduling nightmare.  

Where is the flexibility in his schedule that Matt had promised when we first talked about starting a business?  I sure wasn’t seeing it.  Matt was busier than he had ever been at work, and I was just as busy at home.   With three kids under the age of 10 and soon to be a fourth on the way, there were times I felt like a single mom, especially around the holidays. 

Matt was always telling me that things would get better.  He just needed to hire a new person, implement a new order management system, or fix an issue with a supplier.  The funny thing is I think he really believed it when he told me that. However, I quickly learned that there would always be another system to fix, a person to hire, or a fire to put out.

As tough as it was in 2005 and 2006, it got even worse in 2007.  On a rare spring break getaway with the kids, Matt started feeling sick.  He went to a clinic near our hotel in California and they told him he was probably just dehydrated so he should drink plenty of Gatorade and follow up with his doctor at home.  By the time he got home, he was feeling a little better, so he figured it had just been some type of bug.  However, several weeks later he started feeling sick again and it didn’t get better.  

Matt was still going to work as much as he could but when he was at home, he had no energy and just stayed in the bedroom.  He didn’t feel up to eating and lost about 50 pounds.   I was truly a single mom at this point in addition to taking care of Matt.  I remember being in the delivery room with our fourth child and Matt laying on the couch in the corner because he had no energy.

After a year of seeing specialists, we finally found an endocrinologist who started narrowing in on the cause of Matt’s illness.   I remember sitting in his office when he told us that based on all the test results, and chest x-rays showing significantly enlarged lymph nodes, the most likely diagnosis was cancer.  I had worried for several months that it might be cancer but hearing the doctor say it hit me hard. 

At that point, the company was the furthest thing from my mind.  Fortunately, we had a good team in place, with Matt’s mom managing the day-to-day.    However, over the next few days as we waited to get in for the biopsy surgery, I did start to think about the business. There is no way it would survive without Matt.  The team could get orders out but no one else knew what Matt did. What would happen if Matt wasn’t there?  Not only was it our only source of income but it was essentially our retirement plan. 

Fortunately, the biopsy came back negative, and eventually, the doctor figured out that Matt had a rare autoimmune disease.   With the right combination of medications, Matt was mostly back to his normal self within a few months.   

The Great Recession Years

It seemed that most of the challenges we had experienced up to this point were a result of growth.  By the end of 2008, that all changed.   With the housing market meltdown and the ensuing banking crisis and recession, business started to slow.  A big portion of the company’s revenue came from schools and with property values being slashed their budgets were also cut.  

In theory, I knew the business could have a bad year, but we hadn’t experienced that until this point.   2009 was our first year where sales declined and as a result, our income declined.   The next two years followed suit. 

Matt was stressed in a whole new way, and I was too.   What would happen if the business failed?  How would we pay our mortgage?  Even when AOL was declining, other than Matt’s stock options being worthless, his salary never changed.  But now, a slowdown in sales had an immediate and direct impact on our family.

Matt was at work more than ever, trying to cut expenses where possible to ensure the company would survive.   He had to let some warehouse employees go and cut hours for other team members which is never any fun, especially when half of your team are family members.  

At the same time, I was making cuts at home as well.  Vacations were canceled, IRA contributions were postponed, and every discretionary expense was closely examined. 

In 2012, after three years of hard work, sheer determination, and probably a little bit of luck we had our first sales growth year in three years and we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Good Years

In the next few years, the company started growing again.  By the end of 2015, the business looked significantly different with almost half our sales through Amazon.  More sales on Amazon meant we needed less staff since Amazon was fulfilling those orders.

Through natural attrition, the team got smaller and the staff we had in place at the office was tenured and experienced.  Matt’s Mom had retired but his sister was taking care of the day-to-day.  We started to see the benefits of all the hard work we had put into the company. 

Matt had more free time than he had ever experienced, and he started cycling in the mornings, often not going into the office until 10:00 or 11:00 AM.  This was the entrepreneur’s lifestyle that we had always envisioned.  

We finally started taking family vacations and Matt was even at home most nights to eat dinner with the family.  It was very rewarding and empowering to see something you have built running as you had planned. 

The “Are You Nuts?” Years

In the middle of 2017, Matt started talking about making a change.   He felt that the company had plateaued, and he was ready for something new.  He wanted to start a new business.  I was not convinced.  Matt’s memory was never that good to begin with, but I think he was forgetting all of the time and energy it took to get the business to this point.   I, however, remembered it all and I was very hesitant.      

We talked for a few months about what the new business might be and while he had several ideas, he had not settled on any of them.    I asked him why he wouldn’t keep the business and just start a new one.  He told me he would not have the time or capital to do that.   He needed the money out of the existing business to fund the new one. Eventually, after much debate and discussion, we decided to sell the business.  It took about six months for everything to come together, and the deal closed in May of 2018.   

A couple of months later, when he came to me with the idea of a gifting company, I was wary. Matt has always been great at giving gifts, but his presentation and making them “pretty” was not his forte.  Most often the gifts he gave were in plastic grocery bags, and even on occasion wrapped in a blanket or towel.  However, over the next few months, we consulted with friends and family, and eventually, at the end of 2018, Shadow Breeze was born.  

I had always stayed home with the kids when Matt was running our previous businesses. I was the “take care of things at home” person, so Matt could take care of things at work.  Since the kids were older now, with two of them out of the house, I started working during our first real holiday season at the end of 2019.  That December, we were unprepared for the number of orders we received, and spent many hours bent over the gifts, on our warehouse floor, since our tables were scarce. The days and hours were long, and we swore we would be better prepared for the next big gifting holiday, Valentine’s Day.  You can probably see where this is going. The next holiday came, and again, we just didn’t know how to prepare for an unknown number of orders.  Then COVID hit, and everything changed again. We were busy every day with corporate gifts and “work at home” care packages.

Now, three years later, not a single year has been the same as the last. What made sense during the peak of COVID no longer applies.  We are learning new things every day.   How to deal with product shortages, how much to order, what gifts are a hit, and which gifts are a bust.

Matt is rarely NOT thinking about the business and now I find I am doing the same.  I spend at least three or four hours in the office every day.  Somedays it is fun to be working together while other days I just want a break from Matt, especially when he grabs my butt each time he walks by me in the warehouse, even when other people are watching.      

It is hard to see the forest for the trees, or at least that is how the expression goes. Right now, I feel that way with this new business.  More than once I have wanted to skip ahead several years to when we are taking money out of the business instead of putting money in.  To a time when Matt can leave work for a few days to celebrate our 30th anniversary.  To a time when we can take a vacation with our kids and grandson instead of Matt telling me I should go without him.  

Will that day ever come?   I guess no one knows for sure but I must have faith that it will, if for no other reason than my own sanity. 

My Advice to the Spouse of Someone Thinking About Starting a Business

Run and never look back.  Okay, maybe that is a slight exaggeration.  Every marriage counselor will tell you that the key to a successful marriage is putting your spouse first.   As the spouse of an entrepreneur, there will be many times that you are not first or maybe even second.   It won’t be all the time, but it will be often enough that you need to know how to deal with it.   Designated family time and date nights are worthy aspirations, but when a crisis happens, which happens frequently with new companies, they are the first to go. If you plan for the best-case scenario but expect the worst, you will be okay.  Be flexible and find hobbies or interests that you can do alone. 

Another consideration is the roles you take on when your spouse starts a business. Suddenly you become a sounding board, a de facto member of the board of directors (probably the only one), a therapist, a cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on, a financial advisor, and much more.   Even if you are not actively involved with the business, you are a business partner in every sense of the word.   You will celebrate every success and morn every failure.

All that being said, would I tell someone whose spouse is considering starting a business that it is all worth it?  Ask me again in 20 years and I will let you know.

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