In March of 2007, I attended a fellowship in New York at Columbia University on Covering Globalization: Food, Trade, Agriculture and the Environment.
Gary Hirshberg, co-founder, CEO and president at the time of Stonyfield Farm, spoke to our group about the rise of the organic food market.
Hirshberg and Samuel Kaymen started Stonyfield Farm in 1983 as an organic farming school with seven cows in Wilton, New Hampshire. The farm sold all natural yogurt as a byproduct. But Hirshberg eventually ditched the school in favor of making yogurt full time. Today, Stonyfield is the largest manufacturer of organic yogurt in the world with $356 million in sales last year.
What I didn’t know when I met Hirshberg was how much he and his family sacrificed and how they almost went bankrupt bringing Stonyfield organic yogurt to a mass market.
In fact, the road to the farm, a mile long muddy dirt road that often washed out and in which trucks often got stuck, served as a metaphor for the business, said Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, Gary’s wife. She writes a column for Inc Magazine and recently wrote a book “For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families” on blending the entrepreneurial life with a fulfilling family life. Meg Hirshberg recently led a Webinar session for Startup America in which she offered advice on how to blend the family and startup life.
Hirshberg recounted the difficulty of raising three young children in a home-based business and how troubling it was to keep asking her mother for money to keep the business afloat.
Hirshberg interviewed 250 successful entrepreneurs and their spouses to share their experiences so other entrepreneurs can learn from them.
“Building a business and a family at the same time is a huge challenge,” Hirshberg said.
When her husband would come home excited about some new venture, Hirshberg would cringe.
“My least favorite words were I have an idea,” she said.
She also dispels the myths of overnight success in entrepreneurship.
“It took us nine years to create this overnight success and we almost didn’t make it,” Hirshberg said. “We were on the verge of bankruptcy the entire time.”
The road to success contained many potholes.
They met at an organic gardening conference in 1984 and married shortly after that. They raised their family in a 19th century farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
“I hadn’t just married a man,” she said. “I married a business as well.”
The business was not romantic, Hirshberg said. It was demanding and stressful and they were constantly digging themselves out of holes and living on the brink of bankruptcy.
“Stonyfield survived and went on to thrive because Gary and our partner were determined” Hirshberg said. “We had a great business just no supply and no demand.”
Physically, the home-based business was quite uncomfortable. The smells from the farm permeated the house, which was drafty and had a mud floor basement where Meg would do the laundry. The family had to deal with a lack of privacy and a revolving door of employees.
“Things got a lot worse, before they got worse,” Hirshberg said. Stonyfield had a constant stream of creditors screaming at them and shareholders threatening lawsuits. The business gobbled up money including a $30,000 inheritance Hirshberg had from her father that she gave to Gary so he could buy fruit for the yogurt when the supplier refused to grant any more credit.
Stonyfield had 300 shareholders and most of them were friends and family. That added a “constant gnawing stress to our lives,” Hirshberg said.
Yet Hirshberg’s mother believed in the product and believed in Gary. She kept financing him when others would not.
“Frankly there were times I wanted to go bankrupt or do anything to be put out of misery,” Hirshberg said. “I really grew to hate the business. The financial risks Gary took were beyond my comfort level.’’
Entrepreneurialism is not a solo activity, Hirshberg said.
The entrepreneur’s spouse is put in a delicate position, she said. Both spouses need to believe in the entrepreneurial venture.
“The term work life balance doesn’t really apply to an entrepreneur,” Hirshberg said. “When you own a business it’s just life.”
The traits of an entrepreneur can make for a bumpy home life because entrepreneurs are obsessed and driven, Hirshberg said. They tend towards workaholism. They are highly distracted.
“Entrepreneurs believe in the impossible,” she said. “They will not be defeated and they will not give up.’
But the traits to building a successful business are the same ones in building a successful family life too, Hirshberg said. It takes perseverance and an intense commitment.
At Stonyfield, just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, Hirshberg said.
“If he and I could make it in business and in home than anyone can,” Hirshberg said. “It’s messy. It’s not perfect. But you’re doing the best you can.’’