No matter what sector a person works in, and whether you’re husband or wife, if you’re an entrepreneur’s spouse, you are along for the ride, strapped in with no control over the steering wheel or the brake.
On the farm, of course, both partners are dedicated, energetic and business-minded. But that doesn’t necessarily change the mix. Often, one spouse is much more entrepreneurial than the other, which means there can be lots of bumps in daily life. And it can mean more than that too, because somehow the business has to thrive, it has to be predictable, and it has to be rewarding.
Plus, there are other family members too, and it can take some specific skills to navigate, conciliate and be the fulcrum that provides perspective and balance to the whole entrepreneurial family.
Farmers are a breed apart, but also have much in common with entrepreneurs in other walks of life. The specific challenges on the farm may be different, but the motivations are often the same, and so is the energy and the personality that it takes to succeed.
Entrepreneurs don’t like being told what to do. And they hate being told when to do it. Instead, they like to see the results of their own efforts, although they accept responsibility and hardships when things go wrong.
They tick when they have a vision, a goal, a purpose. Yes, that goal will be somewhat different for each entrepreneur, but it will be similar too because it’s this having a goal that makes them jump out of bed in the morning and that keeps them working hard.
Of course, though, this can seem a somewhat rose-tinted view of entrepreneurship. There’s also the darker lens. Divorce rates are high among entrepreneurial couples (though not, interestingly as high among farm couples generally), and we’ve all seen the statistics on small business failures, many of which don’t make it through their first year.
So how do couples do it? How do they cope with the challenges? We asked two women who call themselves entrepreneur’s wives for their insight and advice about how to ride the entrepreneurial roller coaster, whichever spouse you may be.
Seven years ago, Amy Stefanik was on the other side of a separation from her husband of 12 years, which made her ask some basic questions about the challenges of being an entrepreneur’s wife. “My husband and I separated for three months and when we came back together, I got wondering about why it is so difficult for entrepreneur couples,” Stefanik says. “The divorce rate for entrepreneurs is around 70 per cent. So, I started deep-diving into what is it about this journey that has tripped me up to the point where we got here?”
Stefanik started a blog called the Entrepreneur’s Wife where she talked honestly about what had happened in her life and sought to find other people who understood and had been going through the same things.
“I felt like I was on an island for so long, because when you are on an entrepreneur journey and you try to talk to friends, sisters, cousins, neighbours, they say, ‘You guys are crazy; I don’t understand how you live that life,’” she says. “I had a huge ‘he should’ crew: he should be doing this, he should be doing that. When you don’t have the right circle of people to tap into it’s really easy for those people to validate the gremlins that are in your head that are talking, saying the bad things.”
As Stefanik now sees it, when she started the Entrepreneur’s Wife, it was really a search to find people who really understood her. Then she learned that she wasn’t the only one who was looking.
People began sending letters and emailed to Stefanik, who lives in Waxham, North Carolina, saying that until they had found her blog, they also felt alone and frustrated. Eventually, Stefanik wrote a book, The Untold Story of the Entrepreneur’s Wife: How to Permanently Exit Your Old Norm & Thrive in Your New Entrepreneurial Lifestyle, based on the blog and feedback she received.
The same experience
Jen Douglas had a similar response when she began her blog project, the Entrepreneur Wife, in 2019. “There were a ton of resources about the business side of things, but what about the spouse, and the children?” Douglas recalls thinking. “And how does that all work together.”
She looked for answers, but found nothing, says Douglas. “And, I couldn’t find a community as an entrepreneur wife. When I would meet others, they were busy, but it was as if they felt that discussing their role would somehow discount their spouse’s ability and the strength of his business. There’s a fear of vulnerability.”
Stefanik found the same thing. “There are magazines, books, courses, seminars and events for entrepreneurs, but there’s really nothing out there for entrepreneurial couples or spouses of the entrepreneurs,” she says.
“We’re expected to strap into this roller coaster and be okay with the ride, and not know when we’re going to get off, not know when the ground is going to stabilize again, and still be supportive, not complain and not be worried. It’s just unrealistic when we don’t have the tools to be able to do that.”
That’s provided a huge impetus for both Stefanik and Douglas. Each wants to connect with other entrepreneur spouses and create a network where people understand they are not alone on the entrepreneurial journey and can share their experiences with each other.
“Change the mindset from surviving to thriving in the life that you have,” says Douglas. “I want to encourage women that your life might look different than your friend’s who is married to a doctor, or a firefighter or a teacher or any of these jobs that have a more predictable schedule, but it’s not wrong. What you have is valuable.”
Stefanik has created the Enlightened Women’s Network, which she describes as an “ecosystem of extraordinary women who collaborate and empower one another to become their best selves for themselves, their family and in their business.” The network offers retreats, monthly coaching videos and online webinars, as well as a newsletter featuring members stories. She also participated in the Wings of Empowered Women online retreat and Mastermind for high-level women entrepreneurs last year.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Stefanik and her husband offered popular weekend workshops with entrepreneurial couples who wanted to learn more about both the business and the relationship and family side of being entrepreneurs.
Stefanik has also recently taken on the management of a wedding venue. “I get to see people from the very beginning, and then I talk to, coach and mentor people that have been married for 30 years, so I see the evolution of the entire journey,” she says.
Who’s the entrepreneur?
Both Stefanik and Douglas are entrepreneurs themselves, but neither came from entrepreneurial backgrounds. Stefanik’s husband, Matt, did though, and he had always been an entrepreneur himself. When he and Amy first met, he had just started a real estate business. They have had their ups and downs, building million-dollar companies, and losing everything, twice.
“I was the one that had the 9-to-5 job and the health insurance until things were stable,” Stefanik says.
In 2007, Douglas’ husband, Braden launched their new business venture, CREW Marketing, just two weeks after the birth of their first child, and after moving to Vancouver, far away from their families in Ontario. With a new baby, a new business and miles away from any family support, it wasn’t easy in the early days, Douglas admits. “We were taking out loans at the bank, we had no idea what we were doing,” she says. “There was no one telling us this is what you do or don’t do.”
Douglas remembers the feeling, “It’s not stable, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s risky.”
But if you can push through, she has discovered, the positives emerge. (Note: Country Guide interviewed Braden Douglas for “Building the Supply Chain” for our September 2020 issue.)
If Stefanik’s entrepreneur journey has taught her anything over the years it’s to be okay with being unbalanced.
“Everybody is always talking about life/work balance, and it’s definitely something that you should strive for, but I think the biggest problem that entrepreneurial couples have is that they expect to work for a lifestyle like none other, but they expect their daily life to be like their neighbours, or their brothers and sisters who have corporate jobs,” she says. “You have to be okay with being unbalanced in the beginning, and doing what it takes in order to get that life balance. You’re going to work crazy hours, you’re going to sacrifice time, but if you get everybody onboard, including your kids, and they understand the goals that you’re working towards and their role, then it’s okay if it’s not perfect right away.”
Douglas has worked part-time in the business for many years, generally on the financing end of things, and her role is ever-changing. She headed up the design and project management for construction of the company’s two new offices and basically helps out wherever she is needed. But, says Douglas, the more essential role that most entrepreneur wives play isn’t quite as visible.
“Braden and I talk through the vision, where we’re going and how that lines up with our family and our values,” she says. “It’s very much a work/life integration.”
The entrepreneurial family
The Douglases have two children: 11-year-old daughter London and son Rylan who is 13. The Stefaniks have three children: Julia (20), Ben (15) and Kenny (11). They all agree that raising an entrepreneurial family is a lot different than raising a family where parents work 9 to 5.
Making it all come together is about aligning your expectations with reality, says Douglas.
“A friend said to me once, I don’t think it’s good for your family or your marriage that your husband is not home for dinner every night,” says Douglas. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, is that really a thing?’”
“Then I thought, no, for them that’s a thing, but for us it’s okay because we set expectations. We sit down every Sunday and look over what the week will look like. When Braden is home for dinner, we make those dinners really good, they’re healthy, we’re all together as a family. Then when he’s not home, we just keep things easy and simple. It’s the quality of the interaction that matters.”
There are a lot of moving parts in an entrepreneurial family, says Stefanik. “When you have an entrepreneur family, there’s a lot more to consider than when it’s just the entrepreneur or an entrepreneur and their spouse because your family is looking at you, and sometimes the entrepreneurial journey is scary, and they are saying, ‘Fix it,’ and a lot of times fixing it is just putting your head down and getting busy,” she says. “What’s important is letting your whole family know where you’re going, so they know their part. They know Mom and Dad are working right now because this is the result of that, this is where we’re going, not just they’re never around. It’s a different mindset and a different dynamic.”
Stefanik says they have always been totally honest with their children, instilling them with valuable life lessons almost through osmosis as they live the life together.
“They know there are highs and lows in life, and we’ve always been honest about where we’re at in the journey,” she says. “There’s been times where we got to spend a month out of the country and immerse ourselves in a different culture. Then there’s been times where we didn’t know if we could buy Christmas presents. They are learning the value of family, work and sticking it out and when life gets hard it doesn’t mean that you give up, sometimes you have to dig your heels in and get to work.”
Douglas says her kids love the entrepreneurial lifestyle because it’s an adventure. “Braden and I like to seize opportunities, so if he’s speaking, and it’s somewhere we’re interested in going, I’ll take the kids and go. I know that they learn a lot when they see Daddy speaking, when they watch other business leaders, and when we explain things.”
To illustrate the point, Douglas’ fridge is full of energy drinks because London and Rylan have set up a stand selling it at the golf course close to their house both to make themselves a little money and to donate some to charity. They’ve learned about things like product cost, markup and break-even, what sells and doesn’t, all valuable lessons for budding entrepreneurs, although it’s unlikely they see this fun activity as a lesson today.
Advice for couples
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Douglas had two kids to homeschool in addition to all her usual responsibilities, so she took a break from her blog project, but has recently been writing some new posts and is keen to take it in a new direction by encouraging other women to write about their own experiences.
“I’d like to feature them and have them write from their perspectives and different industries too. I would love to feature a farm wife, for example,” says Douglas. “My goal is to start highlighting and sharing other stories as a source of encouragement. A safe place for them, so they’re like, ‘Oh, you get me. It’s okay to have our life be different and we are thriving.’”
Stefanik says she has a lot of people that want more videos and one-on-one coaching, so she and Matt are working on developing more YouTube videos and also putting together ideas for an event to bring people together either online or in-person (post-pandemic).
“Our family is crazy, our lifestyle is crazy, but we are a close-knit family and we want to share that. People have asked us to shoot more videos and so I think that’s the next step for us,” says Stefanik.
The biggest piece of advice Douglas has for anyone in an entrepreneurial lifestyle and who is trying to balance multiple roles and still maintain their own identity and purpose is to be aware of what they fill their minds with.
“I have learned what kind of information is helpful and what is not,” says Douglas. “You need to be careful what are you filling your mind with because that’s what is going to guide your thoughts. What are the things that are positive and are going to help you — and if it’s not going to be positive, let it go.”
Douglas says she is intentional about what she reads and doesn’t read, how much time she spends on social media, and who she is following and not following. “Who am I allowing to sneak into my life is key and I hope for my children to have that same discernment one day of being careful who they allow to speak into their life,” she says.
Stefanik says for her, it’s all about being real and honest with herself, taking time to reflect and heal when she needs to, and filling her own cup.
“One of my mentors always says, ‘Serve from your saucer,’ so if your cup is overfilling, you have plenty enough to serve to your family and your business,” she says. “But if you’re depleted, then it’s easy to get resentful and feel negative, so I do things personally to make sure that my cup is full… Especially for women, we find it difficult to do things for ourselves, and I try to make that a priority. If you need counselling, or want to go to a retreat, if you need to take a nap, or a long shower, whatever it is, honour those things for yourself so that you’re able to have a full cup.”
Stefanik also advises couples to think about how they view each other.
“People will say, he or she is my other half,” she says, but she quickly counters that, saying, “I think it’s really important to be whole yourself, so that you come into the relationship in a giving place instead of an ‘I need you to complete me’ place because no one should have to complete you, you should be a completed person coming into the relationship.”
“The words that we use when we talk about our marriage and our relationships are important, because we need to be whole people, not only for ourselves but for our children and our partners.”
Avoid the comparison trap
“Comparison is a thief of joy,” says Douglas. “You see someone on Instagram, but you don’t know their story, you see a picture. They may have a beautiful home and a beautiful-looking family but an unhappy life so you need to be careful because the moment you start comparing, your joy goes. When we’re thankful, our joy increases… we see what we have instead of what we don’t have.”
Stefanik has fallen into the comparison trap herself and says she takes time to celebrate the successes rather than dwell on the apparent achievements of others.
“I’ve been depressed because I have seen someone come along and they’re doing what I’m doing, but they are at a different level than I am, but I have to remind myself that’s not my journey,” she says. “What keeps me in check with myself is that every day that I work on my craft and I celebrate my daily successes, so I’m not looking at people saying I wish I was there. You have to just stay in your lane, check in with yourself, be honest and celebrate your daily wins. See that you’re on a path, you’re growing and moving forward and it doesn’t seem like such a long hike.”