Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, wife of Stonyfield Farm founder Gary Hirshberg and author of For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families (Inc., 2012) opens up about how she and her family survived the early days of building her husband’s natural and organic dairy empire. Hear her speak at Natural Products Expo West 2012 on Friday, March 9 at 9 a.m., Anaheim Marriott Platinum Ballroom 6.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Tell me about the early days of the business.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg: It was tough. I called that time the bad ol’ days of Stonyfield. Gary was taking on a lot of risk, not just for himself but really for our whole family. Anyone who wants to start a business never does it alone. Inevitably, the entire family is sucked up into the vortex of an entrepreneurial endeavor. As with a lot of businesses, we started in the home. At first we didn’t have locks on our doors, so people would just wander into our living spaces. If employees needed extra cutlery for lunch or something, they’d just come into my kitchen and take it. It was basically a free flow of employees, investors and visitors to the farm.
Looking at the bell curve of a typical start-up, we were pretty out there on the extreme. When we were at the farm in the early days, we didn’t make any money. Actually, the business lost money for the first nine years, and we were always on the brink of bankruptcy.
NFM: Did these stresses play out in your relationship?
MCH: I found that I couldn’t handle all the bad news, and so at a certain point I just said to Gary, “I can’t hear this anymore.” While I’m sympathetic with my former self who said that, it caused us to not discuss critical things. It separated us as a couple. I wish that I had been more able to listen to what was going on in the business without freaking out. I think a lot of people find themselves in similar situations when coupled with partners who are greater risk takers than they are.
NFM: Is there any advice you would give an entrepreneur in a similar situation?
MCH: Gary and I did a lot of things wrong, but one thing we did right was start a family. Our first two kids were born into very dubious financial circumstances. Our business was losing money, and we didn’t know that our financial future contained anything but bankruptcy—but I’m glad we didn’t wait. We wanted to have children, we wanted to have a family and we went for it.
I see over and over again entrepreneurs of all stripes sacrificing important life goals for the sake of the business. People wait to have children, buy a house, take a vacation or even get a dog because they feel in another half year or year, they’ll turn the corner. That can lead to a lot of heartache. I really believe if there’s something you feel is an important life goal, you just have to go for it. This is one of the tips I’m going to suggest when I speak at Natural Products Expo West.