How to Work Successfully with Your Most Important Partner
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the entrepreneur behind Starbucks, Howard Schultz, when he spoke to an entrepreneurs’ group in Southern California. Schultz was touring in support of his book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul. He gave a prepared talk, describing how in the late 2000s he steered Starbucks out of its crisis of overexpansion and loss of identity. He talked about reclaiming his CEO role, closing hundreds of stores and revamping hundreds of others and how one day he shut down all 7,100 U.S. locations for three hours so baristas could get a refresher course on how to make the perfect espresso. Instead of being hell-bent for growth, Starbucks went back to being a nice place to go relax and get a good cup of joe.
It was a great story, but it sounded like a press releas -- it lacked candor. It didn’t connect with entrepreneurs in the trenches. I wanted to hear his advice on how to be a better entrepreneur, and I knew I wasn’t the only one.
After the talk, Schultz did a Q&A session. The last question finally proved to be the right one to get Schultz to open up. A man stood up and said, more or less, “Mr. Schultz, I really admire you. You have an amazing story and a great product that I buy every day. But when you just spoke about the struggle when Starbucks fell on tough times, I couldn’t relate. After all, you had $1 billion in your pocket, while the rest of the entrepreneurs in this room are struggling. We’re trying to figure out how to make payroll and feed our families at the same time. So, Mr. Schultz, I can’t relate to you.” And then he said thank you, turned, and sat down.
The room was silent.
Schultz walked across the stage and said to that man, “I am exactly like you. Let me share a story.”
The billionaire CEO then became the Schultz of 30 years ago, a bootstrapping entrepreneur like the rest of us. In 1981, Schultz was just another Brooklyn kid looking for a break, working for a Swedish coffee machine maker. When he first arrived in Seattle, he made a sales call on Starbucks and decided that day that he wanted to work for Starbucks.
He eventually persuaded the founders to take him on as a marketing guy, but after the owners declined his idea of installing an espresso bar, he moved to Europe and acquired the rights to a coffee brand called Il Giornale. He returned to Seattle, looking to raise money to open his first Il Giornale coffeehouse. He was working for no pay, and his wife Sheri was pregnant with their first child.
His father-in-law flew into town and asked him to go out for a walk. He said to Schultz, “My daughter is seven months pregnant, and her husband doesn’t have a job, just a hobby. I want to ask you in a heartfelt way, with real respect, to get a job.”
Schultz went home to his wife and told her about the conversation, saying that he figured he should probably give up and get a real job. Then he asked Sheri what she thought.
Sheri told Schultz they were in this thing together, that she believed in him, that she was sure he’d be able to raise the money for the coffee shop, and that he shouldn’t quit. That was all he needed to hear. It was an enormous, almost irresponsible risk, but he got the financing, and a few years later he acquired Starbucks.
What I realized at that moment was a big “aha” moment for me: Because I had the business idea or the fancy title, I thought I was the most important person in each company I started. But I learned the most important person in the company was the person I came home to every day.
This person is the CVO: Chief Venting Officer. Being an entrepreneur can be a very lonely job. Often it feels like you have nobody to talk to. So what do you do? You go home and “vent” to your partner.
The job of being a spouse, family member or best friend of an entrepreneur isn’t easy. These people go through the wins and losses right alongside us. Sometimes they’re as much at risk financially as we are. And too often, we take them for granted.
Like Schultz, I’ve learned that successful ventures start at home. The first and most important job of any entrepreneur is to get on the same page as their spouse or significant other. If you’re not in agreement, there are only two possible outcomes when things get tough: either the business or the relationship will suffer. Below are the things you need to do to ensure you and your partner are on the same page:
How much financial risk are you willing to take?
If you’re launching a new business, you’re probably using your own money. You and your spouse need to agree on how much you’re willing to risk in pursuit of your dream.
How much time will they allow you to commit?
To launch and build a successful business, there are times you’ll have to commit to your business first and your family, along with everything else, second. That doesn’t mean your family is less important to you. It means that for a period of time, both of you agree that this is something in which you need to immerse yourself in the interest of your shared future.
How much does your partner want to know about/be involved in the business?
Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely job. There are certain things you may not want to share with your investors and some issues that need to be kept away from employees or friends. So you go home and vent. But there’s probably a limit to how much your spouse and family want to hear about it; know where that red line is.
No matter how understanding your life partner is, you have to prepare him or her for the challenges you’ll face in building your business. Most important, you need to be in alignment with regard to how much you’re both willing to risk, how much time you’re both willing to commit, and what communication strategy works best for both of you.