Surreal Business

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It's Saturday night and he's in the office. A classic tale about being married to an entrepreneur.

The truth of the entrepreneurial life is a tornado of long hours, high risk and uncertainty.  They typically invest the majority of their time and interest in their companies, even during prosperous times. This means less time spent at home with their spouses. Since the publication of this article in 2007, the number of entrepreneur's in the UK has increased and so have their working hours - sad news for spouses.

It’s 8.30 on a Saturday night. I’m waiting for Jack to come home from the office. He said he’d be done by 6pm but I learned long ago to add at least an hour to his deadline. There’s “Normal Time”, that most of us operate under, and then there’s “Jack Time” that moves at least an hour behind the rest of us.

It’s been a hectic week. Two new restaurants are opening in the next ten days and he’s exhausted.

Oh yes, it’s exciting, all this battling with the builders, negotiating for sites, hiring staff, it’s creating something, isn’t it? It’s growth. It’s what they call “rolling out the concept”. It’s the reason I spent that Italian holiday on the beach alone while he was on the phone getting heated about something called mezzanine debt. It’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. Isn’t it?

The phone goes. It’s Jack. He’s sitting on the floor of the ladies loo of one of the new restaurants in the West End. He’s got one hand on his mobile, the other stuck over a pipe that’s burst a leak. It’s been running for two hours, he says, and the place is flooded out.

He’s worried about the floor, put down yesterday. He’s worried about the electrics. He’s worried about the opening on Wednesday. And he’s still worried that the staircase he had the builders move two days ago because they’d put it three feet too far to the right, is still not in the proper place.

Meanwhile, I’m worried about whether the plumber really meant “within the hour”. Everyone knows about Plumber Time.

Surely there must be someone else who can stick their finger over the hole, I say, trying hard to convince myself that my traipsing around Tesco and slaving in the kitchen will not go entirely to waste. I mean, he’s the boss, isn’t he? He’s the chairman, and the chief executive, the one who does all the big stuff, like the branding, the culture-setting, the financing, the market analysis and that leadership thing. Is there really no-one else who can spend their Saturday evening on the floor of the ladies loo trying to prevent his newest restaurant from turning into a swimming pool?

Sadly not. For despite all you may read and all you may hear about the glamorous life of an entrepreneur, this is really what it’s all about. It’s not about black tie dinners at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane and being voted Entrepreneur of the Year; it’s not about smiling press pictures on the front of the Financial Times when the business reaches the stock-market; it’s not even about making money. It’s about sitting like a boy with your fingers in the dyke on a Saturday night because that is what needs to be done.

I first met Jack three years ago when He’d recently sold his last business. When I made some comment about how great it was to have a boyfriend who, unlike all the City suits I’d met, did not appear to be a slave to his job, he warned me. “It won’t always be this way.”

Bit of an odd thing to say, I remember thinking. I didn’t expect he’d be around so much once his next “deal” got going, but, hey, that was life and we would handle it. What I did not realise was the life I’d flippantly imagined I could handle, and the one I was about to inherit, would be utterly unrelated.

Unbeknown to me, I was about to step on board the Entrepreneurial Express.

I knew it was going to be a roller-coaster ride when I got on board but, from the backseat, you can’t see the precipices. Is today going to be a day of screeching bends or gentle inclines? Is today the day when the whole thing comes off the rails?

When I met him, Jack had been negotiating for some time with the owner of a four-outlet restaurant business to buy him out. He knew the market, he’d grown food business before, he’d run the numbers, he had the vision and he knew he could make it work.

Apart from the cash-flow from the four restaurants he would inherit, he would be starting from scratch: new concept, new brand, new systems, new training, new people and a plan to open across the country in the next three years, then float or sell.

If only the owner would make up his mind. For weeks, Jack tweaked the offer. He worked from home, long hours into the night disentangling the numbers. He hired accountants, lawyers and corporate finance help. Could he make the numbers stack up? Could he satisfy the seller, his investors and the bank, without creating a rod for his own back by over-promising?

Back and forth Jack would go, up one day, down the next. The sunny, unencumbered man I’d met disappeared. He was tired, drained, anxious, pallid from a lack of fresh air and living off bowls of muesli for days on end. And all the while the fees were building up; over £100,000 of fees he would have to pay whether the deal came off or not. I, meanwhile, stood on the sidelines watching, hoping, waiting and trying, rather unsuccessfully, not to take it personally that he had shut himself in his flat and was not coming out till the whole thing was over.

Life with an entrepreneur, lesson one: this is not, I repeat, not your problem

There was nothing I could do to solve Jack’s problem. Much as I certainly felt the ramifications of it and much as I was desperate to phone up the owner myself and scream, “For God’s sake, stop being such a greedy, difficult bastard. Now make your bleeding mind up”, there was nothing I could actually do. Only Jack could do it. (And actually, even though he would never admit it, he probably did not even want anyone else to do it.)

Within the big crisis, there were smaller crises. Jack’s lap-top broke down at a critical moment, taking with it all the latest deal numbers. I traipsed around Acton, west London on my day off in search of a man who had promised me faithfully over the phone that he could fix it overnight for no more than £150. Ten desperate days later, the lap-top finally reappeared with a £400 bill attached.

Another day I found myself calling the refuse collection department of the local borough council, quizzing them on exactly what time a black sack of rubbish collected from Jack’s flat would be heading into the incinerator.

His cleaning lady had inadvertently thrown away a huge pile of his personal and business tax return documents he’d been gathering to send to his accountant. It was a disaster. Jack was completely distraught.

Needless to say, by the time I called the council, the papers were history. In retrospect, it is probably just as well since the man on the other end told me that while he could identify the lorry load of sacks picked up from Jack’s road, the rest I would have to do myself, by hand.

I didn’t realise it then, but during this time, life was on hold. Everything stopped for the deal. Jack’s life was the deal. My life became the deal. “Once the deal’s done”, I’d find myself saying to friends who, from the orderliness of their won salaried lives could not understand why they never met Jack. Some joked that maybe I’d made him up and there were times I began to wonder whether they were right.

And then finally, after months of agony and expense, it finally happened. Alleluia. Glory Be. Jack had done the deal. At last, I remember thinking, things can get back to normal. Big mistake.

Life with an entrepreneur, lesson number two: there is no such thing as normal life

For at least two years after that, I’d tell myself: “once he’s raised the next round of finance; once he’s opened these next restaurants; once he’s found a new office; once he’s hired the operations director; once he’s replaced his PA; then all will be well. Then we can have friends round for supper, then we’ll be able to plan things, book holidays, accept invitations, safe in the knowledge that either a) we will not cancel or b) I will not end up going on my own.

How could I have been so stupid?

On the Entrepreneurial Express, the world does not divide as it does with the rest of us into work-life and non-work life. Sure, professional hired hands, lawyers, bankers and accountants all put in the hours, they all get stressed and bring their worries home in an over-stuffed briefcase. But they can always quit. It might be difficult, it might be demanding but it is never that single, all-consuming, inescapable, invasive, never-endingness of your own business, where there really is no-one else to turn the lights off but you.

When his money, his reputation, his sense of achievement, his sense of self-worth rests with the fortunes of the company, there is no quit option on Jack’s keyboard. The roller-coaster may slow down at times, but it never stops. The bumps may get smaller, but they never disappear.

From the moment Jack bought the company, no, even before he bought it, there were three of us in our relationship. To begin with, I saw the business as his mistress, something exciting, alluring, full of promise. Now I recognise it more as his needy child. I think it was the burst pipe that did it, as something that needs nurturing, coaxing, training, shaping, directing and needs it now, not tomorrow, not next week. But right now.

What does all this mean in real terms to me? It means spending Sundays driving all over London looking at sites for new restaurants. It means spending weekends visiting sites under construction. It means staring at ten different cups with ten different logos and in ten different shades of blue on the kitchen table at 10pm and trying to make helpful comments about why “this one” really is “the one”. It means planning to go on holiday on Saturday and finding out on Wednesday that it will have to be the following Saturday. It means wanting to murder his excellent PA who suddenly decides she wants to become a nurse. How could she?

It means skulking round restaurants on your holiday in Milan and surreptitiously taking photographs of other people’s interiors to inspire the designers back home. It means emptying your handbag at the end of the week and finding it stuffed full of other people’s sugar sachets, menus and napkins you’ve collected in your travels because you thought they looked nice.

It does not mean lots of nice lunches in Jack’s restaurants, unless what I really want is to sit there on my own while he clears tables, deals with a customer who has just had her bag stolen and tries to get to the bottom of why the manager has got in a tizzy and stormed out.

It does mean desperately trying to wrack your brains to see if you can think of anyone who would make a good chief executive, anyone who might want to invest, anyone who can go round to that wretched banker’s office, biff him on the nose and tell him to “butt out”.

It also means you are the one who picks up all the “admin” of life. Because an entrepreneur does not have time to go shopping, got the dentist and have his shoes mended. Jack’s car has sat outside our house for almost a year with a dead battery. He did manage to buy a charger, but that was a month ago and now the battery is sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be put back in. Instead, he rides to work on a scooter. Just last week, I was standing at the sink washing lettuce at about 9.30pm when Jack came in from work. He didn’t collapse on the sofa, as usual surrounded by piles of paper, he seemed thoughtful. He had something to say, something important, children? Marriage? Buying a new house?

Staring intently at the lettuce, I steadied myself. “Do you know”, he said. “We sold 20,000 cups of coffee yesterday. And the Heathrow outlet on its own sold 20,000 in a week, 20 thousand!”

Then he said he was a bit worried about a photo-shoot the manager of one of the Soho restaurants had organised for tomorrow. Why? Ken Livingstone had agreed to have his picture taken in the restaurant with one of the staff, who in his own time is a transvestite and planned to dress up as Miss Vanilla Latte? Oh, and yes, he’d decided he probably would try and float the company in the autumn.

Life with Jack is rarely dull. “An adventure”, is how he described it when I asked him what he thought it would be like living with an entrepreneur. Of course I am proud of what he has created: 300 people on the payroll, a great brand and, more than that, a business that people genuinely seem to enjoy being part of.

But feeling proud is one thing, living with the man who’s done all this is quite another. Once I had mastered lessons one (Its not your problem) and two (No such thing as normal life, ever), I began to see that happiness on the 'roller-coaster ride hinges on three things: one, having my own life that is entirely independent of Jack’s; two, and probably most important of all, not banking a single thing, and three, learning to embrace the adventure.

Because the chances are, just when you think you can handle this ride, your roller-coaster will veer off on a different set of tracks headed in an entirely new direction.

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