Her dreams, not his

The story of Burt Shavitz and Roxanne Quimby, cofounders of Burt’s Bees

If you’ve watched the documentary “Burt’s Buzz”, you’ll know that the cofounder of the company, Burt Shavitz, never really wanted a business. Burt was an unkempt farmer with a special aura of non-conformity, and his bearded face is famous for being stamped on a lot of Burt’s Bees products. At the time of the documentary, he still toured the world to do meet-and-greets to promote the company, and lamented being “contractually obligated to not tell anyone to buzz off”. He claimed his life was “evolutionary, rather than revolutionary” and that things “just happened”.

Based on what we know of his personality from the documentary “Burt’s Buzz” and The Cofounder’s Hub analysis of personality through the Personality Assessment, it would have been extremely difficult to predict that Burt was going to create the empire that is Burt’s Bees. His Easy-Goingness levels seem to be off the chart, he would score very low on Conformity, and his Order levels appear to be a record low, which does not bode well for business management. However, to use the words of one of his employees, Burt was a “collection of contrasts”, and that makes it rather difficult to predict his personality results.

Despite appearances, Burt was industrious. He was self-taught, handy and a go-getter when it came to certain activities, like learning photography, how to take care of his bees, his house and his land, for instance. However, he never wanted more. His dreams and goals were humble, and he was completely satisfied with making just above what it took to breakeven and live a “low-key” existence. In his words, he “had no desire to be an upward-mobile-rising yuppie”, and hated working at the factory, or spending his days at the office (when Burt’s Bees had already grown to that point).

If you haven’t watched the documentary, you’re probably very confused as to how a hippie farmer ended up with a multi-million dollar personal care company. It’s very simple, and a little tragic. Burt picked up a hitchhiker one day, by the name of Roxanne Quimby, who he ended up in a relationship with and soon became cofounder of Burt’s Bees.

Roxanne, a single mother of two, was built differently to Burt. She had the entrepreneurial drive, ambition and, ahem, perhaps a slightly lower Honesty score. All the drama that transpired between was rooted in a difference in dreams, goals and values. Roxanne dreamed big, always aiming for the next step, planning company growth, and envisioning a market domination strategy. With an art education, she was also a natural at branding, and that’s ultimately what made Burt’s Bees soar over their competitors. Their packaging was beautiful, they hopped on the “organic” bandwagon just as it became popular, and on top of that, Roxanne threw around words like “non-carcinogenic” for good measure. Roxanne built the brand from nothing, with flair and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Burt and his modest dreams got left behind.

“I was only a pillar on the way to that success” – Burt

Roxanne weasled Burt into a company he never wanted, and he was too passive to speak up about it (have you checked how your conflict style matches with your potential cofounder’s yet?). He knew he didn’t want to be there, Roxanne knew he didn’t want it either, but that didn’t stop her from using his face, business and their brand to build her own success. The dissolution of the partnership was inevitable, but Burt didn’t know how to protect himself from the fallout.

Burt was miserable as the company grew and he was needed in the office, and Roxanne was pushing him out slowly. It seems like the stars aligned for Roxanne when she caught Burt having extra-marital affairs with a younger woman that worked in the office. Using big words that Burt didn’t fully comprehend, Roxanne threatened to take legal action if he didn’t let her buy him out. This seemed like the excuse both of them were looking for to get Burt out, and Burt gladly signed the contract, no questions asked. Only later did he realize that Roxanne coerced and morally stole from him when she sold the company to Clorox for 950 million. The stark difference in values makes itself quite clear in the dissolution of the company; we can only wonder what would have transpired if both parties had been open and honest about their dreams, goals and values from the get-go.

Burt assured us that he didn’t care about the money. He harvested the money like he did the beeswax in the early days, knowing its value but not knowing what to do with it. He was also very frugal, refusing to replace a $2k boiler for years, so no one knows what he would have done with more money. When confronted about Roxanne, he seemed more troubled about the dissolution of the relationship and his feelings of betrayal, rather than the loss of the company itself.

“There don’t appear to be big issues [in my life]” – Burt

The most impossible aspect about Burt was that his Well-Being seemed to be bullet-proof. As long as he had the outdoors, his dog and his land, he was happy. “It’s important to separate one’s wants from one’s needs”, he said to an interviewer, “and that is the key”.

Perhaps we can all learn from the exquisitely unique character that was Burt Shavitz, both on how to be happier and more satisfied with what we have, but also to protect our self, heart and business from uncontrollable forces. It is important to not get swept up when creating a business with a cofounder, and to always be intentional about communication; the fallout of mismatched dreams and goals, as well as needs and wants, is devastating.

Burt consulted a lawyer after Roxanne sold the company to Clorox, but that little signature that was coerced out of him cost more than could have been repaired. A good partnership agreement made at the right time could have salvaged both parties’ dignity and implemented fairness in the dissolution, and it could also have made the romantic separation a little smoother. It does not matter how much you trust, value or believe in one another: you’re doing the right thing for both of you by signing a partnership agreement. So take care of yourself, your business and your metaphorical bees, in the name of Burt!

5 questions that could have saved this partnership

If only, if only… There are a lot of moments in Burt and Roxanne’s life where a simple clarifying question could have saved both of them a lot of heartache and conflict. At The Cofounder’s Hub, we have a list of all the possible questions you need to ask your cofounder to make sure you’re on the right track. Talking through those might just save your cofoundership, just as it would have saved Burt and Roxanne’s.

In their specific case, there are 5 questions that could have given them the best chance at success, had they only thought to ask them. And here they are:

1. What is your end goal for the business?

Burt would have probably answered with “making ends meet and helping us live a comfortable life where we can be outdoors and not work for anyone else”. Ambitious Roxanne would have answered with something like “growing exponentially and overtaking competitors, opening more locations and distributing nation-wide”.

Straightaway, there would have to be a conversation regarding a compromise, or how each of them could have what they wanted without giving up their true desires. Roxanne could have been in charge of growing the company, while Burt could have been a face behind the curtains, or a somewhat silent partner. Perhaps they wouldn’t be on the same page romantically, but the company would have been shared more fairly.

2. What is your desired role within the company?

Easy. Burt had no interest in being CEO while Roxanne took the bull by the horns. A fair equity split and designation of tasks would have saved Burt a lot of miserable nights at the office.

3. Let’s talk about equity…

Here is where things might have gotten muddy. Roxanne was highly ambitious and Burt was satisfied with making enough to breakeven. But Burt also had a sense of fairness and knew what was rightfully his, even if he had no plans to spend the money.

The main concern regarding this conversation is Burt’s pacifism and passiveness. Would Roxanne have bull-dozed over him and ended up with more capital anyway? For this particular topic, it would have been necessary to employ a mediator or lawyer that could be fair and unbiased. Only then do I believe a truly fair equity split could have happened.

4. How are we going to manage our romantic relationship alongside our business?

This is more of an open-ended question that would lead to a series of processes and boundaries for both of them to create. Regular check-ins, decision-making, taking the business home… These are all questions that couples have to think about before growing their business so that they can successfully sustain their romantic relationship alongside their cofoundership. Who has final say?

Again, the main concern with this question is that Burt would have given too much power to Roxanne. A board of directors would have served them well in this case, as they could spread the voting power of decision-making to various people other than themselves.

5. What happens if one of us wants out?

Here is the big one. A pre-made contract with the cost of buying the other out, before feelings are hurt, and before lawsuits are threatened. Only this way can you make sure to be fair when buying out a spouse, or ex-spouse. Like a prenup, the specifics would already have been lined out for them, so that emotion, fear and anger would not be able to take the wheel. Even if you believe your spouse would never do that to you, protect them from unforeseen circumstances by setting out clear instructions on what would happen if you were to split.

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