Ed Zimmerman writes in the WSJ this week that founders have to choose between having a startup and having a life. Ed sees a lot of startups, and his perspective is valid. Unfortunately, if you observe most founders (successful and unsuccessful alike) its all to easy to come to this conclusion. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to have a startup and have a life, it just requires something very difficult for all of us…balancing our dedication to our startup with some discipline.
When I started Right Media, I had a bit of an unusual set of circumstances for a startup founder. I was 26 and had 2 young children (and a 3rd arrived not too soon after). I was also commuting from Long Island to NYC at the time. If I was going to be successful as a founder AND husband and father, I had to find a way to make all that work. I wasn’t willing to fail at business OR at life. Here are a few things that make balancing life and a startup really hard, and how I dealt with them:
- We have perpetuated the myth of the one dimensional founder. So much so, that we attach a stigma to having a life outside the startup. We say things like “Wait a minute, startup founders don’t take family vacations!” when someone takes a vacation. We say it half in jest, but the other half hits home too. We love to tell the stories about the all nighters, the redeyes, the family events we spent on the phone, or just couldn’t make. Its true. Sometimes we need to make those sacrifices…but we don’t need to do them ALL the time, and we don’t have to be so damn proud of them. Let’s hear more of the stories about taking a couple days and unplugging and the world not crumbling around our feet. That happens too, and it’s really eye opening when you realize most of the time things can go on without you at your startup.
- We think we can work all the time and be productive. We can’t. I remember lots of evenings in the first Right Media office (ok, it was more like a closet), staring somewhat blankly at my screen willing something important to happen, or trying to draft an articulate product specification. After 10 or so hours in the office, my brain just wasn’t working that well anymore. I could have sat there for hours, but I had worked myself out of a productive state. The best thing for me to do was get out of there, try to get home and put the kids in bed, eat something real for dinner, spend a little time with Michelle.
- We allow ourselves to be consumed by our ideas. Passion is an absolute requirement for startups. Unfortunately, it is way too easy to overcook the passion thing and become totally one dimensional. When this happens, your relationships suffer and you can find yourself isolated. Ever try to talk to a teenager who’s been playing Halo for 6 hours straight? Don’t let yourself get into that state - its not good for anyone.
- This idea that investors want you to kill yourself and destroy your relationships working on your startup is total bullshit. Making good decisions requires some level of perspective. Your investors have just turned over millions of dollars to your care. You will make decisions every day that will define whether that money evaporates or grows in value. Do you really think your investors want you making those decisions stressed out, sleep deprived and over-caffeinated? Not if they are smart.
- We founders create the cult of one dimensionality, and we can change it. When we work all the time and do nothing else, we send a message that we expect everyone to work all the time. This kind of culture is dangerous. Don’t be one dimensional, and don’t let your company develop this culture. Work your ass off - but do something else too.
Don’t buy into this mythology that startups don’t work unless you play the obsessed, willing to throw everything else away for your startup, founder. The fact is, if you have a good idea, a good market, and you build a great team, and you create some balance in your life - not only will your startup perform, but you’ll be happier during the process. If you’re a startup founder and you don’t have a life - get one. Have a relationship, get a hobby, volunteer, read a book, get some exercise. Doing something besides your startup will make you a better founder, and a better person to be around.
Startups are hard as hell, but with some discipline, you can have a life even while you’re building yours.