This post originates from Scott Weiss’s blog on Andreessen Horowitz.
One of the differences between being a CEO and a venture capitalist is that I obviously meet with many more CEOs now than I did then. As such, it has become more apparent that many of my struggles as a CEO are surprisingly common. One observation that stands out, probably because it is rarely discussed, is how many founder/CEOs have relationship struggles with their significant others and families. For me, the brightest years at IronPort were without a doubt the darkest years at home. While I was focused, motivating, articulate, and decisive at work, I was inconsiderate, preoccupied, self-centered, and lazy at home.
Now, having worked through that time with my family, I’m in a much better place to reflect on what happened, how I could have handled things differently, and offer some advice to other founders who may be caught up in a similar dynamic.
As a first time founder/CEO, I really had no idea what I was doing. Sure, I had gone to business school, worked at plenty of large companies and even other successful startups, but nothing prepared me for the incredible stress and overwhelming life focus of actually running a startup.
I did my best to move up the learning curve: I surrounded myself with great mentors, board members, coaches, and, most importantly, the challenging, wicked smart executive team members that worked with me everyday. We definitely made lots of mistakes, but we did many things right and IronPort grew to be a very large and successful company over the seven years before we ultimately sold to Cisco in 2007. All that said, I believe I could have been a much more effective leader if I had leaned in at home. As my relationship with my family deteriorated, so did my concentration at work as I was constantly trying to manage it in fits and starts. Here are some details of my personal struggle:
Part of the magic of a startup is the fear of death. You have only so much money in the bank, and if you don’t get to the right milestone before you run out, then you’re dead—company goes under, it’s over. There’s a way to cheat death when you are not going to make it—you sound the alarm and force everyone to code through the night and/or weekend. This is stereotypically the life one signs up for at an early stage tech startup. Get in early, kill yourself with a team making something great, and get a meaningful product out before you run out of money. And hopefully, make it up to that hardworking team with stock options later.
I didn’t code, but as the CEO, I felt it necessary to be there physically with the engineering team. I would sit through architecture discussions, product reviews, and wireframe layouts. Sometimes, I would just get everyone lunch or dinner. When we started pulling consistent coding weekends, we brought in the entire management team to serve the engineers: We brought them food, washed their cars, got oil changes, took in their dry cleaning, and arranged for childcare for their kids in the office. Lead by example, lead from the front, was the CEO approach I convinced myself was necessary.
Now contrast this with my home life.
One of the stated values at IronPort was “work/life balance,” but I clearly wasn’t living it. I was rarely home. And when I was home, well, let’s just say I wasn’t particularly helpful or cheery. My perspective at the time was: I’m killing myself at work, so when I get home, I just want to kick back with a cocktail and watch some TV. All I do is talk to people all day long and so at home, I’d really prefer not to talk much, just relax.
This posture was, of course, completely opposite to how my wife felt. After having left her VP role in a successful startup, she was now home speaking in monosyllabic words to kids all day and was starving for adult conversation when I got in the door. And that part about sitting on my ass in front of the TV with a cocktail? This ran counter to all of her efforts to teach the kids about pitching in as a family. The message of everyone helping to cook, clean, and be responsible for the household fell completely flat when daddy wouldn’t so much as take out the trash or change a light bulb. Nope, I was far too important for that and suggested she should hire someone to keep the house clean or even cook, if that was “stressing her out”.
Ugh. I was completely missing the point and talking past her… I was setting such a great example at work, but such a terrible one at home where I often acted like a self-important asshole.
As IronPort grew, I was constantly on the road with customers, press, analysts, and of course, recruiting and energizing employees. We ultimately did over 60% of our revenue outside of the U.S., and we all felt it very important to support all of our disparate offices from Europe to Asia to South America. There were times in a given month when I was gone 50-75% of the days. Even when I was home, I was usually in this brutal state of sleep deprivation and recovery from adjusting to yet another time zone. While I was gone, 100% of the daily burden fell on my spouse, usually resulting in a solid week of arguments upon my return. I started referring to the week after a long trip as “re-entry”, like John Glenn’s Friendship Seven fireball.
After years of working full-time with our first child, and part-time after our second, my Harvard MBA wife, who had had an amazing career in her own right, “decided” to become a full-time mom and take care of our children shortly after our third was born. I say “decided” because at the time, it was clear to both of us that I wasn’t willingly scrubbing in as a 50/50 partner at home. She endured the rocky years while I was running IronPort, but insisted that when it was over, we were going to re-evaluate and recalibrate.
I took about 18 months off in between IronPort and joining Andreessen Horowitz. During that time, I was packing lunches, driving carpools, and making dinners, and began doing my real part in the family. With the help of my wife and other role-model dads, I essentially got re-programmed and it has continued to work for us even though I’m working full-time again. Now one might say that being a partner at a VC firm, even a hard working one, isn’t the same as being a founder/CEO of a startup… I’ll admit that’s true. However, now that I’m on the other side, I believe that I could have coached my former CEO self to success as well. Here are the most critical things I needed to change:
Disconnect to Connect. Although it’s easy for me to see it now, at the time I clearly thought what I was doing at work was far more important and urgent than what was going on at home. It sounds weird now, but this required a real mindset change for me. My wife dropped a bunch of hints (e.g. “How did I suddenly land in a 1950’s relationship?!”), but I was undeterred in the thick of it. The shock of almost losing the relationship made me pay more attention, but I was only going through the motions with my mind still firmly attached to the business. I believe the change in attitude came from truly connecting and tuning in at home. This required disconnecting from work (e.g. turning off the computer and phone), and completely focusing all of my attention on the details of the home. Cooking a great meal. Helping with a science project. Discussing the future with my partner. I was often rightly accused of being physically present without being mentally present. If you find yourself sneaking into the bathroom to complete emails, then you’re certainly not in the moment… Getting some time physically out of the Silicon Valley pressure cooker was also helpful in changing my perspective.
Participate. It’s just not possible to be a real partner if you aren’t materially participating. I believe even the busiest CEOs must drive a carpool, pack a lunch, help with homework, make a breakfast or dinner, and consistently attend school events. Being involved every week is the only way to stay connected at home, and it cannot be outsourced. No matter how exhausted I am from traveling, I push myself to “not be lazy” at home—it’s just too important. When you are involved, there is a natural cadence to planning the week together and communication improves dramatically.
Communicate. Multiple, daily phone and text check-ins are the norm now, but not then. When I was traveling at IronPort, I would sometimes go for days without communicating at all. Now that I am completely tuned in to the weekly family schedule, we plan and calendar family meals (perhaps the single most important thing we do), pickups and drop-offs, and make adjustments on the fly. E.g. Did some time suddenly free up so I can complete an errand? Can I pick something up on the way home? Etc. My norm is to check in between meetings, but if I’m the “parent on duty”—i.e., if my wife is out of town—then I will start a meeting with, “You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m the parent in town so I need to keep my phone handy in case of an issue.” Communication was by far my biggest area for improvement.
Planning and Priorities. My wife and I have a weekly date night. My son and I are in a fantasy football league together. I cook with my daughters. Most times these have become immovable appointments on my calendar. There is a phrase—“truth in calendaring”—if something is important, then you must carve out time in your life to do it. When my calendar reflects that I can’t do a meeting on Wednesday and Friday mornings before 9am, because I cook breakfast and drive a carpool, then it’s amazing how meetings just don’t get scheduled. If at all possible, living physically close to the office is also a huge help to juggling the priorities. It means that I can cut out for a family dinner and then go back to the office or have a late meeting afterwards.
In retrospect, I believe that I could convince the hardest working CEOs that having some real life balance by investing in your important relationships will make you a better CEO. When you are out of balance, it affects your stress, judgment, and ultimately becomes another destabilizer just when you need to be the most put together. I also believe this change is actually a much better example of leadership than the one I was exuding. When a leader shows the way toward getting things done and balancing their life, it sets a much better example for everyone else in the company who struggle with it too.
Scott Weiss, Andreessen Horowitz
I recently finished Startup Life and want to thank Brad and Amy for writing such a bold and emotional book. I’ve been married for roughly twenty years and was separated for close to a year as my wife and I difficultly learned many of the lessons in this book. If I could go back in time and hand this book to my younger self, it might have saved us much angst. I really appreciated the openness of all the contributors and will be recommending it within the Lemnos Labs founder community.
What struck me about the book was that its lessons might not be absorb-able in one phase of your life. If I went back in time and handed this book to my younger self, would I have been able to hear all the knowledge and lessons it prescribes? I’m pretty sure my friends and psychiatrist told me how to be a better partner while pursuing my dreams of entrepreneurship, I just wasn’t completely ready then to absorb those ideas when I was in my twenties.
It feels like there are three life phases you read this book in; each phase bringing more understanding of the book’s lessons:
Phase 1 – The young entrepreneur
Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentioned the “10,000 hour rule” in Outliers, rightfully highlighting the time it takes to master something new. Young entrepreneurs, and we’ve all been there, are simultaneously trying to master building businesses and relationships. It’s incredibly hard to do one, let alone both, but I think it is even harder to accept guidance and wisdom on these topics at the beginning of the learning curve. Looking back, I can see myself denying so many basic problems at the intersection of my business life and my relationship with my wife, unable to see what is now obvious in terms of balance and commitment. I just wasn’t ready to see solutions to problems I barely understood.
I think younger entrepreneurs with less relationship experience reading this book will absorb some of the material, but have fewer reference points to relate to the lessons contained in the book. Hopefully what they have received is a pointer, so to speak, to a great reference on entrepreneurship and relationships that they can return to on a regular basis.
Phase 2 – The entrepreneur in crisis
Sooner or later every relationship enters more troubled waters. The stresses of entrepreneurship only exacerbate the natural tensions of a relationship. So many of the things that were pointed out in Startup Life seem obvious now, but in the apex of my marital challenges, this book would have been a godsend. Or a smack in the head! It is so hard to find consul and wisdom when you reach this point. It’s a difficult topic to discuss with anyone, let alone finding a fellow entrepreneur with great relationship skills who wants to talk with you about these personal, sensitive topics. I think Startup Life has maximum value for an entrepreneur in this phase of their lives, because the lessons it contains finally become timely, relevant, and critical.
Phase 3 – The maturing entrepreneur
While entrepreneurs often think of time as their greatest enemy, in terms of experience, it is our friend. As we mature, we finally start to start to notice the warning signs of issues in our businesses and our relationships, why they are happening, and have proven techniques to address our issues. Experience makes us more comfortable and capable in our relationships. I’m finally at the point where I sorta understand what to do to be a good partner! In this phase Startup Life provides great relationships tips and reminders that help you stay on course and reminders of potential problem spots. I’m working hard, as an example, to embrace shorter Qx vacations for my wife and I. In my limited experience with Qx breaks, they really spur creativity and force me to check in with the real world instead of the ten million little issues with my company that I tend to become fixated on over time.
I think this is also the phase where you recommend Startup Life to every entrepreneur you know that is in Phase 1 and 2 in the hopes they avoid your mistakes
Startup Life is a book you put on the shelf and re-read semi-regularly as you make life’s journey. It can’t be absorbed in one session and its lessons ripen as time goes by. An entrepreneur learns that you have good days and bad days both in business and in your relationship. Pull this book from the shelf for wisdom as you navigate those highs and lows.
There are lots of people (brilliant, high-achieving, incredibly successful people) who regularly turn off their phones, close their iPads and let their minds recover from the effects of an ever-increasing tendency to always be plugged in, tuned in and turned on. Call it meditation or simply being in the moment, the time these people take to disconnect from technology is rumored to lead to longer, healthier, happier and more productive lives, as well as increasing familial bonds and personal satisfaction.
Unfortunately, I’m not that guy. Most of the founders/entrepreneurs I know are not that person.
As a founder/entrepreneur, you live a life where you are always “on.” Even before our age of connectivity, the original American founders—people like Rowland Macy, Henry Ford—succeeded in large part because they made their companies their entire lives to put things in motion, envisioning at their company’s inception a way of life that doesn’t exist yet. That’s what you have to give to it. You have to make tons of sacrifices. Sometimes that includes your family. Sometime yourself.
It’s not all bad. There’s a lot of flexibility that happens as a result of being constantly plugged in. It’s what enables me to slip out in the middle of the day and go to a parent-teacher conference. It’s why I can wake up in the morning and work out before I go into the office. But at the end of the day—if I’m being honest—being turned on and tuned in all day long has at times reduced my capacity for real connection. It’s easy to turn my phone off for 30 minutes to sit down and have dinner, but while I’m physically separated from my device, I’m not turned off. Often, to be honest, I’m sitting at dinner with my family and I’m thinking about what emails I have to reply to when we’re done. And, to be clear, I’m very much in love with my family.
So many of us go through the motions, but we’re not connecting in a meaningful way. And frankly, that has characterized a lot of my interactions with people over the past 20 years. More often than not, I’m not really able to be totally in the moment. As much as I want to believe I am, I’m not. I think it’s true for a lot of founders/entrepreneurs, especially those who are trying to turn their idea into a habit.
And then an extraordinary thing happened to me. In August, I took my family to Ladakh, India. And, for the first time in my life, I was forced into the moment. And it was amazing.
Ladakh (located between Kashmir and Tibet) is one of the most sparsely populated regions in India, renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture and sometimes called “Little Tibet,” as it has been strongly influenced by Tibetan culture. Ladakh also has a very spotty network, limited cell coverage and no Internet in the mountains. The most “technology” I saw in Ladakh was a few hours of electricity each afternoon that allowed me to recharge my phone so I could take photos. That was it.
My first day off the grid was liberating, but I was still dialed in. I was still thinking about what was going on at work, and even non-core stuff like which photos I wanted to share on Twitter and Instagram. But by day three or four, I just stopped thinking about all that stuff. And once I realized that I wasn’t thinking about all that stuff, I was incredibly surprised. It might have been the altitude of Ladakh (12,500 – 21,000 feet), which requires you to move slowly, but I felt like everything slowed down to a pace at which I could really experience it. I enjoyed my family at a depth I haven’t felt in a long time. I was present with them. I have never felt more in the moment.
It got me thinking that I hadn’t probably been truly present like that since I was around 10 years old. Like a lot of founders/entrepreneurs, my entire life has been spent pushing forward, and I’ve leveraged stress and motivation and goals and achievements (that virtuous cycle) in a way I’m really proud of. But it comes at a cost.
The power of experiencing a few days of living completely present, completely disconnected from technology, was that I returned from Ladakh exceedingly energized and focused.
From a work perspective, it created the space in my mind to enable me to see the forest instead of the trees. On the flight back, it became crystal clear to me what I felt needed to be done for about.me’s next product evolution: it had to be the feed in our new web dashboard and mobile app. As a team, while we were working on these projects, we were also working on a lot of other stuff that seemed important, but in reality, didn’t have the same ability to impact our trajectory. By taking a step back, and in this case, a step outside, the day-to-day grind, I walked back in the office from my vacation and was empowered to have a conversation with our team about stopping everything and focusing 100% of our energy on the feed in our web dashboard and mobile app. In my opinion, disconnecting is what enabled that clarity to focus on areas that will impact our trajectory in a meaningful way.
And it has. Since we launched our new dashboard and app earlier this month, our engagement and retention has grown to record numbers. The number of users logging in and interacting with other users is at an all-time high. Traffic, time on site, page views and visits are up. Daily active and monthly active users are at an all-time high and growing. Early mobile data is super promising, we’re averaging 20+ profile views/sessions and people are coming back to the app at 3x the rate of our previous app. And the qualitative inputs are super encouraging and flattering.
Yes, I came back to work full-speed ahead, but my time spent unplugged allowed me to come back and have a clear conscience for the first time in a long time. Before this trip, I would never be the guy to say “you need to disconnect; go off the grid,” because until now, I considered it a bit selfish and unproductive. And while it is something you do for yourself, it’s such a gift to everyone and everything you come in contact with and it resets you in a way that enables clarity around what really needs done. That’s the power of it. That’s why it matters. It’s an incredibly powerful experience and a habit I think we can integrate into our lives as founders and entrepreneurs.
Founder about.me & Sphere. Partner True Ventures(WordPress, MakerBot, Blue Bottle Coffee).
Animal Whisperer, Triathlete, holder of Serious Parking Karma & Pour-Over Drip Coffee Skills. I’m an unfortunate Cubs fan, lover of Languages, Art, Architecture and a T40 National Co-Chair of Technology for Obama. I grew up in a small Indiana farming community. Since, l’ve lived in San Francisco, New Delhi, Jakarta, Chicago, New York and Paris.
Cynthia Morris did a fantastic short video review of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. It’s an awesome way to get a quick feel for what we were trying to do with the book.
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning on June 8th, 2012. I’m in my kitchen in a Dallas suburb trying to stay awake while feeding my one-month old. This is only the second time I’ve taken the night-feeding shift, and not that it ever gets easy, but a stoned walrus could kick my ass at tic-tac-toe right now.
I figure I’ll skim Twitter for a bit – if only I can remember how to turn on my iPad. “Ok, let me think. I take the chicken across the river and leave the fox with the corn. Then I tell Sean Connery how to spell the name of God. Wait. I just push this button. Yes. Steve Jobs, you sir, are a genius.”
The screen illuminates. I give my eyes a moment to adjust, and then I think I need to give them a little more time because my email notification pill reads, “174″. This is not typical. Clearly, something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong. But no, nothing is wrong. In fact, things are about to be very, very good because at the beginning of those 174 emails is a note that reads:
From: Brad Feld
Date: Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 11:38 PM
“Tweeted – I’ll also send out to the CEO list I manage.”
What he means is that he tweeted a URL I’d sent to him. My brain is suddenly wide awake. Some of those emails are new Twitter followers and general words of encouragement, but a very large number of them are interview requests and it’s only been a little over four hours. I realize that there will be hundreds (thousands?) more and it very quickly sets in that This. Is. Happening. One way or another, my family moving is Colorado.
I let Shepard finish his bottle, lay him back down, and take a few hours to start responding to emails as more and more continue to come in. Finally, at about 7 a.m., I go upstairs and wake my wife, Laura.
“Sweetheart. Something has happened.”
This is how it happened, and what has happened since.
Like most people who’ve spent more than, say, six hours in Colorado, Laura and I had the “We should totally move out here” conversation a couple different times with varying degrees of determination. But, when Shep was a few weeks old, we looked at each other and said, “So. Colorado?”
I had been following/web-stalking a number of entrepreneurs, agencies, and developers in Boulder for a couple of years. My admiration for their work had grown to a level approaching “Legendary” so I knew exactly who I wanted to reach out to. Brad at Foundry, David at TechStars, Foraker, Viget, Slice of Lime. The list of talented people doing amazing work here goes on and I was dying to be a part of it.
I decided to build a site that pitched my skills specifically to companies in Colorado and so I got to work building hirebrianrhea.com. Jason Zimdars set the gold standard for the personal resume site when he landed a gig at 37signals ; I figured if I could be half as effective as Jason was at communicating his skills and his personality, then I’d have a shot at turning our dream in to reality.
After a couple weeks of build-test-tweak-rinse-repeat, I was finally ready to ship. I sent Brad an email at around noon expecting to perhaps maybe on the off-chance hear exactly nothing three months later. Instead, that night I was staring at my iPad, bleary-eyed with a newborn in my arms, completely overwhelmed.
The two weeks following Brad’s tweet were a whirlwind. There were offers from Boston, New York, Toronto, and San Francisco, but our sights were set squarely on the Flatirons. I flew out a couple of times and was fortunate to meet with CEOs whom I aspire to be like, brilliant designers and developers, and deeply committed marketers and project managers.
But in the end, there was something special about TechStars alum and Foundry-backed startup Mocavo. They had a grand vision (to bring all the world’s historical content online for free), were attacking interesting problems (to bring disruptive technology to a well-established industry), and had the talent to pull it all off (a year later and these guys still amaze me).
The entire experience and the year following it has been nothing short of a dream come true. There were a few moments before we moved out here that Laura and I had to ask ourselves, “Are we ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend?’ Are we completely obsessed with this place and putting these people up on some illusory pedestal? Is our fantasy about to be shattered? Does this end with us bawling our eyes out listening to Toni Braxton records? And what are doing with all these Toni Braxton records?”
But no – it’s been amazing. We’ve made some wonderful friends, enjoyed beautiful hikes 20 minutes from our front door, and professionally – to be in the midst of so much creativity and palpable energy – it’s been incredibly rewarding.
I could go on and on about what makes this place so special (if you’re reading this from outside the 303 area code and considering relocating, e-mail me and I’ll be happy to convince you that it’s the right thing to do) but instead I’ll just end this by saying “Thanks.” Thanks to Brad Feld for 85 characters that altered the course of my family’s life forever. Thanks to Cliff and everyone at Mocavo for bringing me onboard and giving me an opportunity to be part of what you’re building. Thanks to Stirling at Foraker, Kevin and Chris at Slice, Will and everyone at All Souls. Thanks to all of you for making us feel welcome from day one and for making Colorado feel like home sooner than we could have ever expected.
It’s been an unbelievable year. I’ll do my best to give back for many years to come.
Brian Rhea is a husband, dad and Front-End Engineer at Mocavo.
He’s been building websites since 1994 when his dad told him, “I think this internet thing might get big.
You should learn it.” Thanks, Dad. You were right.
Exciting News! The Audible edition of Startup Life was just released.
You can sample the audio book below by hitting play, or you can buy the book by clicking on the “Buy” button.
Startups are tough. They’re demanding and can ruin relationships if you’re not careful. Back in 2011 my wife, Annelies, and I were building a startup together in Brazil. We had just raised a million dollars to scale up the customer acquisition for our daily deal aggregator. We were on top of our game and about to take over the world (or so we thought). Long hours at the office, days apart while on the road, and many hours in front of laptops at home were the norm. We poured everything we had into the startup. Meanwhile, our two children (now 5 and 3) were as demanding as ever and rightfully deserved more attention – and happier parents.
How to fit in everything? ”Quality time” with family started to slip to make way for getting just one more task done before starting anew in the morning. Forget about getting out to have a “date night”. And dinner discussions focused on resolving business problems; such conversations started to get more intense when we had differing opinions on certain topics. Things became even more amplified as the company started to run into finance problems…
Our relationship was in trouble and starting to show some serious cracks as the months rolled along. We co-habitated in the same space, took each other for granted, and sadly our relationship had lost its spark. Fights started from trivial issues and quickly escalated into days of anger and avoidance. It became clear that neither of us appreciated the other.
At some point we came across a blog post from Brad and Amy (which would be incorporated into Startup Life) describing Life Dinner. It was comforting to see that very accomplished couples had grappled with similar issues. And as we toasted in the New Year of 2012, Annelies and I both made a resolution to each other to adopt our own version, which we call Appreciation Dinner.
Appreciation Dinner works like this:
- Each month each of us will prepare a 3-course meal for the other
- One person is the cook while the other is appreciated
- Once the kids have gone to bed, the cook will serve the appreciated and will describe specific things they appreciate about the appreciated
- Rules: the cook prepares all the food, drinks and also does the dishes. The appreciated one is pampered. No cell phones, no email, no TV.
- (By the way, we both love to cook, so this also carves out some time to create and share interesting meals)
Proudly, we both stuck with our New Years resolution to each other during 2012 and keep up our Appreciation Dinners to this day. Starting out as very broad appreciations in the beginning (“I appreciate you for being a good mother”), the praise has turned into recognition of very specific events (“I appreciate your support last Thursday when I was stressed”). The accompanying conversation is very much along the theme of Life Dinner – we have a chance to reconnect in a safe environment and discuss broad life themes, major obstacles, fears, joys, planning for the future, etc.
Through the process we have turned around our relationship for the better and have never been more connected. We just celebrated our 10 year anniversary this January. And while the startup itself unfortunately didn’t meet our expectations, our relationship has emerged stronger than ever. We recently moved back to Colorado, and despite such a stressful life event as moving to another country, our Life Dinner hack gives us a great tool to stay connected and keep the daily stresses in context as we figure out our next professional moves.
Jason Hall is an expert in data driven, online marketing (PPC, SEO, affiliate, email, etc) & consumer website optimization. After working at various startups in Los Angeles, London and Porto Alegre, Brazil over the last 12 years, he has recently returned with his family to the Greater Denver area and is seeking his next challenge. He tweets irregularly at (https://twitter.com/hall_jason).
Halfway through Startup Life, married couple Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor suggest that, “Being in a relationship with an entrepreneur is hard, possibly harder than being an entrepreneur” (p. 78). This hard-learned gem of wisdom is richly conveyed throughout their excellent read.
Through their own real-life examples, and those of others, Brad and Amy drive home the message that a founder’s spouse or life partner is the true cofounder, the one without whose support and contributions the startup could be dead or might have never been born to begin with. Startup Life is an invaluable resource not only for showing life partners their likely path ahead, but also for opening the eyes of the founders themselves to the stresses their partners are likely to experience.
I appreciate how the book tackles the full range of the entrepreneurial journey, beginning with the initial decision to leap (e.g., when motivated by “not wanting to risk a life in a cubicle”), and culminating with a successful exit. However, their clear-eyed presentation of these events highlights the unexpected challenges that can accompany even the biggest success. For instance, the authors poignantly describe the aftermath of Brad’s successful exit from one of his startups as “the entrepreneur’s equivalent of post-partum depression.” Far from the jubilation we would expect to see, Amy and Brad’s raw reflection offers a sobering, honest view of the dark underbelly of what many expect to be the glorious Promised Land. Along the way, Brad and Amy impart a wide variety of practical lessons and suggestions, such as keeping a weekly digital “Shabbat” in which they are offline each Saturday.
To ensure they have cast a wide net of experience, Brad and Amy pepper the book with anecdotes and insights from others in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Almost all of the outside write-ups have at least one important insight, but a couple of them are particularly golden. For instance, Keith Smith, founder-CEO of BigDoor in Seattle, provides very personal reflections on how habits he developed within the startup harm his personal life. Reflecting on that broader pattern, he says: “…the fact [is] that many of the skills that entrepreneurs develop to help us survive and ultimately succeed in a startup are in direct opposition to the skills we need to build a long, happy, and stable relationship. Embrace risk. Fail fast. Move even faster. Solve problems quickly, and without waiting for every fact to reveal itself. Multitask well. Shape the world around you to match your vision. … [As a result] I’ve got screwed-up priorities, a well-developed set of exactly the wrong skills, and I come off as being emotionally unavailable.”
Another golden write-up delves into the experiences of two spouses cofounding together – “couplepreneurs,” if you will. (My data has shown that founding teams comprised of friends and/or family tend to be less stable than other teams, emphasizing how founding with those types of people is “playing with fire.” Such teams should devote a lot of attention to developing “firewalls” to protect themselves.) Krista Marks and Brent Milne describe their own firewalls, such as always using each other’s given names at work and nicknames at home, and going out of their way to prove to the rest of their teams that they do not discuss sensitive work issues at home.
More generally, succeeding at founding a startup while founding a family requires cultivating an awareness that startup rhythms are rarely in sync with the rhythms of personal life, and that there are often strong disconnects between the entrepreneur’s psyche and the spouse’s. Two of those disconnects are highlighted in the book by spouse Alexandra Antonioli: divergent perspectives on money (“A person who has always worked a salaried position from 9 to 5 arguably does not view money in the same way as the entrepreneur”) and time (“entrepreneurs like to overbook. … They will be late.”). She calls the latter “the Entrepreneurial Time Zone.”
In addition to highlighting the potential disconnects between the personal and the professional, Brad and Amy also highlight ways in which startup best practices should be imported into a founder’s personal life. For instance, the entrepreneur’s intense focus on the startup’s cash position: “Make sure as a couple you know where you stand, how much money you actually have, what your monthly burn rate is, and how long you can go before you are out of money.” Another bit of overlap with founding teams: “a couple that ‘never fights,’ it’s almost always a sign of avoiding talking about troubled topics and not the result of complete accordance and unity with each other.”
Along the entrepreneurial journey, we get to know a variety of fun tidbits about Brad and Amy. For instance, Brad’s ringtones include – perhaps a bit too tellingly! – “Money” for his VC partners and “Comfortably Numb” for CEOs. Brad’s “14-year-old inner self” has a strong aversion to babies. Even though Brad stresses the importance of having regular Life Dinners with Amy, they’ve had to develop “our fail 12.5 percent of the time rule”: that Amy allows Brad to miss it unexpectedly one out of eight times. And even though Brad had significant assets to protect when they got married, they don’t have a formal prenup. Instead, if the relationship fails, Brad says that Amy gets everything and Brad will start over from scratch.
We’re left with a richer picture of the authors, but also a richer picture of the ways in which the founding journey will challenge the most cherished of our relationships, insights that will hopefully enable us to preserve the professional without imperiling the personal.
This is a re-post from Noam’s blog at noamwasserman.com
Noam Wasserman is a professor at Harvard Business School. For more than a decade, his research has focused on founders’ early decisions that can make or break the startup and its team. At HBS, he developed and teaches an MBA elective, “Founders’ Dilemmas,” for which he was awarded the HBS Faculty Teaching Award and the Academy of Management’s 2010 Innovation in Pedagogy Award. In 2011, the course was also named one of the top entrepreneurship courses in the country by Inc. magazine.
Celebrating the Small Things is the fifth and final post in a five part series called ”Enjoying the Ride.” Comparing a start-up to surfing, this is a simple guide to turn your grueling start-up battle into a more soul fulfilling experience by helping you battle the sets and pick the right waves so you can enjoy the ride.
“When you overcome the fear and all the elements that are working against you and ride one of those waves, there is a feeling of gratification and accomplishment that is beyond words.” ~ Greg Long (big wave surfer)
Beating your numbers feels good. It’s such a binary understanding that everyone, from employee to investor, can grasp. And your success against your own predictions is the industry’s way of saying “this company is killing it” or worse, “they are struggling.”
But should it be?
I spent a lot of time at Contour feeling the joy of beating, and the pain of missing, our own numbers. People got worked up at the end of every quarter based on our performance, when the only number that really mattered was how much cash was in the bank. Having to explain lower than expected numbers is never a fun conversation, but for the rest of the organization it meant they had nothing to celebrate. All the work they did went for nothing because outside of the sales team they had minimal impact on the numbers. Most people don’t have a budget and they don’t sell, which means they have an indirect impact on the financial results.
The elation or disappointment around the quarterly numbers was masking the real question.
Are we getting better?
Building a great company or being an amazing surfer isn’t like playing a team sport. There is no trophy you walk away with or a championship you can try for again if you lose. There isn’t a fixed time you play or rules that define how the game is played. It’s an ever changing quest that has no timeline and no clear definition of victory. And the only thing that tells you if you are improving is how you feel.
When you talk to people who have surfed their whole lives they don’t talk about the wins they had or the expectations they beat. They describe beautiful pictures about the journey, about the moments they remember with their friends, about the conditions on a particular day, about the power of the wave under their board, about the near misses, or about how surfing fills their soul. Getting better is a life quest, while improving is a confidence you gain wave by wave, set by set, session by session. It can’t be measured, but it can be felt.
Now that my time is over with Contour I don’t always remember the quarterly numbers or how we did against our own expectations. I don’t remember what our annual objectives were or what we talked about at every board meeting. What I do remember are the too few times we celebrated the journey. I remember the happy hours, the company parties, the lunches to welcome a new employee. I remember our product launches and the excitement when great reviews got emailed around the office. I remember the company pride people shared attending events and trade shows. A list of things I remember that rarely had anything to do with our numbers.
Yes, numbers are important and you will never get away from quarterly projections or investor expectations. As long as you are building a growth company your success will be measured by how “up and to the right” you are. Beyond the numbers proving frequent employee reviews, clear quarterly objectives, a consistent vision, and values, they help in keeping your whole team on the same page.
But even if you do all of this, which is expected, people will still wonder if you’re getting better. Seeing numbers on a chart or passing out a few beers at a company meeting isn’t memorable. It’s what everyone does.
What’s memorable are the things you celebrate. It’s the small ways you make people feel appreciated or the small ways you help people feel the wave of momentum the company is creating. Helping people feel the journey is a critical part of your job and something most entrepreneurs overlook. Because most of us are intrinsically motivated, celebrating before our life’s work is done doesn’t make much sense, something I often struggled with.
But to everyone else it matters. And when your time is done and the company is gone, it’s one of the few things you will take with you.
Celebrate the People
We all need recognition. This may be hard for entrepreneurs to believe and it may even drive you nuts that people need positive confirmation of the work they are doing, but get over it. If you want to lead people you have to keep them inspired for a very long time, doing their best work.
Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, explains why esteem, to be valued and respected, is one of our basic human needs. What Maslow goes on to say is that there are two types of esteem. The first is the desire for personal achievement, adequacy, mastery, and competence, which gives us self confidence and ultimately personal freedom. The second is the desire for reputation, respect from other people, which includes status, dominance, recognition, attention, importance, and appreciation.
Knowing people need some form of recognition, doesn’t mean you have to run around congratulating everyone, nor does it mean you have to call everyone out publicly at a company meeting. Not everyone wants public recognition for their work and it’s not your job to do all the congratulating. Instead your job is to create a culture that helps people appreciate one another.
I have found two areas to focus on. The first is creating an environment where people can do their best work. One of the reasons people join a start-up is to have an impact and they can’t do that if they are unable to make decisions on their own. Too often at Contour plans were passed down to people instead of being built with the team from the ground up. By the time people got their assignment it was just that, an assignment. The best example I have found is Valve, a software company based here in Bellevue, Washington. Their employee handbook is a must read and from it you can see that their entire premise is to create a place where people can do their best work.
The second area is to appreciate people in small ways. From the time they join the company to the time they leave, you want to celebrate their accomplishments along the way. Ideas on how to do this:
- Make their first day amazing. Before they show up have a computer ready, desk arranged, people available to help them, and everyone in the company knowing what their role is. If someone’s first day is disorganized it makes them feel undervalued from the second they arrive.
- Anniversaries are like birthdays, don’t miss them. People spending a year or multiple years at the company is a big deal.
- Give them the tools they need. It doesn’t mean everyone gets Mac screens, but before you hire people make sure you can afford the tools they need, otherwise they become frustrated they can’t do their job and instead of concentrating on the work they are wasting time with equipment that doesn’t work.
- Constantly give feedback! It’s easy to get lazy and put off annual reviews, but don’t. And don’t put off telling people you thought they did a good job or you thought their work was great. A simple “thank you” or “congratulations” in person (not on email) goes a long way.
- Buy people food. Eating is a great way to put down the laptop and say thank you.
Keep it fresh. However you celebrate people, be creative about it and don’t make it a pattern or people will assume you are just doing it to check off a box.
Celebrate the Company
You probably aren’t building Rome, but you are building a company and building a great one takes an army of people. I’m not just talking about the employees. It takes investors, customers, lawyers, partners, family members, vendors, etc. to make the journey a success. The reality is that most of the people involved in your company won’t retire in luxury from their involvement. The odds of success are so minute that most of them will walk away with nothing more than the memories of the journey.
As the leader, it’s your job to make everyone feel involved. No different than celebrating the people, you have to come up with ways for people to follow the journey, brag about your success, and create a deeper relationship with the company.
But what items do you celebrate?
The first way is to create public events everyone can attend. I still have goose bumps from standing on stage at my firstZumiez 100K. Despite being a public company Zumiez, an action sports retailer, puts on an annual two-day event that celebrates everyone involved with the brand. The founder and CEO get on stage to talk about the company, the successes for the year, and what is in store for next year. All of the Zumiez employees are dressed in ridiculously awesome costumes and the top 10 sales people are rewarded with public recognition and massive gifts. The founder of every brand is invited to go on stage in front of thousands of people to personally say thank you. Athletes are invited on stage to give their own shout-out and engage with the employees. And everyone mingles together in a massive after-party.
Granted, a start-up can’t afford this. But then again, Zumiez has been doing this since they started some 35 years ago and I’m sure the initial event was not nearly the spectacle it is now. They have alway believed that everyone should be involved in the success of the company.
The second way is to celebrate small wins on a daily basis that go beyond your numbers. Items that are consistent with the company values is a great way to constantly remind people what is important. Just remember to be selective about which events are worth sharing outside of the company or you risk inundating people with victories that are hard to grasp if they aren’t living the battle with you everyday. Some ideas include:
- Document the journey. You are creating history and you can’t remember it without pictures, videos, and documents of what happened. It’s great material to pass on to people who weren’t there.
- Decorate the office with accomplishments. Putting up press clippings or customer quotes is a great way to remind people of the company success.
- Collect and pass around positive reviews. Third party acknowledgements are great bragging rights, especially from end customers and editors.
- Customer wins. Getting new customers is motivating, but just remember to let people know if you lose a customer too. No one likes to be bragging about your awesome new customer to find out down the road from someone else they are no longer a customer.
- Completing projects. Yes, product announcements are the easiest, but even celebrating the completion of small projects is important.
- Sharing prototypes. People love to see the new ideas being worked on so sharing visual work as it’s being completed is incredibly motivating.
- Successful events are filled with photos and stories people who didn’t attend would love to know about.
- Marketing campaigns, especially successful ones that move the needle are visual and help people grasp the message we are sharing with the world.
- Happy hour (yes, cliche) is still a great way for people to connect and share the projects they are working on.
It means a whole lot more when the whole company takes time out of their busy day to enjoy the milestones, especially if the celebrations are during working hours and outside of the office. And don’t forget to invite significant others, they are quietly the most important aspect of employee success.
Building greatness is hard and there may be a lot of days when you feel like you are going backwards instead of forwards. But that is part of the journey and helping people appreciate the ride is one of your most important jobs.
Yes, company updates give people the information they need, but feeling the momentum is even more important. Especially in the volatile world of startups, people need to hear, see, and touch success over and over and over again. It creates a wave of momentum that can overcome the setbacks you face along the way.
Get out from behind your laptop and help people enjoy the ride. Because when it’s over, your memories will be all you have to look back on.
I am an entrepreneur. A creator. A builder. I want to build companies that make the world a better place, one product at a time. I have come to believe that if you let life unfold itself, you will experience it like never before.
My first start-up and therefore my first love. I co-founded Contour in a garage almost ten years ago and was fortunate enough to have lead the company from inception to a multi-million dollar business with hundreds of thousands of customers around the world. I am most proud of the award winning products we create, which are thoughtfully designed and incredibly easy to use. Contour.com
“…You go through a lot. Physically, mentally, and so the friendships that are made in the big wave lineups run so deep…we love one another with the most respect that you could. ” ~ Greg Long (big wave surfer)
Relationships. The most volatile, unpredictable, but important part of the company you build. Unless you want to build a one-man show and sit in a closet, people will become incredibly important to your success.
And I’m not just talking about employees, I’m talking about all the relationships around your business. The army of people you need to influence to believe in your vision, your products, and your leadership. I’m talking about editors, investors, employees, vendors, suppliers, retailers, family members, lawyers, strategic partners, athletes, customers and anyone who takes an interest in what you are building. All of them need to believe for you to create a successful company.
When you start, it’s easy to ask for help. If you are persuasive enough you may even find it easy to convince people to join, invest, purchase, etc. Your decision to constantly put the business in front of these relationships will always feel like the right thing to do. And for a long time people will put up with it, until they won’t. Once they believe your concern for them is shallow and that the only time you call is when you need something, their desire to help will be replaced with frustration, disenchantment, and even anger. People can sense if you aren’t genuine and your actions always speak louder than your words.
Changing this dynamic is hard, especially when it feels like you are short on time and energy to give yourself to everyone. Putting people first requires an incredible amount of vulnerability and a level of commitment that is more tiring than keeping everything surface deep. But what I can promise you is when you start putting people first the relationships get better. You begin to appreciate what you have and enjoy everyone for more than what they can do for the company.
Unintentionally, I know I burned a lot of relationships along the way. I was constantly battling with how much to give as I pushed forward with business first, people second. I figured that people would understand when I did what was best for the business in place of what was best for them. It is true that you will have to make very hard decisions about people, decisions that haunt your dreams and make your stomach turn inside out. And it’s also true that no matter how much you commit to them people may hate you when you let them go. Relationships you thought would last a lifetime are ended in seconds, and that hurts.
At the end of the day, when the dust settles and your time with your company is over, you will realize that all you have are these relationships. How you treated them is all that they will remember. And the memories you shared is all that you end up taking with you.
Appreciating people is hard, but it’s worth it. It makes the ride so much better.
The following is a short guide to help you appreciate the relationships around you so you can better enjoy the ride.
Value People’s Time
You are running a business. A business that does need to generate revenue, profits, or investment capital to stay alive. That oftentimes needs you to make very hard decisions that you hope will keep the company alive to fight another day. Casualties along the way will happen, but it doesn’t mean people have to think you don’t value them.
One of the hardest lessons I learned was to value people’s time. I was always over-scheduling myself and justifying why being a few minutes late was okay, but don’t do it. There’s nothing more frustrating than starting a meeting late or waiting for someone to arrive when they asked for your time. Be early and prepared for the meeting and do the other person a favor by requesting the meeting days in advance along with a short agenda of what you want to talk about. Sure, some meetings need to happen the same day, but giving people a heads-up goes a long way. A surprise attack meeting from the CEO never goes well.
Once you have people’s attention don’t waste it. Be direct in your communication. Ambiguous, passive-aggressive communication is awful, especially in tough conversations that no one wants to be having. A direct approach may initially hurt people’s feelings, but they will appreciate your honesty. Not knowing where you stand or not knowing where they stand makes the relationships awkward, at best. Even if you need more time to think about a subject, tell them that. You aren’t expected to have every answer at your fingertips. Thinking about things is perfectly acceptable and a much more thoughtful way to go. Just don’t forget to follow back up and let people know where you stand.
If people provide introductions, treat them with utmost importance. People are always afraid to introduce you to people they know because how you treat their friends will be a direct reflection on them. Being polite, on time, and direct with what you want to talk about, will go a long ways towards people sharing relationships that may help you. If people offer an introduction don’t be afraid to say no or say why a time in the future would be better. It’s better to know the introduction would not be helpful than to make it and have it linger in email eternity.
Lastly, be sure to say thank you. That can range from a handwritten card, to an email, to looking directly in their eyes and saying thank you. The more thoughtful your follow up is about what you are thankful for only helps in keeping friends who will continue to support you. People recognize that when you start, you can’t pay with money, so do everything you can to repay them with gratitude.
Be a Great Listener
It means you have to be present. Having your computer open, auto-updates buzzing in your pocket, or half thinking about something else means you aren’t giving people the attention they deserve. If you don’t have time for the discussion then don’t start it.
Getting good at listening takes real effort. Yes it’s hard to turn off all the extra thoughts floating around in your head, but the more you practice turning them off to really be present the better you will get at it. To be good at listening it starts with eye contact. People can tell when your mind is bouncing all over the place because your eyes will be doing the same thing. A friend once taught me the best way to make eye contact is to focus on one of the person’s eyes. It sounds creepy, but it will help your mind settle down and focus.
Then to actively listen you must be engaged with the speaker. It doesn’t mean you have to speak, but show enthusiasm. Show it in your face, your energy, and your body language. When it is time to respond, return the same energy they brought. Build up on their idea instead of tearing it apart.
Even if you are three steps ahead of the person presenting, it doesn’t matter. Telling them the answer or taking the pen out of their hand leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. I used to do this all the time and the only person who felt good about it in the room was me. Sadly, a pen in my hand leading the discussion on the whiteboard was my way of listening.
In my recent time off I have been taking an improv comedy class. Partly to put myself in the most uncomfortable situations possible, but partly because the laws of improv are the core to great team building. If you ever watch great improv the acting team builds upon itself. The first rule of improv, “yes…and”, dominates the conversation as you take someone’s idea and add to it. You never cut it down or tear it apart. The conversation may flow in a different direction than you first thought, but as trust builds with the team you can take the initial idea and run with it. Something I look forward to being better at with the next company I build.
Being a bad listener is just being lazy.
Learn to Empathize
I’m sure we have all read the stories about Steve Jobs and his lack of concern for everyone else. If your creative genius is anything close to his then okay, maybe you can get away with it. But for the rest of us, learning to understand people from their perspective is critical to improving the relationships around us.
Empathy is the basis of great user research as you try hard to understand the problem from the user’s perspective. You are constantly putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and trying to understand what they are trying to do that they can’t do.
What makes empathizing so hard is it goes against our natural intuition, which is to convince people our point of view is right. Especially as entrepreneurs we spend so many hours defending, that we often fail at accepting another perspective and because we are so attached to our own point of view we often confuse it with our own identity. And so sometimes empathy can be very difficult because we get nervous that if we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to see their (different) point of view we might lose part of our identity, we might lose part of our “Self.”
There are two scenarios I experienced a lot.
The first is something goes wrong. As a leader you will receive information that no one else will have. Often incredibly conflicting, it is easy to make assumptions based on all the opinions and lack of facts around you. But I challenge you to start with the people and not just ask them what happened, but understand it from their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes to understand how they approached the problem, the resources they used, how they are feeling about it, and really why the result is different than you expected. It may take several discussions to actually get down to the root cause, but it’s a much better approach than making an assumption about why.
The second is predicting what people will need. This is much harder and can take years of practice. The better you understand people around you, what motivates them, make them happy, or what they need, the better you can predict this. Providing solutions before they need them is like creating great products people didn’t even know they needed until they tried it. I have a very long way to go to get good at this.
Surfers do this in a very basic way. They look out for each other in the water. Like a brotherhood, they never give up helping a surfer in trouble, no matter how long it takes. Most of them have been there before and instantly they can understand what it’s like. An unspoken language many of us never experience in the business world.
Create Depth to the Relationship
As the CEO, your job isn’t to be friends with everyone. Often figuring out how far to go with each relationship is a constant battle. Yes, you want to build camaraderie with your team, investors, partners, etc. but you do need to make it clear where the line is.
With that in mind there is a lot more to life than just work. Often I was so focused on the company, it was the only thing I would think about and most of the time the only thing I would talk about. I loved talking to everyone about business and rarely drifted off to new subjects. It’s okay if you aren’t caught up on the latest pop culture, but you can talk to people about life outside of the company.
Getting to know what people are passionate about helps you be a better leader. Learning what motivates people, where they like to travel, what makes them happy, what they like to do when they aren’t slaving away to make the company stronger, etc. goes back to empathizing and helping you understand where people are coming from. You won’t get to know people by constantly being in meetings or by only connecting with them at happy hour. Learning about people can happen in small increments during the day, at social events, or even at lunch.
Lastly, please don’t ask about their life to just ask. If you don’t care or you don’t intend to care then just talk about business. People can tell when you don’t care or even worse when you don’t remember personal things they shared with you.
Building a great company is hard. Building it alone is depressing. Learning to put other people first is something I constantly battle with, but I believe it will not only make me a better leader, but more importantly it will make the journey so much more enjoyable. No different than the level of commitment surfers have in the water to protect each other, putting other people first will create relationships that last long beyond your company days.
Image Credit: Rickbucich via Creative Commons
I am an entrepreneur. A creator. A builder. I want to build companies that make the world a better place, one product at a time. I have come to believe that if you let life unfold itself, you will experience it like never before.
My first start-up and therefore my first love. I co-founded Contour in a garage almost ten years ago and was fortunate enough to have lead the company from inception to a multi-million dollar business with hundreds of thousands of customers around the world. I am most proud of the award winning products we create, which are thoughtfully designed and incredibly easy to use. Contour.com