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Alex Iskold, the Managing Director of Techstars New York has a great post on 6 Ways Startup Founders Can Deal With Extra Stress. His six suggestions are right on the money.
- Recognize That You Are Stressed
- Get More Sleep
- Take a Regular Vacation
- Eat Better and Drink Less Alcohol
- Exercise & Meditate
- Have a Routine and Plan Your Calendar
I’m a huge fan of all of these. While I show up as a special guest in Alex’s post on #3, I’m a huge sleeper, I’m in a no-drinking phase, and I’m meditating and exercising almost every day.
It seems simple when it’s reduced to six items, but it’s not. And, starting with #1 is key to unlocking the next five.
My friend Toby Ruckert takes on the idea of the impossibility of work-life balance when you are the founder of your business and it’s so integrated into your life.
“Discussions about work-life balance simply aren’t very productive when your business is (such a big part of) your life,”
Instead, Toby recommends harmony in his post The Problem with Work-Life Balance.
Ari Newman at Techstars has a great post up titled The Traveling Spouse Relationship Hack. If you are in a relationship and one (or both) of you are traveling a lot, try his simple hack to make your life better.
“My wife and I have come up with what we think is a pretty slick plan to combat all the stress in our lives while helping us grow closer together and reconnect. We try to get away, just the two of us, 2-3 times a year—something I like to refer to as the traveling spouse relationship hack. (Sorry kiddos!)”
Amy and I have been doing something similar for 17 years. We call it Qx Vacation – we take a week a quarter off the grid.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekend, a week, or a month. Make sure you spend 1:1 time alone with the person you were put on this planet to be with.
Ari – thanks for the reminder!
I give a regular talk at Techstars called Work Life Harmony. It try to do it a few weeks into the 12 week program just to give the founders a breather and a chance to reflect on everything that is going on around them.
Ty Danco, one of the director at Techstars Boston, did a great job of blogging a detailed summary it.
This recent Inc. article, entitled “The Start of a Company, the End of a Marriage,” dives into the correlation between entrepreneurs and failed relationships. Through a series of stories that serve as informal case studies, the effects of stress due to entrepreneurship and operating an early stage business are examined.
One of the relationships profiled in this article is that of Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor, the co-authors of Startup Life.
Guest post by Catherine Compitello
Conversation is the best kind of foreplay. Since leaving my job on Wall St. to start a rooftop farming business I’ve had lots of conversations with my mentors about what it means to be an entrepreneur and the challenges of running a successful business. My network is one of my most valuable assets. Senses are heightened as an entrepreneur. I find myself thinking through everything. As my plan develops, conversations with my mentors and colleagues help me keep a clear head, be open and flexible, take risks, and navigate challenges
Jane Miller’s Sleep Your Way To The Top is like a good friend you reach out to for advice. Or when you need a good laugh about a ridiculous situation at work. At some point we all get caught in weird situations or put our foot in our mouth. We all decide it’s time to take risks, to take on new challenges, to learn new skills. How do you play it? How do other people play it? How does Jane play it?
Jane, CEO and founder of JaneKnows, has become the highest-ranking woman at every company she’s worked for, including: Pepsi Co, Heinz, and Rudi’s Organic Bakery. Sleep Your Way To The Top is her first book and an entertaining how-to for others wanting to make it to their top. Jane asks questions as you navigate your way up, wherever up may be for you: “What’s important to you in your career? What does success mean to you? What is your top and how in the world do you get there?” Sleep Your Way To The Top is good for any reader but especially suited for those in the early stages of their career that need to ask themselves these very questions.
Step 1? Buy a journal. Then use it as your “What Obviously Works” journal to “build your confidence and be in control.” Get to know what you want and what your strengths are by writing them down. And continue to do this throughout your career. Get to know your weaknesses too. Knowing your weaknesses means you can get them to work with you and not against. It can give you the strength to know when to say “this isn’t the path for me,” as Jane did when she walked away from a career that was the wrong fit for her when she talks about the Myth: You can have it all. This, by the way, happens to be the only myth Jane doesn’t discredit. And I agree: it’s unfalsifiable. Instead she invites the debate to begin. Or continue, really. Also known as the myth of the work-life balance, this one is hotly debated. And one I’d love to hear more of Jane’s thoughts on. Is this myth a mislabeled (as a gender issue) problem with social and economic policy? Do we agree on what it means to lead a successful life? Are we asking ourselves if we are living the kind of life we want to lead? How do you define that?
Keeping a journal is something Jane recommends you adopt early on in your career, so it naturally comes at the beginning of the book. But you can read through the myths in any order you please. And a lot of myths are covered: Networking Is Sucking Up; Leaders Are Born Leaders; Only Extroverts Win In The Corporate World.
As we all know, some of the most unpleasant lessons in life are learned hard and quick. When discussing one of the shorter myths in the book: “TMI is appropriate in an interview,” Jane tells an embarrassingly funny story that’s quick to the punch. Her writing pulls on her years of success in guiding businesses to deliver a light and funny read with a smart and clear voice.
*Catherine Compitello is an alternative investment marketing specialist turned entrepreneur. She founded The Farm Above, a sustainable rooftop farming business. She recently moved to Boulder, CO from Wall St., she is excited to collaborate with other entrepreneurs in the community.
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.