• Don’t Let Startup Life Suck Away Your Family Time

    · September 15, 2016

    Stop believing that success at work and home are mutually exclusive. No, seriously – stop thinking that.

    True story: It’s 3PM on a Thursday afternoon, and my kids are on hour two of watching mindless animation. I’m stressed about solving some big problems at work and can’t afford to take a day off to completely cover for my sick wife. So on go the cartoons.

    Do I have it all figured out? Ask my 1-year old, who’s now shrieking because his brother took his nutrition-devoid, tube-contained yogurt.

    No. I don’t have it figured out. But I know I’m not the only one.

    The tech world is struggling to find a way to play in two sandboxes that have previously been perceived as somewhat antithetical – family life and work life. But I don’t have to tell you that. In a world of ping pong tables, happy hours, and less-than-standard work schedules, you know how hard it can be to plug children into the mix.

    But it can be done, and you’re doing it. Good for you – seriously. Let’s take a quick second to recognize what a badass mom/dad/husband/wife/boyfriend/ girlfriend/individual you are for balancing both demands. And really – the fact that you’re reading this article means you care, and you’re probably doing a lot better than you think.

    That being said, like you, I want to be better. As a worker and as a dad. Here’s how I have tried to do this.

    Before I get into the meat and potatoes, here are two things that this post is NOT:

    • Boasting: Oh boy, like I said earlier – I do NOT have it all figured out. If any of my insights start to lend themselves to self-righteousness, here’s a special direct line to my wife; write to her and she’ll pop that balloon with incredible efficiency.
    • Judgmental: This is the complete opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish here. These are a few tricks that work for me. You probably have other things that work for you, or maybe you don’t struggle with the juxtaposition of these two worlds. That’s OK – keep up the great work.

    Now that that’s settled, here are eight ways that help me avoid being a sucky parent while working at a startup.

    1. Acknowledge ambiguity of measurement

    At work, it’s generally pretty easy to measure effort and product – “If I invest X into Y, I’ll see Z results.” With kids, it’s harder to see that – you’re playing the long game.

    Can you imagine the types of metrics you’d have if home were measured like your workplace?

    “Well, we saw a 30% rise in giggles per day when we increased the amount of times each book was read by 5X. That seemed promising, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable.”

    It’s natural – we like knowing that what we’re doing is making a difference. And when you spend so much of your time in a metrics-driven world, it can be hard to step into ambiguity, where your effort, quite frankly, can seem unappreciated and fruitless.

    It’s just not going to be that clear – and it shouldn’t be. Quantitative can’t always live in the qualitative world of human relationships.

    My point is, make a conscious acknowledgement of the fact that you may not see regular improvements – in fact, the way that you think success is measured may be completely wrong. You need to be able to flip a switch and allow yourself to just be present, without anxiety or pressure for performance.

    2. Be present

    This has been a major challenge for me. With ten thousand projects and tasks going on at any given time, it’s hard for me to stay focused when I’m at home. Game time with my boys ends up being “Boys playing a game while dad stares at the wall thinking about an email he forgot to send before he left work.”

    Am I there in person? Yeah – and I suppose that’s better than not being there at all. But am I there mentally? Not really. I have to consciously turn off my work brain – and most the time it autoboots. Again – you can contact the Mrs. to confirm.

    Point is, we know when we’re giving our best, and when we’re half-assing it – that’s true for home life as much as it is for work life.

    3. Put the phone away

    Ugh, you were afraid I was going to say that, weren’t you? I’m not trying to be preachy or judgmental here, because this is something I struggle with on an hourly, or even minute-by-minute basis.

    Months back, my wife and I were having regular disagreements about how I was on my phone while we were together as a family. I would roll my eyes and get defensive and tell her “Just a minute – I just need to do this really quick,” and this would go on and on. It was an almost daily occurrence.

    phone-box-smallerBut I knew she was right, and after one particular episode, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I went out to the garage, found some wood, and built a very rudimentary box. The point of this box would be to hang on the wall by the door, providing a place for me to deposit my phone every afternoon when I got home from work. I even very poorly etched the term “Dad Is Home” on the front, as an indication that if my phone was in the box, I was home and present.

    Now, in the interest of transparency, that did not solve the problem entirely, and there are still many times that I’m on my phone when I shouldn’t be. But it does serve as a reminder that when I’m home, I should be detached from the device.

    In a study performed by AVG Technologies, 32% of children used the term “unimportant” when sharing how they felt when their parents were on their phones. 54% reported wishing their parents spent less time connected to the devices.

    I don’t know about you, but the idea of my kid feeling “unimportant” is terrifying to me, and worth disconnecting for awhile.

    4. Make commitments and keep them

    I’ll keep this brief, because we all see the value of this. It’s literally the foundation of integrity, but too often overlooked in family life.

    Another big struggle for me. When I tell a client I’ll call them at a particular time, I do. When we have a company meeting, I’m there. But often, when my wife is at the end of a hard day and I tell her I’ll leave at 5, it’s crazy – something always comes up and I’m not out of there until 5:30 or 6. Every time that happens, it erodes her trust.

    Now, I’m not saying things won’t come up, or that you don’t have to sacrifice occasionally for the sake of furthering (or keeping) your job. But my wife is 100% right when she observes that I’m often much more willing to go above and beyond to keep my word to my career than to my family.

    I hate that, and I’m trying to get better at setting realistic expectations and then fiercely working to attain them. And every time I do, I build a bit more of that trust back – and she’s more understanding when the real emergencies come up.

    OK – thus far, I’ve warned about the risks of letting the startup life bleed too much into family time. However, it’s not all bad – there are some awesome benefits to bringing some of it home with you.

    5. Be innovative

    This buzzword has a place at home, too. Complacency and stagnation don’t breed success – creativity and scrappiness do.

    I have to hand it to my wife on this point – she’s a master at coming up with new things to do as a family. At the outset of the summer, we discussed ways to spend more time together in the outdoors. What did she do? Went out and bought a $500 camper trailer. It needed a lot of work, but after a few weeks of elbow grease, it was ready to hit the road. We’ve had a lot of fun this summer, spending time away from the normal stomping grounds.


    6. Start with why – teach the big picture

    I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek – if you haven’t seen his TED Talks or read any of his books, you’re missing out. But his first book, and the subject of his first wildly successful talk, dealt with the concept of putting “why” before “what” in product and brand development.

    Startup life is rough. It demands a lot, and despite all of the safeguards and tips I’ve shared here, it’s still going to eat into your family life and you’re going to have to talk to your family about it. Now, the “what” way of doing that would entail something like this:

    “Hey buddy, I have to go back into work for a little while. Sorry, but it’s my job and I have things I need to get done.”

    Nothing lacking there, right? The information was conveyed in a clear way, and it certainly wasn’t false. But it didn’t paint a picture, did it? Or maybe it did, but the picture was “My dad works a lot because he has a lot of work to do.”

    But what if it went more like this?

    “Hey buddy, remember how we talked about doing your best when you’re playing baseball? And how it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it? Well, I have to do my very best at my job right now, which means going back into the office again.

    I really wish I didn’t have to, but working hard now means it will be easier to go on vacation next month.”

    That may be a cheesy example, but it serves to show the “why” way of doing things. The “what” only dealt with the facts and the “right now,” whereas the “why” dealt with those same facts – only against a backdrop of character traits, rewards, and branding. “In our family, we do hard things and we do the best we can, in order to enjoy time together.”

    I don’t have to tell you this, but despite all of the pain and challenges, startup life is incredibly rewarding. Don’t shelter your family from that difficulty – let them understand why you do it. Not only will it make things easier on them, but it can teach the lessons and character traits that will benefit them in the future.

    7. Remember Why You’re Doing It

    That same insight goes for you, too. It’s insanely simple to get lost in the granular, task-driven grind of everyday life at a new business. In fact, that’s probably the default. You will get sucked into a mindset of moaning and groaning at some point, and that will definitely bleed into the other corners of your life.

    Look at the “Why” again. What makes you want to do this – to subject yourself to the long hours, stress, and uncertainty of a startup? What makes it worth it? The determination of working toward that big goal is what will keep spirits high and make the sacrifices worth it.

    8. Take Care of Yourself

    In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently shared that 130-hour workweeks were regular in the early days of Google, and asserted that the startups that would succeed were those that were willing to work through weekends.

    The former is fine – I’m not willing to do that, but if someone wants to, good for them. I’m also not willing to work in a culture that requires or rewards that. But it’s the latter claim that I think is garbage. Plenty of startups have become successful while maintaining work-life balance. Basecamp, for example.

    I’ve never worked a 130-hour week, but I have worked plenty of extremely long weeks and long nights. And what I’ve seen is that I’m not nearly as productive when I’m tired. It’s not worth it to me to kill myself after the prospect of incremental gains. I usually see the opposite.

    Chandler falling asleep

    Now, are all-nighters necessary once in awhile? Possibly. And if you’ve had a baby, it’s nothing new, right? But I think it’s ridiculous to say that if you’re not regularly working through the night or weekend, you won’t be successful (and I’m not the only one). Take care of yourself and your family and you’ll be a much more balanced person. And generally, balanced people tend to get the most out of life.


    These tips might not make you the most successful businessman or businesswoman on earth. There are definitely people out there that have sacrificed family life to focus entirely on their careers, and many of them might reach higher apices than you and I.

    But I guess I’m ok with that, because being a dad kicks ass, as does building incredible products. And I think I’d like to do both.

    • Bart Elison
      • http://www.boombox.com Coy Whittier

        That’s funny that it was Yahoo that reported that. I think it’s becoming more clear that killing yourself doth not a successful worker make. I know I need to do my most important work early in the day, because in the late afternoon, my creativity is sapped.

    • David Thedinga

      well said!