Sustainable Startup Pace

This feels like an appropriate post to be writing coming off a long weekend…

Startups are male-dominated. Goto any VC/ startup event and its 90%+ male. Tackling that is not the aim of this post (though as an aside, I will share that I am involved in a project that is addressing this head on – more on that later…).

Whether it’s this male domination or the fact that most startups have short half lives or whether there’s just more competition so that speed becomes more important than ever, or all of the above – most startups have an intense, always on culture and ethos.

That’s all well and good, but is it sustainable? Both during the life of any given startup and over the career path of the people living it?

I am a veteran of many startups now. I have lived through lax cultures (with mediocre results) and intense, competitive, pressure-filled cultures (with great results) and everything in between. The CEO of my 3rd startup (who had no kids) liked to do strategy sessions over cocktails after work. We did these frequently. Let’s just say I did not see much of our 2nd child in his first year.

Perhaps it was that experience or maybe I’m just getting older, but I won’t make those sacrifices now. I won’t get a 2nd chance to experience my kids growing up! And I have already missed milestones that I will never see again.

I’m still obviously very involved in startups and want the CEOs that we back to be aggressive. And I do firmly believe in Mike Cassidy’s maxim that speed is the best strategy.

So, how do I reconcile my desire for balance with my desire that our CEOs be as aggressive and fast as possible? I actually don’t think these paths are mutually exclusive.

While some people do genuinely thrive on (some) stress, it is a biological fact that sustained, long term stress is very harmful to us. If we are always on, we will inevitably drain our productive capabilities.

Some of my best insights have come while walking the dogs or mowing the lawn or just sitting quietly. And since I have made family a top priority my head has become clearer and more focused.

Successful startups often have one core market or technical insight that forms the nucleus of their entire company. I would argue that you’ll find that insight faster and be able to focus on it more if you’re not totally stressed out and feeling like you’re running a rat race.

I’m clearly not alone in thinking about family and balance. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook recently shared that she leaves work at 5:30pm to have dinner with her kids. For the #2 in a company known for it’s male-dominated all night hackathons, this is a strong and brave statement. I love it!

Bryce from OATV shared his take on how he balances work and family last week too. Like Sheryl, he makes it home for dinner with his family every night.

What about me? Well, I don’t have the pressures of running one of the most successful internet companies around and I am fortunate to be part of a great and understanding partnership. So, I have the autonomy to craft a work-life balance that is truly sustainable. I take the kids to school most days. I help out in the morning routine. I don’t get to eat dinner with them most nights, but I am there for stories, bath, shut down.

I also work from home on Fridays. My partners like to joke that I work 4 days/ week. But I find it’s a great way to end the week. I end Fridays organized, thoughtful and ready for the following week. Yes, like you, I am checking in on weekends. But I try and turn email off entirely on Sundays.

My recipe won’t necessarily work for you. But nothing is more important than family and health. So I strongly encourage you to craft a personal routine that enables you to deliver your best in every aspect of your life not just for a short term sprint but for the whole marathon of life!

  • There's a growing chorus of successful entrepreneurs (most recently Bruce Croxon) happy to claim that there's no such thing as Work-Life-Balance if you want to be successful. After selling my last business, which I started six months before my first child was born, I tend to disagree.

    It's entirely possible to run a great, profitable business and still be home in time for dinner and bed time with your family. It all comes down to choices and what success means to you.

    You may not sell your business for a billion buck, but success is always within reach.

  • Vince

    Hey Mark,

    I work from home on Mondays (Irish dancing classes @4 pm with my daughter). Despite the fact that I do regularly burn the midnight oil, I almost always make it home for supper with the family. Work again after all are asleep . . . not ideal, but start-ups are needy mistresses.

    Hope to regain some more balance soon, though. Yup, work smarter, not harder, is a worthy axiom.


    • Wish you did Scottish dancing instead, but all good.

  • Assuming it's your end goal to sell a company quickly or make a quick buck, putting in huge hours to get the job done might work out in the short-run. But can you really bet on that scenario? It's hard to imagine you won't reach burnout if you're building a long-term sustainable business and keep putting in the same hours. It'll catch up to you. Best case scenario, you can do a crazy number of hours in spurts — even then your productivity will go down as each day goes on.

    • I've seen photos of myself from my early startup days when all I did was work. I looked like a stress case even though I was way younger than I am now. Hard to keep that going long term

  • Good post!

    I think that it's unfortunately a fact that, due to a lack of experience or mentoring, many first-time founders (me included) have to brute-force some problems, hence resulting in a solution that is still good, but that required more resources than necessary… "Working Smarter, not Harder" they said…

    That being said, I think that no matter what type of schedule or deadlines, Health should always be a priority. All-nighters from time to time aren't deadly, but they aren't a sustainable approach neither. Playing some basketball, frisbee or doing some yoga or weightlifting puts you in a surprisingly more productive and refreshed state of mind. That's great not only for you but also for people around you, including cofounders… "Un esprit sain dans un corps sain"!

    Oh and… I'm not yet at the "gotta-have-my-5:30pm-diner-with-my-kids" stage, but I believe the basic principles are the same and could be applied to close friends and relatives!

    It's all about balance…!

  • Ian

    Nice post Mark.

    My observation is that the ability to achieve balance is closely correlated to demographics. The two principle demographic drivers are; age and experience.

    Age refers to how long the start-up has been around rather than the founders. The newer the start-up the lower the probability of achieving work/life balance. Newer start-ups are riskier and require more effort especially early on.

    Experience refers to the experience of the founders. If someone has done it once or twice before then they will be much more efficient and know what to focus on. The more experienced the founders the greater the probability of achieving work/life balance sooner.

    The product of start-up age times founder(s) experience would likely yield the sprint required distance and time to balance.

    If you are an inexperienced founder in a new start-up expect a sprint/jog/intervals of at least two years.

    • Great points Ian. For sure. I worked way harder 1st time around because I had no idea what I was doing.