It’s no secret that starting a company takes a lot of time and is a huge amount of work. I’m sure it’s always been this way for people starting companies, but in the current state of technology startups the situation is amplified with the pace of business, always-on nature of the internet, the ability to “work” from anywhere, and the fear that your competitors are two kids in a college dorm room working 20 hour days eating Top Ramen and drinking Mt. Dew.
It’s also no secret that having a baby and raising kids is an incredible amount of work. In my opinion it is the most enjoyable and valuable work in the world, and having kids is the best thing that I’ve ever done. However, it still begs the question of if you can you start or work at an early stage startup while also raising young kids?
The short answer is that yes you can, but the situation presents a set of challenges you need to be prepared to tackle. As someone who worked at an early stage startup (Right Media) and has now started a company (GuideMe) while having babies and raising young kids, I can speak from direct experience at some of the challenges and how to get through them. While I’m not perfect on all these items either, I think I’ve gotten efficient at being a good father and also getting a lot done working at startups.
Note: I’m basing this advice on raising kids with a spouse since that was my personal experience. While much of the advice still probably holds true for being a single parent, I can’t say for sure. I’m also assuming that being a good parent is important to those reading it.
The biggest overall challenge kids create when starting a new company is that you no longer have complete control of your schedule. It’s no longer possible to work whenever you want for as long as you want.
Kids have schedules too, they wake up at certain times, they need to be fed, changed, played with, picked up, dropped off, and all kinds of other activities. While you can control some of this, you can’t control all of it.
In my personal situation I’m lucky enough to have an amazing spouse who has chosen to take care of our kids as her full time job. Even with that luxury, I have to limit my work day “at the office” so that I can spend quality time with the kids, give my wife a break, drop off the kids at school, go to a doctor appointment, or do something else involved with their lives.
This makes it hard stay at the office until a project is done no matter how long it takes. This makes it hard to go to the office super early in the morning. This makes it hard to work all day long without interruption if that’s important to your job. And this makes it hard to go out with your coworkers for dinner or drinks to bond and brainstorm.
The result of this is that you have to become extremely efficient at managing your time and schedule. You may need to take phone calls in the car, brainstorm a project while you are dropping off the kids at school, and become ruthless about wasting time while at work. If you know you can only be working from 8-5 during the day, you can’t spend an hour playing ping pong with the team or browsing the web for an hour reading the news.
Advice: Create a schedule you can stick to, be a ruthless about maximizing your work time, and steal extra work time either early in the morning or late at night while everyone is asleep.
One of the ways to overcome the time management challenge we just talked about is to make personal sacrifices.
We all have things we do that we find enjoyable that take up some significant amount of time. Examples of this could be watching TV and movies, playing video games, reading books, reading tech news, hanging out on Twitter and Facebook, and spending time with friends.
Fortunately, some of these things can be cut from your daily routine in order to get more done during the day or allow you to get some work time in after the kids go to bed at night. The reality is that spending time with your kids and spouse should take priority over any of those types of activities. While work can take away some time from them, is watching a movie or browsing Twitter more important than family and work?
I wouldn’t recommend that you completely cut all enjoyable activities out of your life because that could end up making you hate your work, and there can be value in recharging and letting your mind brainstorm while idle.
Advice: Don’t change anything yet and spend a normal day and try keeping track of how much time you spent doing these kinds of fun activities. If you’re like most people, I’d estimate that you spend between 1-4 hours on these activities. Try cutting an hour off this time, or cutting it in half in order to get more work time or more time with your family. Either one is better.
Ah…sleep. This is something that most startup employees already think is hard to come by, so imagine what happens when you add in a baby who wakes up in the middle of the night, won’t go to bed early, or wakes up earlier than you want?
Advice: Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do here besides try and get your baby or kids on as good of a sleep schedule as possible. It helps if you have a spouse who is willing to get up with the kids, but they often need their sleep as well. Getting consistent exercise can also help to make sure you can sleep well when you do sleep. Caffeine can help keep you alert, but I’ve seen some who have more success staying off caffeine altogether to get by on less sleep.
Even with all the improvements in communications, being heavily involved in an early startup usually requires some travel and for some it requires significant travel. This can be sales calls on customers, raising money, attending conferences, meeting with partners, and meeting with fellow employees in other locations.
Advice: Minimize trips to those that are only truly necessary. Maximize the time you do spend away by combining as many purposes as possible and getting as much done as possible. Try to book flight times that also allow you to spend as much time with family as possible, which often means booking flights early in the morning while kids would be sleeping.
The situation that you really want to avoid is for either your family or coworkers to have the wrong expectations about what they can expect from you.
With your family, it can be dangerous to start a company or join an early stage startup without their full understanding and support of the time commitment, potentially low pay, stress, and travel that doing this creates.
With your coworkers, they need to understand if they are single with no outside commitments it may be possible for them to work 18 hours straight, but it’s not going to be possible for you. You really need to make sure they understand how much time you’ll be able to spend every day and what your schedule will be like so you don’t end up with people feeling like they expected more from you or that they are pulling more of the workload than you.
In the situation that your cofounder or fellow employees are taking on more work and getting more accomplished than you, make sure that it’s clear in the equity and compensation setup that this is accounted for so that bad feelings don’t start occurring.
Advice: Talk thoroughly with your family and your coworkers/investors about your expected schedule and commitments so that there are no surprises and everyone goes into the adventure with eyes wide open.
Building a Support Network
This is more of a specific piece of advice than a challenge, but one of the key overall techniques to managing this is to find a set of people who can help out in various ways. Examples of this might be moving to where you have family close by who can help watch the baby or kids, help pick them up from school, and give you and your spouse a break. Really close friends could also serve as an option.
Or it might be a babysitter, nanny, housekeeper, or another type of hired help that can alleviate some of the workload at home.
There also can be potentially some work support network options such as hiring cheaper contracted help for certain tasks that take up a lot of time like administrative work, accounting, and other things that aren’t necessarily core to your company’s success.
Advice: Hopefully you have some available friends and family that might be free. If not, it may cost money but finding help either at home or the office can help with a lot of the time strain that can occur with kids.
If You’re Really Worried About It, You Probably Should Be!
If after reading all this and really thinking it through you still feel like it’s a bad idea to start a company or join an intense early stage startup, you should wait until you’re at a point where your kids are more manageable or you have the right support network in place.
If you’re on the fence about it, perhaps instead of starting a company you “only” join an early stage startup so it’s not quite as bad.
Or if you’ve just got to go for it now, make sure you’re ready to manage your time well, not sleep that much, work extremely hard, and be certain everyone has the right expectations set going in. Good Luck!