How To Do A Startup On The Side And Not Lose Your Family

May 30, 2012

In October 2009, I joined TalentSoup, as the technical co-founder and lead developer. There's a really crazy story about how I wound up finding Rad Harrell and TalentSoup, but in short, I answered a call for help in this tweet and the rest is my history. Oh, and the first thing I did when I joined TalentSoup was ditch Drupal for Rails.

My So-Called Life

I was at the time, and still am, gainfully employed as a mechanical draftsman for a large and well respected HVAC contractor whose work is mainly in the 5 boroughs of NYC. The story of how a guy who has been programming since the age of 12, has a BS in Comp Sci and spent the early part of his career as a developer in the financial industry ended up doing mechanical drafting is also a long story, but one for another day.

As of this writing, I am 29 years old. I am the married father of three great kids. I have a mortgage. In addition to all of that, and my full-time job as a draftsman, and TalentSoup on nights and weekends, I have the following obligations and interests:

  • Elder at Trinity Church, where I also help teach Sunday School

  • I enjoy homebrewing

  • I try to read as much as time allows on wide range of subjects

  • Watching Chelsea FC (an emotionally traumatic experience lately)

  • Work out regularly (5/3/1 or Gym Jones-style)

Not to mention generally hanging out and enjoying “the good life”. I also have very strong convictions about not doing or thinking about work on Sundays. So if a day is 24 hours, and I need to sleep at least 6-8 of them, and I only really have 6 days of the week in which to do all of the aforementioned “stuff”, how do I fulfill all my obligations?

What follows is my own n=1 experience. Every person, family, and life situation is different. Here’s what’s worked for me and helped me bootstrap a debt free, profitable company while having a day job, a family, and a life outside of programming.

Buy-In

By far the biggest win in my situation is the support of my wife. She not only tolerates my involvement in a startup, she actively supports me and roots for me. She wants to see us succeed. She knows and loves my co-founder and his family. She asks about the business, unprompted. All of these things together make the situation workable. Without her support, there’s no way I could do a startup and have a healthy marriage and family life.

Priorities: How Do They Work?

Spousal/SO support is the first step. The second step is just as important, and closely related: establishing priorities. Every post I’ve ever read about doing startups with a family talks about establishing priorities, but the actual process of doing so is taken for granted. I don’t think it should be. Again, this is n=1 for me, but I’ve learned to go about making priorities by thinking about my life in this following manner:

inner life -> relationships -> provision -> employment -> obligations -> startup -> enjoyment

Inner Life

The book of Proverbs says “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23). Everything I do in life is affected by the state of my heart. Am I depressed? Happy? Anxious? Angry? All of these heart conditions affect the way I interface with my wife, kids, friends, co-workers; they affect the way I do my work and my outlook on life in general. It’s a virtuous/vicious cycle: the happier (or more depressed) I am, the better (or worse) I work and live, which makes me happier (or more depressed). Therefore my first priority is to “keep my heart”. I do this through prayer, meditation, and Scripture reading, and by regularly being part of worship.

Relationships

In reality, those categories mentioned above are not water-tight. They spill over into each other, going up and down the chain. My inner life affects everything that comes after it, but that doesn’t mean my work doesn’t affect my inner life. With that said, I next consider relationships, the most important being with my wife, and after that with my children. Even with my wife’s support, there are times when she needs personal time with me. A common text message I send to my business partner is “Nikki needs a night, I’ll see you tomorrow”. We’ll get some good Belgian ale, make popcorn, and watch a movie. A simple night, but we reconnect, and that’s important. There has to be a give and take.

Time with my kids, especially at their young ages, is important as well. I have a lot of room to improve in this area, but the best advice I can give when it comes to time with your kids is “be present”. It’s so easy to be with my kids physically, but mentally be thinking about a bug that needs fixing, or a feature I’m in the middle of working on. It takes intentional effort to be mentally present. One thing that’s helped is taking notes throughout the day, either with Field Notes or in Basecamp. Being diligent in this regard means I’m less stressed about losing an idea or thought while I’m away from my computer. When the kids are asleep, I can just check on the notes I’ve left myself throughout the day.

Provision & Employment

These two are so closely related, they warrant being discussed together. As a man, with a family depending on me, I have to be sure I am providing for them, materially. This means food on the table, clothes on their backs, heat in the winter, etc. The primary means of doing this is via a regular job, which I have. Being that my day job provides most of the money my family depends on, I need to make sure my startup pursuits do not affect my day job. When I am in the office, I am working hard. That means not working on startup work on my boss' dime. It also means being mentally present at work as well.

Obligations

Responsibilities that I have that fall outside of the employment/provision spectrum would be something like be an elder at Trinity. Right now, being an elder is the only thing I do that falls in this category, and most of my elder work (besides a meeting once a month) can take place at home through email or on the phone. But this work is something my family and I highly value, and are committed to.

Startup

Turns out that the thing which occupies my mind (and my dreams) most of the time is, in reality, further down on the priority chain than you’d have thought. Not much really to say here. If you’ve read this far, you know what doing a startup is like.

Enjoyment

This is a catch-all for any activity I enjoy that, while personally fulfilling, is spent apart from my family and/or does not contribute to the provision need mentioned earlier. Working out, reading, etc. Again, enjoyments are one way to improve my inner life, so even though this is last on the list, it’s also important, but not as important.

Tying It Together

So now I have my priorities, listed in my order of importance. Realizing that they are all related, I nevertheless run every opportunity through the priority framework, and ask the question: where does it fit? Given what’s been going on in my life in the last couple of days/weeks/months, can I pursue this opportunity without harming something higher up the priority chain? For example, I enjoy playing soccer. My brother and his buddies regularly play on Saturday mornings at a high school not far from my house. Most weeks, given how busy things normally are, I would not be able to justify spending a Saturday morning away from my kids doing something like that. It doesn’t contribute to anything above “enjoyment” in the priority chain, and whatever small “inner life” benefit I’d get by playing soccer would be negated by the harm it’d do to my relationship with my wife and children, knowing that dad had a free Saturday morning but spent it kicking a ball around instead of taking us out to breakfast.

There are times, however, when for some reason I’ve been able to spend a good amount of time with my kids during the week, and taking a few hours to play soccer on a Saturday isn’t a big deal. It’s a play-it-by-ear situation. But most of the time, if I have free time, I try and spend it with my family instead of for myself.

I also have to turn down some legitimate provision opportunities as well because of the harm they’d do to my relationships. A full-time job and part-time startup take up a lot of energy, and adding something like a short-term consulting project to the mix, even though it may pay well, is something I can’t do. In the last year I’ve turned down 3 such opportunities.

Likewise, there are some jobs I wouldn’t take because of the impact it’d have on my family life. Things like consistently long hours (in a day job) are a deal breaker for me. That might disqualify me for a job at many web startups, and that’s OK with me. Marco Arment recently had a great post titled Old Farts Know How To Code that sums up my feelings on the matter.

Practical Tips

  • Get your spouse or SO’s buy-in. Until that happens, I’d suggest not going forward.

  • Take time to focus on your inner life, in whatever way makes sense to you.

  • When you’re with your family or friends, “be there” mentally. Chances are, that bug or feature can wait.

  • Beg, borrow, and steal…time. I’ve started bringing my laptop to my day job, so I can work on TalentSoup during lunch. That’s 5 extra hours a week. Sometimes I wake up early and work before my day job. Many nights I stay up late so I can work when everyone’s asleep, without taking time away from my family.

  • Something has to give, and it’s usually your hobbies. I’ve made a rule that if I do not workout in the morning before my day job, then I can’t work out for the rest of the day. This forces me to pursue my “hobby” on my time, so I don’t take time away from my family or startup.

  • On a regular basis, leave the laptop on your desk and take your kids out for ice cream, or go for a walk around the neighborhood. Life is short, and you don’t get these years back. Be flexible.

  • Turn off the iPhone. Easier said than done, and I guarantee I am a worse offender than you. But it needs to be done.

I certainly do not keep these guidelines as well as I should. But I am learning, and I’m a lot better at balancing my time now than I have been in the past.


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