Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves

Watching my oldest daughter graduate high school this week made me think about what it was like raising a family and being an entrepreneur.

Convergent Technologies
When I was in my 20’s I worked at Convergent Technologies, a company that was proud to be known as the “Marine Corps of Silicon Valley.”  It was a brawling “take no prisoners,” work hard, party hard, type of company. The founders coming out of the DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and Intel culture of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. As an early employee I worked all hours of the day, never hesitated to jump on a “red-eye” plane to see a customer at the drop of a hat, and did what was necessary to make the company a winner.  I learned a lot at Convergent, going from product marketing manager in a small startup to VP of Marketing of the Unix Division as it became a public company.  Two of my role models for my career were in this company.  (And one would become my mentor and partner in later companies.) But this story is not about Convergent.  It’s about entrepreneurship and family.

Like most 20-somethings I modeled my behavior on the CEO in the company.  His marketing and sales instincts and skills seemed magical and he built the company into a $400 million OEM supplier, ultimately selling the company to Unisys.  But his work ethic was legendary. Convergent was a 6-day a week 12-hour day company. Not only didn’t I mind, but I couldn’t wait to go to work in the morning and would stay until I dropped at night.  If I did go to social events, all I would talk about was my new company. My company became the most important thing in my life.

But the problem was that I was married.

Uh oh.

What’s More Important – Me or Your Job?
If you’re are a startup founder or an early employee, there may come a time in your relationship that your significant other/spouse will ask you the “what’s more important?” question. It will come after you come home at 2 am in the morning after missing a dinner/movie date you promised to make. Or you’ll hear it after announcing one morning that weekend trip isn’t going to happen because you have a deadline at work. Or if you have kids, it will get asked when you’ve missed another one of their plays, soccer games or school events because you were too busy finishing that project or on yet another business trip.  At some point your significant other/spouse’s question will be, “What’s more important, me and your family or your job?

I remember getting the question after missing yet another event my wife had counted on me attending. When she asked it, I had to stand there and actually think about it.  And when I answered, it was “my job.”  We both then realized our marriage was over.  Luckily we had no kids, minimal assets and actually held hands when we used the same lawyer for the divorce, but it was sad.  If I had been older, wiser, or more honest with myself, I would have understood that my wife and family should have been the most important thing in my life.

Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves
Part of my problem was that my reality distortion field encompassed my relationships. In hindsight I had convinced myself that throwing myself into work was the right thing to do because I succumbed to the four big lies entrepreneurs tell themselves about work and family:

  • I’m only doing it for my family
  • My spouse “understands”
  • All I need is one startup to “hit” and then I can slow down or retire
  • I’ll make it up by spending “quality time” with my wife/kids

None of these were true.  I had thrown myself into a startup because work was an exciting technical challenge with a fixed set of end points and rewards.  In contrast, relationships were messy, non deterministic (i.e. emotional rather than technical) and a lot harder to manage than a startup.

The Reality
If it was up to my wife she wouldn’t have had me working the hours I was working and would rather have me home.  She didn’t sign up for my startup, she had signed up for me.

While she stuck it out for seven years, she had no connection to the passion and excitement that was driving me; all she saw was a tired and stressed entrepreneur when I got home.

At this point in my career I had hit a couple of successful startups as a low level exec, making enough to remodel our kitchen, but not the big “hit” that made us so much money I could slow down or retire.  And even if it did, startups are like a gambling addiction – if I had been honest, I would have had to admit I would probably be doing many of them.

“Quality time” with the wife or kids is a phrase made up by guilty spouses.  My relationship wasn’t going to be saved by one great three-day weekend after 51 weekends at work.  A great vacation with my wife wasn’t going to make up for being AWOL from home the rest of the year.

Summary
For the next few years I licked my wounds and threw myself into two more startups.  Over time I began to recognize and regret the tradeoffs I had made between work and relationships.  I realized that if I ever wanted to get married again and raise a family that my life/work balance needed to radically change.

The next post describes what I have learned and observed in the following years about balancing my entrepreneurial drive with building a healthy relationship with my wife and kids.

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43 Responses

  1. You are rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers about entrepreneurship and start-ups. There is a lot of good stuff out there, but having started a company 2 years ago only to see it crash because we didn’t have processes in place to build a business around learning from customers, I must say that your book and posts are the closest that I have found that resemble the FEELING of being in the trenches. My good friends and I lived in a house together working on 2 start-ups and we would call the house Sarajevo. Everyday, there was shrapnel that would come our way and you had no choice but to fight or let your dream die. Not enough people understand the emotional cost of being a start-up founder. People will look at you crazy (especially if you left a high paying job to start a company). Girlfriends, wives, and moms will think you are a madman. Friends will want you to go back to school and get more “education.” I am curious to read how you struck your balance, but I did make up my mind this second go round that robbing my loved ones of time and feebly trying to compensate with money or material success is not how I want to live my life. Your work is of great service to those who do not live in the Valley and thus do not get access to WAR stories in real-time. If you are ever interested in sharing your message with the start-up community in Atlanta, I would be more than happy to help.

  2. Well, im not married, but certainly i’ve tried to be mindful of this whenever speaking to a suitor, and i was always so keen to build my business up before i got married, but lord knows how long that will take.

    What is your advice to someone who has financial strain due to a startup?

    I do have the work life balance reasonably well tuned now , incidentally.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Steve. I am sure a few people have gone through this.

    This type of burnout startup culture can only really work in dense areas like the Valley. In other areas, if we work our people that hard, we’ll lose them. We need our team members to have sustainable work / life balance or risk losing them to another less demanding industry all together.

  4. Ouch! I think I just felt something pierce my reality distortion field! Better go spend some “quantity time” with my family. Thank you, global meltdown!

    Great post…

  5. This resonates with me. I lost a relationship to a startup too. During the heart of things I mistook it that she didn’t believe in what I was doing. Now I take responsibility for it and realize I was so engrossed into the work. *sigh* It’s a sad thing. What is a dream worth?

  6. Silicon Valley culture is not the only culture implicated in this manner as a contributor the disintegration of family and community. Some of these problems began with the 19th century Romanticist notion of artists as mad geniuses, in elevated isolation from the rest of us. B.S. Great art and great programming are fostered within a community that shares an ethic of care for its members. People need to be left alone sometimes because they need other people.

  7. “startups are like a gambling addiction”, — couldn’t have said it better.

  8. Having grown up with a father that did exactly what you discuss above and now being newly married and at the head of a start-up myself (with a tendency to get completely wrapped up in it), I’ve thought about this issue a lot.

    Here’s the question: Had you not made those sacrifices, do you still think you would have been as successful? No one can ever know for sure, but I’d love to get your thoughts.

    • Erica,
      Yes.
      As I got older I realized it wasn’t how hard I worked, it was how smart.

      I’ll expand on this in the next post.

      steve

  9. Steve,

    Phenomenal post.

    The sad thing is that people throw themselves into 100-hour work weeks because they are afraid to make choices that others might not understand.

    If you work 100-hour weeks, no one (investors, co-founders, employees) can blame you if things don’t work out, right?

    I had a moment like this during my first startup, when I was held late at a meeting, and didn’t have time to pick up my wife for a dinner were were supposed to attend.

    I dashed off to the dinner about an hour late, and discovered that she wasn’t there, because we were on a trip, and I had forgotten that she didn’t have a car.

    So I drove off to pick her up. She was furious, and rightly so. That never happened again.

    Back in the 90s, there was a movie called “The Paper” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110771/). Michael Keaton stars as a workaholic newspaper man who neglects his pregnant wife, Marisa Tomei.

    At one point, he tells her that she’s more important to him than his job, and that he’d choose her without hesitation.

    She replies that life never presents us with a single big question, that every day, he’s being asked to choose, and that each time he misses an appointment or doesn’t make it home, he’s making his choice.

    I thought about that scene the day I left my wife alone in a hotel room, and I still think of it from time to time.

    And I like to think I’ve worked a lot smarter since then.

  10. I love this post. I have been swinging for the fences for several years as a young entrepreneur at the executive leadership level for several start-ups and most recently starting my own. I now have 6yr old and 3yr old boys. They will often call me in the middle of the day and tell me how much they miss me or plead with me to come home NOW! This has proven to be effective in allowing me to at least attempt balance in my life. I cannot say that I am there yet – but most goals worth having take a long time to fulfill.

  11. What happened to Convergent Technologies work ethic and business ethics after the merger with Unisis? Sounds like things went not so well after that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unisys#Controversies

  12. Thanks for this post. I’ve struggled with these issues too and ultimately changed how I define “success” in my life to help get through them.

    I’m certainly not there yet, but my new definition is that success equals the quality of my relationships. Period.

    I’ve found that this is a good forcing function for balance because family relationships need as much or more tending than work relationships.

    The other thing it helps clarify is that even at work, it’s the relationships that matter most (collegues, customers, partners, etc). Work product can’t be ignored, but central to Customer Development is having a solid relationship with customers so that you can learn their needs and iterate to a product that fits. Everything else flows from that.

  13. Dave Goulden,

    Putting emphasis on quality of relationships is a very compact way to summarize the social prescriptions to be drawn from Csikszentmihalyi’s work on optimal experience (a/k/a “flow”).

  14. I’ve always been a bit of a workaholic, but only recently moved the valley. I think to some extent there is cultural enabling here that allows people to tell themselves that working 100 hour weeks is necessary for success. But if we’re honest with ourselves it’s clear that the factors leading to success are not so simple. If the right factors come together you may do great with a regular 40-hour work week. On the other hand, if some ingredient is missing you could pour tens of thousands of hours in and get nowhere.

    I think a certain commitment and strength of vision is required to succeed with a startup, and all else being equal, more hours equals more things done. However working too much also will clearly lead to diminishing returns, and also will alienate you from the real world which is where all the customers live.

    Something truly nefarious I’ve noticed about 14-hour days is that you start to count on having all that time. So when 4pm rolls around you think “oh I still have another 8 hours to finish today’s tasks,” instead of a more urgent: “need to get the critical stuff wrapped up in the next hour or two”. I’m sure there are some people with a laser focus that really can work 14-hour days, but I bet a lot of people who think they can are fooling themselves, and the reality is that they are addicted to the lifestyle for whatever reason.

    For me I guess what it boils down to is that while I may be tempted to work really long hours, I feel the best when I do have an appropriate work-life balance. Personal connections and physical health always mean more in the long-term than whatever I was working on last year.

  15. If I recall correctly, in one of your previous posts you observed a possible correlation between coming from a dysfunctional family and superior performance in high profile jobs. You have now observed another side of the story.

    The thing is that, while we are capable of learning, we start out as we have been formed by our early development and we only change when the hard knocks have accumulated for a while.

    “We are what we are, we do what we do and we can do no other” sounds shallow but it has content when it is seen as metaphor for the human being as a biological machine.

    Then again, maybe I have stripped a gear.

  16. Women have been facing this issue for a long time. I was inspired by the fact that Madeleine Albright stayed at home with her kids when they were little — then went back to school later, and still was able to become Secretary of State.

    Betty Friedan said that women can have it all — just not all at once. With our longer lifespans, we can take 20 years to raise kids. Then 20 years to raise companies.

    I stayed home with the babies when they were little, working as a freelance writer. When they went to school, I went back to the office, starting an editorial services company in Shanghai. Now they’re even older. My daughter, now 14, has her own company, doing web design and PHP and CSS and who knows what else. I still spend a lot of off time on the computer, but now the kids are spending more and more time there with me.

    When they leave for college, I’ll probably throw myself back into my work at 200%, to do something great.

    It seems a long way away now — but it’s amazing how fast kids grow up.

    Meanwhile, sure, I’d love to work smarter instead of harder.

    But, at work as at home, “quality” time isn’t always good enough, and you’ve have to buckle down and put in the “quantity.”

    — Maria

  17. I can’t wait to read part two of this post. I struggle massively with work/life balance.

    It isn’t a badge I wear nor a battle wound that I’m proud of, but more of “I often don’t see another way” to get things done.

    When we are in the midst of the tornado it is difficult to see a way out (or even know that you are in the midst).

    I do want to comment on the 14 hour day folks. Long days are not a matter of “coding for 14 hours” or “writing for 14 hours” or “________ for 14 hours.”

    14 hour days are blurs; not moments of procrastination and thoughtful repose.

    They consist of back to back tasks, projects and interruptions through out the normal workday (7-6) and then comes the peace to actually “get work done” when everyone has left the office. Only NOW can I get something done….only now can I focus and do the things that require analytical thinking, analysis, strategy, or organizational functions.

    The problem is that at 6 or 7pm….when I’m ready to finally sit down and “get something done” is when I should be back at the house with my family, eating dinner, playing with the kids, putting them to bed, etc.

    Instead, even at 6 or 7pm, the burst of energy comes and I get into the groove (aka flow) of work….suddenly ignoring my domestic responsibilities and marriage vows.

    Next thing you know, its 10 or 11pm. And you aren’t home yet, and you are the only person in the office. “but you got something done!”

    This is my 4th startup (my 3rd as founder) and this is a major issue that I continue to face on a daily basis.

    The angst continues.

    • One of my first managers offered me great wisdom in this area. He’s probably not the one who originated it, but it was certainly true.

      He always said, “Let’s not confuse activity with progress.”

      If true progress happens in the quite moments late at night, then your challenge is to figure out how to organize your days around those activities, not the time consuming meetings/interruptions. Easier said than done, but totally doable.

    • Dave, your point is right on. Good metaphor would be while driving on a freeway you see an accident. More than likely you would be tempted to take an inner road, which you think would be quick. More than likely, all that amounts to is activity. Anyway, as an entrepreneur, working smarter, and looking where and how you invest your time is more important. And, any decision you make(since you are the CEO), you better make sure it succeeds 100%.

  18. […] Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves — 8:25pm via Google […]

  19. Great post. As I write this jet lagged on the other side of the country missing my family.

    Balance is important. I have brought my wife in helping with the graphic design so she can be part of it and feel the intensity and fun. It’s not easy. I keep an art easel in the closet at the office so the kids have something of their own when they come.

    We try to keep the families aware of what is going on and often ask for their involvement. Writing, Social Media, Graphics, Editing content, research, etc.

    All this work just wouldn’t be worth it without the team and all of our families supporting us.

    Jon

  20. such an articulate reflection – one of the things I love about you Steve. Can’t wait to read the next one. Jennifer

  21. A great post! Why? Because it is so true :)

  22. I am always expecting another nugget of wisdom from this blog and eager to know what you are going to post!

    Siddharth

  23. “I had thrown myself into a startup because work was an exciting technical challenge with a fixed set of end points and rewards. In contrast, relationships were messy, non deterministic (i.e. emotional rather than technical) and a lot harder to manage than a startup.”

    Sounds like you got the flow experience in work and not at home. But relationships can produce flow, too (they can have fixed goals and rewards) and they actually must do this to last for the long term.

  24. Hi Steve,
    Reading your post, I’m experiencing a flashback to my past. A few details are different, such as the entrepreneur (me) was the wife in the relationship. But the script is essentially the same. The day came when the lies I told myself had to end. And our joint mediator-lawyer was also a mutual friend.

    Yes, relationships are uncomfortable and take work – including the one with my self. Perhaps this is so because when I want to get away with something, I can tell myself one of those lies and even start to believe them. But in fact, it is now clear that the quality of all relationships is directly tied to the quality of the relationship I have with me. After all the comfortably numb diversions, there really is no short cut or competitive advantage way around this.

    My friend Chris Yeh’s movie message is a good one. Michael Keaton’s character faces himself through his wife’s question. Another character I think of is Serpico, played by Al Pacino in the movie: http://bit.ly/af3cp. Frank Serpico was the first police officer in the history of the New York police department to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systemic corruption payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.

    According to Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/G8sn0, a month after receiving the New York City Police Department’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, Frank Serpico retired and went to Switzerland to recuperate after being shot in the face at point blank range, then being abandoned by his fellow officers. He spent almost a decade there, living, traveling and studying.

    When it was decided to make the movie about his life, Al Pacino invited Serpico to stay with him at a rented house in Montauk, NY. When Pacino asked why he did it, Serpico replied, “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because… if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”

    As a musician, I know what Serpico means by that question. As an entrepreneur, I think of Serpico and often ask myself whether I am as true to my self – in my work and in every relationship, not just family and friends.

    Since you’re going to post what you learned about entrepreneurial drive and balancing life and relationships, I’ll save my lessons learned until then too.

  25. Hi Steve,

    Inspiring stuff. This post (www.rajsubramaniam.com) is in your honor. Thanks a lot.

    Cheers,
    Raj

  26. […] Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves […]

  27. Steve,

    What a joy to see you finally sharing all your terrific stories and aphorisms in this blog.

    As you may remember, I was lucky enough to have recieved, at your hands, the beating I so richly deserved back in 1997 while at ONETOUCH Systems. Just so you know, it helped immeasurably. Life is good.

    Your lessons are as enjoyable as ever – even without the beatings. Looking forward to reading more!

    KC

  28. Thanks for yet another honest and revealing post. My wife and I can relate.

  29. Thank you Steve for yet another great post. Understanding the effects of startup life on relationships is crucial. When entrepreneurs (esp. older ones) don’t realize it before they start, it’s bound to cause problems later on, even to the point of breaking the business (been there).
    Startups being like a gambling addiction certainly rings a bell – I’m in my fourth now myself.
    What I learned is that my wife should be partial to the decision to start a new one. By now she knows what’s involved. Getting her agreement early on ensures her support during the tough periods that follow.
    Of course it also helps that she’s just as workaholic herself and that we have no kids…

  30. Oh man I like your article and I would subscribe to feed but I am too busy with my startups and have no time to read much…

  31. […] Blank wrote this story about lies entrepreneurs tell themselves which I agree with and have from time to time told […]

  32. […] blog has risen to another level in recent posts about how entrepreneurs can stop lying to themselves and deserve an epitaph that signify a family life well lived.  I haven’t seen any other […]

  33. It seems to me that American families are (used to be) very demanding. Perhaps now as crisis calls for greater efforts to make both ends meet, longer hours will be better tolerated. After all, unemployment is a worse option.

  34. […] This post was Twitted by madhukarjain […]

  35. […] Also read Steve Blank’s post. […]

  36. […] Entrepreneurs tell themselves many lies. Sometimes, they learn from their mistakes and work out a balance or blend that is honest and realistic. I think it is all about taking responsibility for your time, recognizing the value of it, and investing in solutions that make the work in your life easier. […]

  37. You know the old say, “it didn’t happen to me but I know a guy.” Well I know a guy who started a company and lived by the ethic you describe. For years later he sold it for $250m. On the other hand, I started my company about the same time, did not employ the work ethic, preferring to live a more balanced life, and 20 years later am enjoying a nice life style from a small business that is still in the start-up stage. Go figure. m

  38. […] things in life its a balancing act. You have make time for both life’s. In Steve Blanks great ‘Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves’ he very honestly talks about the need to be realist… why you’re starting-up. It’s often for selfish reasons and not thinking of […]

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