Raising our kids and being an entrepreneur wasn’t easy. Being in a startup and having a successful relationship and family was very hard work. But entrepreneurs can be great spouses and parents.
This post is not advice, nor is it recommendation of what you should do, it’s simply what my wife and I did to raise our kids in the middle of starting multiple companies. Our circumstances were unique and your mileage will vary. Read the previous post first for context.
After Convergent and now single again, I was a co-founder of my next two startups; MIPS and Ardent. I threw myself into work and worked even more hours a day. And while I had great adventures (stories to come in future posts,) by the time I was in my mid-30’s I knew I wanted a family. (My friends noticed that I was picking up other people’s babies a lot.) I didn’t know if I was ready, but I finally could see myself as a father.
I met my wife on a blind-date and we discovered that not only did we share the same interests but we were both ready for kids. My wife knew a bit about startups. Out of Stanford Business School she went to work for Apple as an evangelist and then joined Ansa Software, the developer of Paradox, a Mac-database.
Our first daughter was born about four months after I started at SuperMac. We ended up sleeping in the hospital lounge for 5 days as she ended up in intensive care. Our second daughter followed 14½ months later.
My wife and I agreed to a few rules upfront and made up the rest as went along. We agreed I was still going to do startups, and probably more than most spouses she knew what that meant. To her credit she also understood that meant that child raising wasn’t going to be a 50/50 split; I simply wasn’t going to be home at 5 pm every night.
In hindsight this list looks pretty organized but in reality we made it up as we went along, accompanied with all the husband and wife struggles of being married and trying to raise a family in Silicon Valley. Here are the some of the rules that evolved that seemed to work for our family.
- We would have a family dinner at home most nights of the week. Regardless of what I was doing I had to be home by 7pm. (My kids still remember mom secretly feeding them when they were hungry at 5pm, but eating again with dad at 7pm.) But we would use dinner time to talk about what they did at school, have family meetings etc.
- Put the kids to bed. Since I was already home for dinner it was fun to help give them their baths, read them stories and put them to bed. I never understood how important the continuity of time between dinner through bedtime was until my kids mentioned it as teenagers.
- Act and be engaged. My kids and wife had better antenna than I thought. If I was home but my head was elsewhere and not mentally engaged they would call me on it. So I figured out how to spit the flow of the day in half. I would work 10 hours a day in the office, come home and then…
- Back to work after the kids were in bed. What my kids never saw is that as soon as they were in bed I was back on the computer and back at work for another 4 or 5 hours until the wee hours of the morning.
- Weekends were with and for my kids. There was always some adventure on the weekends. I think we must have went to the zoo, beach, museum, picnic, amusement park, etc. a 100 times.
- Half a day work on Saturday. While weekends were for my kids I did go to work on Saturday morning. But my kids would come with me. This had two unexpected consequences; my kids still remember that work was very cool. They liked going in with me and they said it helped them understand what dad did at “work.” Second, it set a cultural norm at my startups, first at Supermac as the VP of Marketing, then at Rocket Science as the CEO and at E.piphany as President. (Most Silicon Valley startups have great policies for having your dog at work but not your kids.)
- Long vacations. We would take at least a 3-week vacation every summer. Since my wife and I liked to hike we’d explore national parks around the U.S. (Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine.) When the kids got older our adventures took us to Mexico, Ecuador, India, Africa and Europe. The trips gave them a sense that the rest of the country and the world was not Silicon Valley and that their lives were not the norm.
- Never miss an event. As my kids got older there were class plays, soccer games, piano and dance performances, birthdays, etc. I never missed one if I was in town, sometimes even if it was in the middle of the day. (And I made sure I was in town for the major events.)
- Engage your spouse. I asked my wife to read and critique every major presentation and document I wrote. Everything she touched was much better for it. What my investors never knew is that they were getting two of us for the price of one. (And one of us actually went to business school.) It helped her understand what I was working on and what I was trying to accomplish.
- Have a Date-Night. We tried hard to set aside one evening a week when just the two of us went out to dinner and/or a movie.
- Get your spouse help. Early on in our marriage we didn’t have much money but we invested in childcare to help my wife. While it didn’t make up for my absences it offloaded a lot.
- Traditions matter. Holidays, both religious and secular, weekly and yearly, were important to us. The kids looked forward to them and we made them special.
- Travel only if it needed me. As an executive it was easy to think I had to get on a plane for every deal. But after I had kids I definitely thought long and hard before I would jump on a plane. When I ran Rocket Science our corporate partners were in Japan (Sega), Germany (Bertelsmann) and Italy (Mondadori) and some travel was unavoidable. But I probably traveled 20% of what I did when I was single.
- Document every step. Like most dads I took thousands of photos. But I also filmed the girls once a week on the same couch, sitting in the same spot, for a few minutes – for 16 years. When my oldest graduated high school I gave her a timelapse movie of her life.
“Live to Work” or “Work to Live”?
When I was in my 20’s the two concepts that mattered were, “me” and “right now.” As I got older I began to understand the concept of “others” and “the future.” I began to realize that working 24/7 wasn’t my only goal in life.
As a single entrepreneur I had a philosophy of, “I live to work” – nothing was more exciting or important than my job. Now with kids it had become, “I work to live.” I still loved what I did as an entrepreneur but I wasn’t working only for the sheer joy of it, I was also working to provide for my family and a longer term goal of retirement and then doing something different. (The irony is when I was working insane hours it was to make someone else wealthy. When I moderated my behavior it was when they were my startups.)
Work Smarter Not Harder
As I got older I began to realize that how effective you are is not necessarily correlated with how many hours you work. My ideas about Customer Development started evolving around these concepts. Eric Ries’s astute observations about engineering and Lean Startups make the same point. I began to think how to be effective and strategic rather than just present and tactical.
Advice From Others
As my kids were growing up I got a piece of advice that stuck with me all these years.
The first was when our oldest daughter was 6 months old, and a friend was holding her. She looked at the baby then looked at me and asked, “Steve do you know what your most important job with this baby is?” I guessed, “Take care of her?” No. “Love her?” No. “OK, I give up, what is my most important job.” She answered, “Steve, your job is teaching her how to leave.” This was one of the most unexpected things I ever heard. This baby could barely sit up and I have to teach her how to leave?
My friend explained, “your kids are only passing through. It will seem like forever but it will be gone in a blink of an eye. Love them and care for them but remember they will be leaving. What will they remember that you taught them?”
For the next 18 years that thought was never far from my mind.
What Will Your Epitaph Say?
At some point I had heard two aphorisms which sounded very trite when I was single but took on a lot more meaning with a family.
- This life isn’t practice for the next one. I started to realize that some of the older guys who I had admired as role models at work had feet of clay at home. They had chose their company over family and had kids who felt abandoned by their dads for work – and some of these kids have turned out less than optimally. I met lots of other dads going through the “could-have, would-have, should-have” regrets and reflections of the tradeoffs they had made between fatherhood and company building. Their regrets were lessons for me.
- What will your epitaph say? When our kids were babies I was still struggling to try to put the work/life balance in perspective. Someone gave me a thought that I tried to live my live my life around. He asked me, when you’re gone would you rather have your gravestone say, “He never missed a meeting.” Or one that said, “He was a great father.” Holding my two kids on my lap, it was a pretty easy decision.
I hope I did it right.
Know When to Hold Them, Know When to Fold Them, Know When to Walk Away
When my last startup, E.piphany went public in the dot.com boom, I was faced with a choice; start company number nine, or retire.
I looked at my kids and never went back.
Thanks to my wife for being a great partner. It takes two.[audio https://steveblank.com/2009/06/18/epitaph-for-an-entrepreneur/]