It’s no secret that being an entrepreneur is stressful and time consuming. It requires not just physical but immense mental energy and brings pretty severe emotional swings. Sometimes it involves emails or phone calls or travel at all hours of the day all days of the week all year long. It’s also financially unpredictable.
All of these things suggest that having a family while starting or running a company is a bad idea. I often tell young people that if they have a startup idea they should pursue it sooner than later, because the risk, stress, cost of failure, and available time will only get worse over time and after a spouse and kids. Still, lots of people do it. I’m doing it now. Despite the very real ways in which a family makes entrepreneurship harder, there are some powerful advantages too.
I’d rather be with my family than doing just about anything else. This is a huge advantage. When you’re starting a company and seeking funding, partners, employees, customers, and allies there are an infinite number of things you could do at any time. Networking event downtown tonight? Maybe you’ll meet someone there and make a decent connection. The thing is, 80% of the events, calls, emails, and activities won’t be that valuable. When you are a time billionaire (as my friend TK calls it), the opportunity cost is low. You might as well go to the happy hour. Something might come out of it. So single entrepreneurs do it. Over and over again. They hit so many conferences and meetings that the line between what’s valuable and what’s a waste begins to blur. They can get distracted and burned out on things that don’t really enhance their core value proposition or product.
When you would rather be with your family anyway, you develop a very high bar for any reason to do otherwise. I’m not going to drive downtown and spend three hours sipping cocktails for a 30% chance of meeting a person with a 20% chance of introducing me to someone with a 10% chance of investing 5% of what I need to raise if it means not getting to watch Finding Nemo with my kids and tuck them in bed. It raises the cost of wasted time and sharpens your ability to distinguish what’s really worth it. You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule. Being an entrepreneur with a family dramatically raises the stakes and makes you a lot better and quicker at identifying your 20% activities and ignoring the rest. Saying ‘no’ is one of the most important skills an entrepreneur can learn, and having a family makes you a little better at it.
When you’re running a venture, it’s all you think about. As it should be. Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham says, “It’s hard to do a good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower”, and he’s right. But things don’t always go well. Sometimes they downright suck. You lose a client, a deal falls through, your website launch is months late, you face legal battles, you can’t get a meeting with an investor, or any number of other hurdles real or imagined. If you’ve got nothing but your business, these can destroy you. If your venture is failing you feel like you are failing. Someone who feels like a failure in life is not going to create a winner in business.
It’s times like these when a family is the most amazing psychological strength I’ve found. Crumpled in a real or metaphorical heap on the floor feeling like you just got your ass kicked by the world and all is lost, you look up at two cute little girls having a tea party and asking you if some imaginary tea will make you feel better. How can you not smile? The number of times I’ve laughed at myself for feeling like I just can’t win is countless. Every time it’s because I consider my family and wonder how I could ever feel desperate. Who cares if the businesses struggles or fails or I have to go work another job to make ends meet? If I accomplish nothing else in my life besides raising these kids and spending time with my wonderful wife, who could ever call that a waste?
This perspective is healthy and needed. Yeah, you want to be your work and throw yourself 100% into it. But you also want to be more than your work. Families have an amazing way of helping you see that you are.
No matter how type-A you are and how many sleepless nights you’re willing to put in, you’re still human, and humans are lazy. We prefer lounging to working. Sometimes we disguise lounging as working and fill our time with activities that don’t add real value because the valuable stuff is hard or boring. Especially after the early build and launch phase, the dip comes and it’s really hard to push yourself to do a bunch of crappy tasks to keep things moving forward. If you have no family, and therefore very little time or financial obligation, you can easily pivot to a new job, pick up some side work, or sleep on a friend’s couch if your lack of effort should result in lack of income or delayed success. You can wait to work hard until the moment of inspiration comes, no matter what day or hour it strikes. When you have a family, these are all much harder to do. If it’s 2:00 PM on a Friday and you agreed to hang with the kids for the evening beginning at 6:00, and then a long-promised family camping trip will consume the weekend, you have no choice. You’ve got to make the next several hours count. You’ve got to do the hard work no matter how little you want to.
It’s not only the financial incentive and desire to provide stable quality of life and time availability to your family, but also the desire to provide an example. You want your kids to be excited by the opportunities life provides. You want them to work hard. You want them to see that you never gave up on your vision and you always buckled down and made things happen. Especially if you work from home as I often do, you want your kids to get a feel for what it’s like and see your relentless focus and drive. Alone in an apartment, it’s easier to justify a break for binge-watching your favorite show (I sneak that in after the kids are in bed. What? I’m not a machine!). Worst case, your venture fails and everyone still thinks you’re cool for trying it. With a family failure is more costly, and that can be a great motivator.
While being entrepreneurial as a mindset and way of life is open and available to everyone, starting a business of your own is definitely not for everyone. But if you feel that fire burning within and think it’s too late for you because you have a family and can never compete with single and childless founders out there, you’re wrong. There are a great many entrepreneurial wives, husbands, fathers, and mothers, and we’ve got some advantages that those without a family don’t.