Founders are a rare breed. They are driven by a vision of what can be to take risks. Founders often invest years of blood, sweat and tears to build and grow their startup. Given the amount of energy, effort, and sacrifice required, it’s not surprising that many founders consider their startup their baby. Some founders use this metaphor casually. Others use it quite literally. In light of the huge commitment required by a startup, founders have to be careful to maintain perspective and balance: a company is not a baby.
The Fun Toddler Years
It took a leap of faith for me to start my own company back in 2001. It was exciting to watch the small seedling that was my company germinate, take root and grow. The volume of work quickly exceeded our capacity and we began to hire employees and sign multi-year contracts. We nurtured and babied every customer. With a strong focus on providing technical expertise with phenomenal service, we soon grew to several hundred customers.
The Challenging Adolescent Years
And that’s when things got hard. Not every employee was the perfect hire. Not every customer was reasonable, nor did all of them pay their bills on time. As both the Chief Architect and CEO, I split my time designing highly available data centers while also securing financing and lines of credit to fuel the next stage of the company’s growth. We counted several top-15 e-commerce web properties and online marketing companies among our customers, including several with millions of daily transactions and billions in revenue. We grew faster than expected, meaning employees often bravely accepted responsibilities that they weren’t completely prepared for. Good employees rise to the occasion, but it certainly was turbulent at times.
As a first-time CEO, I include myself among the list of employees with more responsibility than ever before. I had to drive corporate strategy, negotiate legal terms, monitor cash flow, analyze markets, deal with angry customers, and ensure that we didn’t over-extend our resources. There were many pivotal moments where the company’s success or failure hung in the balance, and with it, the immediate livelihood of the employees and their families. During these times, stress and anxiety were off the charts. I found myself easily agitated and moody. I worked all the time. I wasn’t enjoying my family. My wife and friends wondered if I suffered from depression.
Thankfully, I had a great support network. It was through this circle of friends that I got help. Several seasoned gray-hair types gave me perspective. I always considered my company my third child. This was my core mistake. A company is an asset, not a child!
A child is a person, with a beating heart, emotions, and the ability to feel both pain and love. A child is special and needs care, feeding, and connection. In return, a child gives wondrous joys and brings years of fulfillment. Every parent feels this – or at least felt it at one time.
A company is an asset – just like a car, a house, or a stock. Sometimes the asset serves you well and provides a fine return on investment. Other times, the car breaks down, the roof leaks, or the stock you bought loses value. When this happens, you either fix it or you replace it. Though many people spend hundreds of hours building up their car or perfecting their house, these assets don’t love you back. They serve you and we all need them, but they are inanimate objects and can be replaced.
I struggled with this concept at first, but I soon came to realize that life moves on even if your company doesn’t succeed. My wife and kids wouldn’t love me any less. Nor would their love be dependent on the size of our house or the material things in the house. Once I understood and accepted this concept, I was able to install healthier boundaries. I felt liberated. Don’t get me wrong: I still worked very hard to make the startup successful. I still shouldered the same weight, but I was now unencumbered. It was still a significant burden to bear, but I found much more peace and satisfaction with my daily life.
What to Do
We eventually sold our company, so in many ways it was a success. However, the business world is littered with stories of entrepreneurs who amassed small fortunes, but failed to find satisfaction or worse, lost their family in the process. A Google search on “deathbed regrets” is sobering. Click through the search link. Read several of the articles. Though death may seem far off for most, you shouldn’t wait until the end of your days to start living life to the full. Drawing healthier boundaries produces a harvest that you can enjoy now.
Every situation is different. Every founder has different skills, values and motivations. Every company has different strengths and weaknesses. But every employee in the company, from the largest stockholder to the entry-level new hire is a person. And every person needs to establish the right priorities to guide their life and their decisions. My advice to every aspiring startup founder is to seek a trusted group of seasoned and successful counselors to guide not just your company, but to guide you as a person first and an entrepreneur second.