In the early 1990s, a report circulated that listed Beirut, Belfast, and Hong Kong as the three most stressful cities in the world. Beirut, Lebanon, and Belfast, Northern Ireland were easily explained because, at the time, they were marred by urban battlefields, victims of political conflict and civil unrest. The third city, Hong Kong, surprised many as it was devoid of military conflict, governed by a reasonably stable political system, and considered a pillar city of Asian finance and trade. Many people built significant wealth, as evidenced by the fact that Hong Kong had the world’s largest number of Rolls Royce cars per capita.
However, in order to reach these levels of wealth, Hong Kong residents often work extremely long hours. A 2016 study from UBS Bank found that Hong Kong averaged the longest work week (50.11 hours), far exceeding second-place Mumbai (43.78 hours) by a comfortable 14.5%. This culture of self-sacrifice in pursuit of success brought a number of unwanted troubles. With stress comparable to that of a war zone, social problems were inevitable. Marriages suffered as many Hong Kong businessmen sought comfort by having a mistress in China. Common patterns of parent-child dysfunction were artfully captured in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Kindness was so rare that the Chinese government ran television ads espousing the benefits of being courteous. The culture of stress even reached young adolescents, with many overstressed teens feeling the pressure to succeed academically. Tragically, many teens who failed to gain acceptance into a top college committed suicide.
Why Hong Kong Matters
Entrepreneurs may ask how what Hong Kong life has to do with startup life. Sadly, there are too many similarities. Both Hong Kong and Silicon Valley suffer from:
- Out-of-control pursuit of achievement.
- Over-emphasis on wealth as the key measure of success.
- Work life imbalances, often manifested in regular 70+ hour work weeks.
Many people consider Kleiner Perkins to be one of the top two venture capital firms in the world. As the firm’s managing partner, John Doerr knows a thing or two about startups. In 1996, Doerr predicted that the Internet would lead to “the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.”
When Doerr made this statement, the market dynamics completely supported his claim. The Internet produced dozens of companies that, in just one to three years, created more than $25M of personal wealth for hundreds of founders. With such extraordinarily rich and rapid rewards, many people launched head-first into the startup rat race without a full understanding of the risks and potential repercussions.
The Wake-Up Call
About five years after singing the startup siren song, Doerr apologized and amended his earlier description of the Internet to “the largest creation (and evaporation) of wealth in the history of the planet.”
Doerr later realized the frenzy his statement helped fuel. Tens of thousands ran into financial, marriage, and family peril as they chased Internet fortunes. Founders often run into issues by:
- Invest existing savings to fund their startup.
- Underpay themselves to conserve cash — sometimes taking salaries near minimum wage.
- Borrow from their home equity to fuel their startup.
- Stop saving for retirement.
- Accept inadequate, minimal cost healthcare coverage.
Sometimes the bets pay off, but more often than not they fail. The media and press enjoy telling the stories of the victorious. But since venture capitalists plan for a 5% success rate, that means for every one successful startup, there are 19 that fail or dramatically miss expectations. In my fourth startup (where I held the CEO role) I myself endured a six-month period where we skated on thin ice as three separate six-figure financial challenges all hit at the same time. As a founder, I had to personally guarantee the company’s liabilities. This meant I endured six months of off-the-chart stress wondering if I’d end up declaring bankruptcy and possibly lose my house.
Life’s basic necessities require cash. However, losing money pales in comparison to the relationship costs extracted by many startups. Because of the long hours, stress, and emotional demands, many entrepreneurs suffer broken marriages and/or physically or emotionally estranged kids. Having gone through five startups, I can personally attest to the fact that startup stress creates marriage stress. My wife and I have benefited from hundreds of hours of counseling to keep our marriage strong. This commitment required us to work through dozens of troubles — some caused by the startup, some just because life is hard. We’ve also counseled many married couples in their times of stress.
No company is worth sacrificing your marriage. No startup exit is worth realizing you missed your kids’ childhood years. Or worse, watching your kids walk down a self-destructive path while rejecting your efforts to provide guidance because you failed to build the connective tissue needed to survive their turbulent adolescent years.
Starting a company doesn’t automatically doom the founders to endless risks and personal troubles. However, founders do need to be aware of the pitfalls and install healthy boundaries. I suggest the following:
- Put a cap on the number of hours you’ll work in a week or a month.
- Make it your goal to be there for the little milestones along your child’s life. One of my mentors traveled 40+ weeks a year when he was running his startup, but made it his goal to always attend his sons’ high school athletic games.
- Figure out ways to minimize your travel schedule by leveraging web meetings.
- When you are in town, decide that you’ll have dinner with your family at least five nights a week. If you must, you can continue working after dinner, take a break when you put your kids to bed, then finish with no more than 1-2 more hours so you can go to bed with your spouse.
- At dinner time, turn off the television so you can talk to each other. Have everyone share how their days went. Ask about high points or low points during the day.
- When you are with your family, put your screens away, disconnect from e-mail and text messages, and be present.
- Schedule a regular 3- to 4-hour date once or twice a month with your spouse or significant other (without the kids).
- Schedule shorter 30-minute blocks of uninterrupted time to catch up with your spouse or life partner every two to three days. Protect these times as much as (or more than) your work meetings.
Basically, when you are limited in your time with your spouse or kids, make sure the time that you do have is quality time.
Stretched, Not Shattered
Be careful to avoid the hypnotic call to pour everything into your startup’s success. A quick Google search on “Hong Kong stress” reveals dozens of articles that inventory the social costs and impact of poor work/life balance. It’s fine to stretch yourself for a period of time to build and grow your startup. But it’s important to establish healthy boundaries to protect the things that matter much more than wealth or achievement. In this way, you can reach for success without shattering your life.