If anyone asked me for the most important advice I could give to someone about starting a startup and raising a family, I’d say, “Start the startup before you have kids.” That’s because running a startup and raising children are basically incompatible. And if I’m being really honest, they’re even more incompatible if you’re a female founder.
It’s possible to run a startup while having babies, of course, and there are some examples of women who do it brilliantly. But since they are not the norm, I think it’s important to understand what changes for female founders when they have kids.
The time between when I started my company and when I had a child was the most productive of my entire life. I was laser focused, I had seven full days a week in which to be productive, and I was obsessed with making our product and company a success. Then I had a baby and experienced a slew of new problems layered onto my already insanely busy life. My productivity dropped precipitously, and since then I’ve struggled with nailing the work/life balance. What changed? Below is a list of everything that was different once my son came along:
- Chronic exhaustion. The first few months of the baby waking every few hours, breastfeeding, pumping, and physically recovering from the delivery are obviously exhausting. But even after a baby starts sleeping through the night, they still like to get up early. I can’t remember the last time I slept in. Sunday afternoon naps are out of the question. I now sleep with a part of my brain always switched on-- waiting for calls for help, sudden illnesses, wetting the bed, etc. I just don’t sleep soundly anymore.
- Unexpected illness. You can organize everything perfectly, but when someone (the kid or the nanny) gets sick unexpectedly, your plans come crashing down like a house of cards. I lived in fear of my nanny calling in sick if I had to give a talk or attend an important meeting. Or even if I just needed to get things done (which is every day).
- Distraction. My thoughts were always occupied with work problems so I was never fully “present” with my kid. I was under constant stress which I couldn’t just leave at the office. I’d be sending an important email while my son was begging me to play with him. But even worse, my mind wasn’t as free to think visionary thoughts about our product or company. Before my son, I’d mull things over on a run, while walking somewhere, or in the shower. Now I have fewer brainstorms and am more focused on just putting out fires. The earlier your company is, the more dangerous it is to be in that position.
- Emergencies. Some work-related emergency was always cropping up-- ruining weekends, holidays, and vacations with my kid. They fell into my lap because, as a founder, everything did.
- No one to cover for you. Startups are lean and don’t have employees who can take on extra work for you. For example, I couldn’t take much maternity leave. And traveling would have been excruciating. Luckily I didn’t have to, but some women don’t have that option if they have to meet with customers.
- More admin. The sheer volume of organizational tasks involving kids is practically a full-time job. I don’t think people without kids realize how much work is entailed in running these little humans’ lives for them! A lot of decisions and research were required for things that were important enough that I didn’t trust a nanny to do (from buying a carseat to which pre-school my son should attend).
- More scheduled events/meetings. Before I had a kid, I never had to fit things into my calendar like parent/teacher meetings, pediatrician appointments, school plays, etc.
- Less serendipity. A lot of important things that happen with startups happen because of chance meetings. Being at various cafes, industry events, and even walking down the street in San Francisco would often result in some serendipitous good thing happening for our company. After I had a kid I rarely, if ever, just floated around. I was on a strict schedule and always rushing from home to work and vice versa.
- Competing interests. Before I had kids, I’d be free to attend a work dinner (for example) with no trade-offs. Now, I have to choose very carefully. Is this an event that’s worth giving up a night with my kid for? If it’s yes, then I’m racked with guilt; if it’s no, I worry I’m missing out on an important opportunity.
And this brings me to what is, ultimately, the hardest part about running a startup after you have a child: you just don’t care as much about the company as you do your child. And that’s the change no one is prepared for until they have one of their own. Sure, everyone understands this concept intellectually, but you can’t know how powerful a feeling it is until you feel it for yourself.
But caring less is particularly dangerous when you’re working on a startup. In many types of work, if you put in less effort, you simply get less done, or don’t do as good a job. But this is not the case with startups. In startups, it’s more like there’s a threshold. And if you don’t get over the threshold, you don’t just get a smaller success, but a failure. (This explains the fairly bimodal distribution of outcomes in startups.) So if founders lose focus or slack off a little because they’ve started to care less, the outcome can be disastrous.* I’ve seen this happen to women who have kids during their startup. They lose interest and their startups stall. A research study on this phenomenon would be extremely useful.
Attention is the fuel that startups run on. Unfortunately, it’s also what kids run on. So if you aspire to start a startup, try to do it before you have kids. You may feel like you should wait until you have more experience but, in this case, the cost of waiting is greater than the benefit. Kids consume your attention more than experience improves your ability.
*To be clear, I’m only talking about founders. It’s alright if employees do their job a little less well.