The balanced entrepreneur

25 November, 2014

In the summer of 1991, I had the pleasure of backpacking through Europe with three of my MIT fraternity brothers. One of the sites that I vividly remember from that trip is a bronze statue at the edge of a cantilevered beam on the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne, Germany titled the “balanced man”. That statue from 23 years ago is still frozen in my mind as if I saw it yesterday. What does that have to do with anything? You might ask. Well, in the business of interacting with entrepreneurs day-in and day-out, I (and most venture capitalists) often act as a psychologist, whether in the role of a Board member, a prospective investor, a confidant or a friend, listening to their founders’/CEOs’ highlights and lowlights, victories and challenges. Amazingly, especially through the challenges and frustrations, they keep the gleam in their eyes and the tone of optimism that makes entrepreneurs a special breed.

Over the years, I have tried coalescing the set of problems, issues and dilemmas that entrepreneurs face every day. As I thought about it, the statue from 23 years ago kept resurfacing. The reason is as follows: The big over-arching challenge that entrepreneurs (and some might argue, human beings in general) have to contend with is one of balance. Yes balance. All of us strive for it, in some way, shape or form. Let me explain…

Put yourself in the entrepreneurs’ shoes. Think through the questions that entrepreneurs have to ask themselves constantly and often struggle with the answers in isolation (it is lonely at the top sometimes) – Should I grow the business organically or take external capital; should I sell now or continue to build the company; should I go for top-line growth or focus on profitability; should I build the business locally or go global sooner; should I try to build, buy or partner; should I take strategic money (which might constrain me) but provides faster scale or go after venture capital; should I focus on personal life and get married or stay married to my startup (a biggie!); I need to focus on my family but my startup, employees and investors need to see me working hard, 18 hours a day to set an example; should I patent (and divulge information) or keep it a trade secret; paper or plastic; credit or debit; debt or equity; bitcoin or barter; centralised or distributed, etc. You get the point.  Often the answers are not either/or but rather ‘both’ or ‘none’ and the process of getting to those answers can be non-trivial.

Let me focus on one of the above conundrums in particular. It is the proverbial ‘work-life balance’. As a father of three, this is something that is paramount in my own life and decision-making. And often those decisions are not easy. Given my travel schedule and lumpiness of work pressure, I sometimes miss important family or school events, but to the extent possible, I try to balance my work schedule with family or home obligations. I remember in India, I was on a plane usually two-three times a week.  To make sure that I did not miss key moments, I made an executive decision to only do day trips. That way, even when I came home late at night, the kids knew that I would be home when they woke up in the morning.

As an entrepreneur, it is easy and often necessary to get incredibly emotionally involved with one’s venture. That venture, in many respects, is the founder’s ‘baby’ (either as an additional child or a proxy for one). But I have seen too many entrepreneurs fall in love with their venture at the expense of their own personal lives and those of their families, resulting in broken marriages, incredible stress or worse. Clearly there has to be passion and commitment towards the venture. As an investor I expect that of my portfolio founders/CEOs. But I think it is crucial to step back from time to time and see the forest from the trees and keep some perspective on life itself. A rule of thumb that I often recommend, especially for very early stage startups, is a temporal benchmark. In the formative stage of a company, founders should have a timeline in mind within which certain milestone(s) need to be accomplished, whether around market research, product development, hiring, seed financing, etc. After that period of time, the founders ought to do a ‘business check-in’ and decide if it’s worth continuing down the pre-conceived path, pivoting the venture or letting go altogether, taking a break and trying later.

By the way, investors are also guilty of falling in love with their investments, and often, at the risk of ignoring the ‘winners’, trying to push on a rope and artificially reviving the dead or dying companies, due to emotional attachment with the startup. I am not condoning complacency, passiveness or pre-mature abandonment of an idea. Rather, encouraging entrepreneurs to plan and have not only a plan A but plan B and potentially C, with a disciplined, time-bound approach. Life is relatively short. And especially for those with families and young kids, it is important, albeit difficult, to balance the requirements of an all-absorbing startup with the equally-important obligations of a young family. Just as an add-on, it is also critical to get spousal support when starting a company not only to get buy-in around the financial impact surrounding that decision, but also overall lifestyle changes. In that discussion should be inserted a conscious understanding of timelines.

I am sure there are certain entrepreneurs and investors who would probably indicate that if personal or family constraints will drive decisions around a particular startup, then one shouldn’t jump into the entrepreneurial venture in the first place. I think that notion is misplaced. A startup is a journey, one that often takes years or longer. Finding that work-life balance is paramount. I have had way too many friends and associates, both entrepreneurs and investors vent that they wish they had spent more quality time at home with spouses, kids, parents especially when they needed help, rather than becoming obsessively compulsive about their startup or investees, especially when it was clear that the companies were going to fail. That is a lesson that has taken me decades to fully appreciate.

(Mohanjit Jolly is the managing director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. The views expressed are strictly personal. They do not represent the views of the organization he represents.)

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The balanced entrepreneur

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