Are early stage startups and normal lives incompatible?
I've been thinking about this the last few months. Much has been written about how todays startups are made up of a bunch of under 25 year old single guys living together in a house they rent to start an internet company.
Well, it's bascially true.
But there's another group that's also well suited for this lifestyle (and it's very much a lifestyle: it effects every part of what you do).
Who? Middle aged folks (between 40-60) who are either single/divorced or empty nesters. It’s not a large percentage of this group. But there’s a lot more potential startup guys in this group than you might think.
I'm in my 40's. I'm divorced. I'm in good health. I don't feel much different than I did when I was 25. I don't party like a 25 year old any more, but I have no problem staying up to 2am, working through weekends and doing whatever it takes. I also have no problem using my personal resources to make this fly, including my house as our office/development lab for the last year. Something tells me if I were married or had a live in girlfriend, that's not something that would have been possible (or, if it had, not gone on for anything close to a year).
In effect, I'm similar to those 25 year olds from a 'point in my life' perspective. I come and go as I please without checking with anyone. I get up when I wake up and go to bed when I'm tired (and the hours aren't even close to 'normal'). I have a social life, but nothing like what a 'normal' single guy in his 40's has. I'm seeing a women, but she'd be the first to tell you it's not a 'normal' relationship (we're lucky if we get one night a week to do anything). It's very much like when I was a 25 year old guy on my own. Only, now I'm a 40 something guy on my own.
The only real differences are financial (I'm at a place most 25 years aren't) and life experience, but that works to our advantage. Having the resources of a house to work from, effectively turned into a sort of residential office building (ahh.. back to that ‘frat house startup thing), not worrying about income for long periods of time and financing the costs of getting everything off the ground and running for a year or so is a real advantage in a startup. Also, having a broad set of experience helps to avoid at least some of the pitfalls, and brings some degree of adult supervision to the party. Some of my folks call me dad though, which both pisses me off and makes me smile.
The reality with a startup is the work comes first. The big difference for me between this and most 40 something's doing a 'day job' is it's also my play. Given a choice in what I'd do in my 'off time'.. well, this is it. So the two (personal and professional lives) merge and become one.
Many would say this is bad, unbalanced, a precursor to burning out. I disagree. Do I want it to always be like this? Well, maybe I'm just not cut from the same cloth as most, but yea, I do. Right now, assuming we succeed with ClickCaster and it goes to it's logical end (being acquired or going public), I would, absolutely, do it again (and again). This must be what they mean when they say 'he's got the bug'. It really does get in your blood.
And to all my 40 something friends who are married with kids still at home with day jobs, car payments and mortgages: you CAN do it, but it's more than a stretch, it's a commitment every bit as big as getting married or having kids. More so in some ways. It's a way of life, and it takes massive amounts of your time and, more importantly, your attention, than you ever dreamed going in.
My guess is only a small percentage of marriages can survive it (and yes, some can). I know though I would not be doing this if I were married. I would not have turned down that mid six figure executive job at the fortune 50 company with my (now ex) wife looking over my shoulder. The privilege of creating something from nothing but your mind, and turning it into something real, useful and valuable in the world doesn’t carry the same weight as the big title and paycheck for many spouses. Nor does the possibility of crashing and burning with zilch to show for it in a couple of years give your significant other a warm fuzzy feeling.
The one's the do make it work, at least that I've seen, have both spouses involved in the business. That, or they have a full and engaging professional life of their own keeping them occupied when you’re working a 16 hour day.
At that point, you have to ask: why are we doing this again? I’ll bet you a day of
And kids? Well, that's a tough one. You're going to miss a lot of their lives. Period. You can tell yourself no, I'll make that work, I'll find the time to get to Heather's play or Bobby's soccer game, but more often than not, you won't. The servers will go down. A key customer will show up at the airport 'on a stopover' and want to meet. Something pressing only you can handle will pop up and you’ll have to handle it and miss that play. It WILL happen.
I know this is going to piss off some people. And it's likely to be skewered by some of my own family and friends as well as many who think it can be done (and are trying to do it). But, I've been there (Married, with a kid) and there's simply no way I, personally, could have done a real startup with all the overhead (yea, I know... it sounds cold, but it's accurate) of a marriage, a family and all that requires in the equation.
Much of what I write about here are the experiences of being a first time CEO and startup guy 'later in life', and this is very much part of it. Most people my age (married and divorced) take the easy route of staying in their good paying jobs, doing something they don't particularly like for a company they don't particularly believe in. It really is easier, more comfortable and a lot less scary than starting a company from scratch.
For me, though, it feels a little like being chained up. Really nice pretty shiny velvet lined chains, but chains nonetheless.
Doing a from scratch technology startup isn't for everyone. I'd say, maybe, 5% of the population can do it; and only a small percentage of that group can actually be successful at it. Society makes it hard for us to break the social contract of getting a good job, finding a mate, having kids and retiring to our 'hobbies'. And for that 95% of the population, it’s a good life. My dad is one of those guys. He’s had a good full life. He’s happily retired from a lifetime job at IBM. He doesn’t fully understand what I’m doing, but he tells me he’s amazed and proud of me for doing it. I’m pretty sure he even means it.
Someone has to start things. Someone, somewhere, sat in a garage or basement or an employers office and thought up IBM, HP, Ford, Apple, CitiBank and all the other big companies millions of us work for today.
We've got to have it, and that small percentage of under 25 year olds who don’t know better and (mostly single, divorced or empty nester) middle aged guys who do know better but have the balls to do it anyway are what it takes to make it happen.