How founders can strive for work-life harmony
Work-life balance is not a realistic goal for any entrepreneur. What many young founders are now talking about instead is work-life harmony. They’re focusing on the quality (and not just quantity) of time spent on the key aspects of their lives to help them fulfill their vision of what they want to achieve as a partner, parent, and entrepreneur.
Published March 19, 2018
Loney Antony’s entrepreneurial journey was measured in long, hard yards. The 2008 financial crisis struck shortly after Sequoia India invested in his company, Prizm Payment Services. He had to work twice as hard before the business began to hit the kind of scale we all knew it could achieve. And for every hard yard that Antony walked, so did his family.
At a celebratory dinner in 2014 (when Prizm was sold to Hitachi), Antony’s wife, Pushpa, made a short speech that struck a deep chord with me. After congratulating the company’s founders and the management team, she shared the unvarnished truth about the sacrifices made: long hours, lost moments, and how much their two sons had missed their father during their critical teenage years. She knew what her husband had set out to do and supported him all the way. It was all worthwhile, she said, but it was also incredibly tough.
Her candor brought to the fore the invaluable role that the unsung heroes play in a successful founder journey. It also underscored the continual challenge that founders face in finding time for their family.
The reality is that starting a company is a 24/7 affair. Work-life balance is not a realistic goal for any entrepreneur. What many young founders are now talking about instead is work-life harmony. They’re focusing on the quality (and not just quantity) of time spent on the key aspects of their lives to help them fulfill their vision of what they want to achieve as a partner, parent, and entrepreneur.
By sharing this post we want to encourage more folks in the ecosystem to come forward and share their experiences. Over the last few months, we chatted with a number of entrepreneurs on this topic. Here are some useful tips from founders on what they’re doing to find that harmony.
Communication with family is probably the best defense against the stresses of building a startup. I recently had a conversation with a group of founders at a gathering in Singapore, where Circles.Life co-founder Rameez Ansar shared some important advice. He recommends overcommunicating with your spouse and treating them as you would your co-founder.
“My big learning is to treat your spouse as you would treat your co-founder because they are, in a way, co-founders to your business. And how would you treat your co-founder? You’d be transparent, you’d make time to listen to them, you’d discuss your problems, and [you’d] find solutions to each problem as it comes up.”
Ansar got married a few years after he launched his company. He concedes he wasn’t initially super communicative with his spouse (who was a busy finance professional) about what he was going through at work. He started to realize, however, that it wasn’t going well and that better communication led to better understanding. It’s a challenge in many Asian cultures, he notes, where men sometimes feel they need to be pillars of strength and don’t want to appear vulnerable.
Ansar recommends that couples read up on the risks and realities of the startup world before one of them embarks on the journey. Statistics shows that only a few startups succeed, and they typically take five to 10 years to hit scale. Your partner should be fully aware of these facts. It’s going to be a long and tumultuous journey.
Ansar, who was a seed investor before he started Circles.Life, observes that many couples fail to anticipate these realities. He recalls one situation where a founder’s wife stayed in a well-paying job she didn’t like so she could keep things afloat at home. She assumed that her husband’s startup would be ticking along after two years and she’d be free to pursue her own passions. But as the years dragged on, emotional debt piled up and resentment set in. The startup eventually failed, and so did the marriage.
Don’t let your spouse chafe in a job they hate while you pursue your entrepreneurial dream, says Ansar. “It’s going to be a very long journey. Your spouse needs to feel happy and satisfied in what they’re doing too.”
Likewise, it’s equally important to maintain open lines of communication with your kids. Antony held a big family meeting before he left his role as the managing director of Euronet Worldwide Services India to launch Prizm. He explained what he wanted to do and what it meant for them as a family.
His two sons, then 11 and 15, understood the hurdles and challenges that he described to them. The youngest had just three questions: Would they have to move? Would they stay in Mumbai? Was he (dad) going to get the same salary?
“I could see what he was getting at. He wanted to know if his environment was going to change significantly,” he recalls. Antony told the boys that while they’d stay in Mumbai, they would be downsizing their home. He also explained that he’d have some pretty crazy hours for a number of years.
My tip would be to prepare your family well in advance. Let them know there will be some tough times ahead.
Preparation, Antony says, is at least half the battle. “You never know what’s going to happen in the markets and your business. My tip would be to prepare your family well in advance. Let them know there will be some tough times ahead.”
But still, that doesn’t always make it easy. The pressure on Pushpa was enormous, Antony shares. She had to be both mother and father, in many respects, to their two boys. But having open, honest, and realistic conversations, and acknowledging the sacrifices your family members are making can go a long way.
Spend inviolable time with your family
The hardest part of launching a startup while you’re starting a family is that you can’t be there for all the small moments, says Ankur Warikoo, co-founder and CEO of Nearbuy (formerly Groupon India).
Warikoo found himself struggling to find time with his son who was born the year he helped launch Groupon. He decided to schedule a time for his son (the way he would for business meetings) and take ownership for the key parts of his son’s routine. Warikoo gets his son up and ready for school, and that hour they spend together is a special part of both their days. He also handles his son’s bedtime routine on most weekdays and takes him to piano lessons every Saturday. Those specific slots are fixed no matter how crazy the rest of the week becomes.
Bipin Preet Singh and Upasana Taku, the married co-founders of Mobikwik, take a similar approach.
When their company moved into its current space in Gurgaon, Taku was eight months pregnant. The couple chose an apartment and a preschool located 1 km from the office so they could remain as high-touch as possible with their son. The couple coordinates their calendars so that one does the morning preschool drop-off and the other picks up the child at midday.
If you care about something, you’ll work hard for it. If you care about your startup and you care about your personal life, you’re going to work hard for both things.
Likewise, Ansar schedules dinner each night with his wife. So, he goes to work earlier at 6:30 am or 7:00 am and ensures he makes dinner at 8:00 pm. The hour or two they spend together each day at dinner has become a pillar in their relationship.
“If you care about something, you’ll work hard for it. If you care about your startup and you care about your personal life, you’re going to work hard for both things,” he says. “I think that’s what founders forget: they think their relationship will always be positive and will always be a walk in the park. You have to get organized and disciplined and make the effort to show you care about it.”
Be truly present
One of the cornerstones of work-life harmony is being present and engaged. Taku says she focuses on work while she’s at work and tries not to worry about missed moments. And when she’s with her son, she strives to be fully in the moment too.
But that’s easier said than done. The pull of the smartphone is strong, especially for an ever-wired entrepreneur. Taku says she switches her phone to silent mode or sometimes even puts it in another room during evening playtime with her son. An hour of being truly present, she says, is better than an entire evening of distracted parenting.
An hour of being truly present, she says, is better than an entire evening of distracted parenting.
“Even if I do something with him for 45 minutes, singing or playing or dancing, and he knows I’m not thinking about anything else, it makes all the difference. Kids are very perceptive. They know when you’re just not there.”
Recognize that your workforce is dealing with the same challenges
Many founders tell me their growth as partners and parents have made them a better entrepreneur. Singh and Taku say they’ve become much more disciplined and efficient with how they run the company and manage their time. “I spend a lot of time away from my son and, from my perspective, each hour of that better be worthwhile,” Taku says.
So, they’ve made meetings more focused, more structured, and much shorter. They’ve shifted back the office hours, encouraging people to come in at 9:00 am instead of 10:00 am (which is a typical start time in the tech world) and to leave work earlier. They’ve also encouraged their managers to become more outcome-driven, measuring staff by what they achieve instead of the “face time” spent at their desks.
In a recent email exchange on this subject, Warikoo wrote a line that resonated with me: “Parenting, more than anything else, teaches patience and empathy. Both are supremely critical traits for success as an entrepreneur.”