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Friday, April 12, 2013

Will high growth bring a failed marriage?

Everyone knows being an entrepreneur is stressful, particularly for a high-growth startup. Often entrepreneurs pay a high personal price — whether or not their firm is successful.

Still, last week I was surprised to read a New York Times blog posting that suggested that the outcome is predetermined. The article was written by a former entrepreneur who runs an entrepreneurial training program in suburban Atlanta:
Balance? Don’t Believe the Hype
By Cliff Oxford

“How can fast-growth entrepreneurs lead a more balanced life?” is one of those agonizing questions that I am often asked. The good news is that there is a rather simple answer: “You can’t.” Save your money, and don’t waste your time on the books and coaches who want to sell you advice. Here is why.

Fast growth is a 24/7 proposition. It is not just the hours you put in at work; it’s that it owns your head. You think about work in the shower and on vacation, and you get lost in all of the ideas while you are sitting at dinner. It is exciting and dangerous. Of course, the collateral damage on the big three — family, health, and faith — can be disastrous.

Now I work with hundreds of fast-growth entrepreneurs who struggle to find the balance they read about in airplane magazines as they zip off to see the next customer, and I see these tragedies happen over and over. I tell fast-growth entrepreneurs not to get married while they are in fast-growth mode. They always do.

I thought I could help entrepreneurs understand that balance is a fantasy — a good fantasy but still fantasy. … I have been told that this is about the same success rate for heroin users in rehab.

Here is the deal: Fast growth means all-in, 24/7 for the mission and success of the company. Balance is snake-oil that says it can all be pretty and nice. It can’t. But I think setting boundaries can help.

Boundaries are trade-offs, and entrepreneurs are good at negotiating trade-offs. Balance is propaganda that sells well but is a cruel hoax that will continue to write tragedies.
The author’s viewpoint seems to be strongly colored by his own divorce and regrets over his loss of time with his (now adult) daughter. I have my own regrets over poor work-life tradeoffs, but (perhaps with more distance) am less inclined to generalize.

Oxford correctly notes that Bill Gates held off on the marriage and kids thing until he was starting to wind down his Microsoft role. Similarly, I would note that Steve Jobs didn’t get married (or have his last three kids) during his original Jobs I period, but in the NeXT interregnum before the Jobs II era. Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin got married in 2007, when Google was nine years old and worth billions.

Still, there’s a difference between an increased risk and a deterministic outcome. I asked one friend who works with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and he strongly disagreed because, as he said, “Have seen people able to do both.”

Instead, I think it’s the personality of those who become entrepreneurs — not just the single-mindedness, but the insurmountable ego. It’s not just (as Oxford suggest) the single-mindedness of pursuing The Next Big Thing, but also the know-it-all confidence (aka arrogance aka hubris) and need for control that inevitably leak over from business into one’s personal life.

So the lesson is not one just for entrepreneurs, but a broader lesson for driven, successful people who do need that sort of balance in their life. Perhaps as Oxford suggests, boundaries can provide a way out for those who’ve lost all sense of perspective.

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