Why every founder should consider taking a sabbatical X-years in the journey

Patrick de Zeeuw
Oct 30 · 19 min read

Today I’m at the end of my 4-month break from our business. It’s been a great period and I thought let me reflect on what I’ve learned, experienced and have done the last 4 months. It might be insightful for founders that are considering taking a break or for those that have never considered taking a long break from their daily routine as a thing they can and maybe should do.

Let me go back to why I decide to take a break in the 1st place

I got this question quite a lot in the last months. Do you need it, is it getting too much? Are you close to burning out?

In my humble opinion if you are on the verge of burning out or breaking down, taking a break might help but you should have probably needed to take action sooner. So the answer is; no, no burnout, no breaking down. I actually feel quite good, so for me it was a good moment to take a break.

But feeling good was not my main reason to step away from our business for several months. Let me explain what motivated me and made me decide to take a 4-month break

Reason 1; releasing myself daily operations

In my case the main reason to take a break was to “unlock” myself from the operational side of our business. The only way to do is to go “cold turkey”.

About 18 months ago we hired a CEO to run our Dutch Startupbootcamp, Innoleaps & The Talent Institute operations. A business that employs about 100 people and grows quickly.

After 18 months of working with the CEO we had a leadership team in place that should be able to run and grow the business without me interfering, steering and advising on a daily basis.

Stepping out would give the Dutch leadership team the ultimate responsibility to take our 3 companies to the next level and shape it the way they feel is best for the company and our team members.

Nowhere to hide nor excuses that I’m getting in their way. They are leading the Dutch side of our company forward.

I’ll be there to support and coach them in the process when I get back, but they run the daily business.

Is this risky? It might be, but we have no other option. As founders you have to move into a different role when you start appointing senior team members, Managing directors and/or a CEO.

They deserve the freedom to lead, manage and grow our company within the framework and goals we’ve defined together. They also deserve my trust. Giving them they key to the company means they’ve got my trust.

Jack Welch explained it really well

If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings and put compensation as a carrier behind it you almost don’t have to manage them.

I know what I’m good at and also how and were I can make a difference. But I also know that as a founder I can be too opinionated and sometimes even disruptive when it comes to topics where I should not interfere about any more…

Most Founders are very good at taking things from 0 to 1. That’s were they thrive and really can make a difference.

Many founders realize too late that they are being pushed into a role that might not fit with their personalities, skills and even ambitions. They find out too late that the principles that apply to creating a company often don’t work when you’re taking things from 100–1000. This can make you unhappy.

I decided that life is to short to be unhappy, that my role in the company needed to change and that I really want (it) to change.

So in January 2019 I first asked my co founder Ruud; “how would you feel if I would take a break for 4 months, starting this July”. I think it will be good for the company if I was not around for some time. Do you agree?

He replied; you should do that!

Then I asked our Dutch CEO Peter the same question; how would you feel if I would take a break for 4 months, starting this July and are you ready to fully take over? He said; “you should do it & yes I’m ready!”

So we had 5 months to prepare a full handover and that’s what we did.

Ruud took over my bi-weekly calls with our International CEO’s, we delegated the tons of legals that I needed to sign every week to team members. I had sessions with all colleges at Startupbootcamp, Innoleaps & The Talent Institute to explain why I was planning to take this break and answer any question they might have. I started handing over my business development activities, had bi weekly meetings with Peter to align on relevant topics and after our “culture day” on July 5th I was “free to go”.

Reason 2; because I could & should

If I would have felt I could not do this, nor had the trust in my co founder and our team I would have probably not made the decision. But I felt strongly I could and should. It’s good for the company, the team, my family and myself. During the preparations I really started looking forward to not have 150+ emails and 12 meetings a day. Not having things to worry about other things than “what shall we do today”? Which can be worrying as well I learned later in my journey..

Reason 3; to rethink what I want to do & clear my brain

I started thinking about launching the 1st accelerator in Europe early 2010 in Bali. That’s when I met Cyril (founder China Accelerator & partner at SOS Ventures in San Francisco). Cyril told me about startup accelerators for the very first time on January 13th 2010.

Back with Cyril in San Francisco, Oct ‘19
Back with Cyril in San Francisco, Oct ‘19
San Francisco with Cyril, Oct ‘19

After the encounter with Cyril I new what my “next thing” was going to be. I just sold my equity in a company I co founded and was the CEO of to my 2 business partners and was open to a new adventure. I decided to take a break with my family to find out what would be my next venture.

On our 3rd day in Bali, which I visited with my wife and at that time 4-year-old daughter, I met Cyril. I believe that certain things are meant to be and that energy creates waves and connections that put you on a new track if your energy field is “open”. I was lucky that my energy field was open and that it connected with Cyril’s at a magical place in the south of Bali.

When our break was over I could not wait and could hardly sleep about the excitement to start this new journey.

Since then Startupbootcamp (or SBC as we call it today) has grown, with about 15 offices across the globe and 150 investments each year into one of the main players in the accelerators industry.

Since 2010 we have accelerated almost 1.000 startups and scale-ups, a portfolio of 800+ participations. We add about 150 new startups to the portfolio each year.

Recently we started digitalizing our efforts to help startups grow faster. Within a few weeks we had over 1.000 startups on our platform, which we consider to be a MVP, we also need to built-measure-learn.;)

Next to Startupbootcamp we launched Innoleaps in 2013, which is today one of the leading firms to help global corporations innovate & grow new business “The Startup Way”. Innoleaps is now active in 6 countries, and scaling up its activities in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific. We educate C level on what it means to be an investor, fund & kill new businesses quickly.

We change peoples live by showing them that developing an entrepreneurial mind, tool & skill set can actually move things forward quite rapidly. I never imagined that working with C level & corporate teams can be as rewarding as working with startup founders. As long as we make real impact I’m “in the game”.

Then 2014 we launched The Talent Institute, the platform for young adults that brings their digital mind-, skill-, and toolset up to speed. We launched TTI when the un-employment rate of young adults in The Netherlands was almost 15%, something that is hard to imagine today. Smart young people were not able to find a job. On the other side we had startups that were growing fast but could not find qualified people. This needed to be solved. Within 6 months we had a business that was making real impact to both sides that encountered serious pains.

TTI is now active in 3 countries and we aim to further expand the impact me make on young adults that want to join fast growing scale ups and tech savvy enterprises.

It’s been a hell of a ride with many ups and as many downs…One day I might write a book about every thing we’ve encountered and learned in the last 9 years and what it means to have a portfolio of almost 1.000 (next year we’ll hit the 1k mark) startups & scale-ups, help develop new business models and corporate startups for some of the largest corporations in the world and create new opportunities for young adults.

But a question kept popping into my head more often the last 12 months, is this all something I want to keep on doing for the next 5–10 years? We took things from 0–1 and far beyond. What I still love to do best is working with people, coaching them, and making them better. What I was doing on a day-to-day basis was far from what I love to do.

Therefore the only way to answer my question was; stop doing what you are doing and you’ll probably find out what’s next…

So I stopped doing “it”.

Reason 4; freeing up time to work on the company

For me the only way to start working on the company was “going cold turkey on working in the company”. Ruud and I also decided in our talks before my break to move to a small office outside our (Operational) Head Quarters in Amsterdam as of the day I would return (if I would..;) to our company.

Our assumption is that by not being at our main office in Amsterdam we would not get pulled back into the operation. We would keep a certain distance and therefore need to deal with the Dutch operations in the same way as we do with our international offices in the USA, Australia, Shanghai, Germany, Italy and South Africa.

It’s an experiment so let’s see. As of November 4th our HQ will be based in the Adam Tower, overlooking the city and just being able to see our Dutch offices on the other side of town.

Our new HQ will be on the 13th floor in the Adam Tower

Reason 5; Life’s too short to be worried about too many things

Although I felt good when I started my break there were several things that I was less happy about and had a negative impacted on me.

We have not built one company but three companies in the last 10 years. Three companies which are part of one eco system, which is quite unique but also means that I was on a daily basis dealing with issues coming from not one but three companies. Next to this we have quite a large number of startups in our portfolio. Which means that not a day went by that I was not influenced by issues our alumni where dealing with.

These tensions lead to negative energy and result into the opposite of who I am and want to be. I thrive on positive energy. I have it and give it..That’s were I can make a difference. But negative energy can be disruptive for me..Which means I do not thrive to the maximum level and give my upmost every day.

I had to create some kind of breakthrough to figure out if these feelings I was experiencing more often in the last few years were related to the company or if it was just me that was changing because of the phase in my life I was in?

I started realizing last year when I turned 50 is that life is not getting any longer. That the time I have available in the next years should be lots of fun. That the things I focus on give me energy and should be focused, even more so than in the last 10 years, on making real impact.

So taking a break to spend more time with my family and friends, figuring out how to make my life more meaning full and make more impact felt like the right thing to do.

These are the 5 main reasons why I made this decision. Think about the for a while and ask yourself do they apply to me as well?

What about staying informed about the performance of the business?

So no contact or information about the business for 4 months? How do you do that?

As some of you might know my wife, son, brother and our dog Charlie all work at the company. You might think…that’s probably complicated. How do you avoid hearing about company issues at the diner table? That might get you worried again or you might even return to the business 4 weeks into your break…

You’re right this was an important topic at home. So we made a few arrangements.

First, my wife Edi and I agreed that she would also take a break. It was actually a suggestion Ruud made to me.

Edi agreed not to take 4 months off but 2, which eventually resulted in 3 months. Edi as well wanted to step out of operations and joining me would resolve two issues at the same time.

2nd I agreed with my son not to talk about operations during my break, which he sticked to amazingly well! Thank you Mexx !

3rd My brother decided to proceed a new career path after 3 years in the company which I fully supported him on. Ed you’re too smart for us..;) time to find your own path !

And 4th Charlie our dog agreed not to bark about company issues for 4 months. Charlie you deserve some extra walks in the next few months !

Deal made and everybody sticked to “the rules”.

Preparing & discussing these things up front have proven to be very valuable.

I did the same with my business partner Ruud, we agreed to meet once or twice during my break just for him to update me on the main topics over a beer and share some thoughts.

No details & no operations.

Is it hard ?

Well there are a few things I’ve experienced ;

1. Was it hard for me to lock of from the business..? You might not believe it but actually it was not hard at all.

2. Was it hard to do “nothing” ? Not while we were traveling. I had my family around, my surfing, it was amazing weather, we visited great places and met great people.

3. Was it hard to do “nothing” at home ? I spent about 5 weeks at home on our boat the Johanna in A’dam. Some weeks were great, especially the summer days. But I also had days that I did not feel that great. Days that I felt useless..a feeling I did not experience for a long time. It was confrontational..I had less energy and just did not feel all that good. It gave me the insight that doing nothing, not being able to add value to somebody or something, not creating something does not make me happy. It gave me the insight that retiring is not an option. That I really love to create and help other people in their journeys. That I like being around likeminded people. That people give me energy as I give them energy. That I love to learn and be inspired. That one of the values we have as a company, which is “learning desire” is something that is very close to my heart and soul.

4. I found out that keeping a daily rhythm of things to do provided me framework that makes me happy, fit and keeps me energized. I found a rhythm which started with a daily workout, meditation, taking the SUP board out for a paddle and then I made breakfast for the family. This gave me a full filled feeling. In the afternoon I read a book, went for a swim and did some thinking. The evenings I spend with friends, went out to see a movie or just stayed at home with Edi & Nikki.

After being a while at home I got the urge to start traveling again, which I then did.

So were did we go & what did we do ?

Let me give you a summery of some of the highlights :

1st we went to visit our friends in Napa (USA), where we spend a week unwinding sleeping in a tent in their vineyard and houseboat on lake Shasta an amazingly beautiful and quite place in Northern California.

Then we flew to Maui & Kauai, two of the Hawaiian Islands where we surfed, toured, hiked (with a dog we adopted for a day), bought ukuleles and had our 1st lessons on this small guitar.

After 4 weeks we returned to Amsterdam were we spend 2 weeks. Then I flew with my 20-year-old son Mexx to Portugal for a week. We took some kite surfing lessons, which were good fun, but I decided that after trying to learn kite surfing multiple times in the last 20 years it’s just not my thing. I like it simple ; just my snow- or sup board and me is more then enough to have a great time in the mountains or in the ocean..;)

Then I was home for another week and spend time with my brother Edwin on one of the Dutch islands. Talking about our past, parents, kids, work and other things that matter in life.

After some more time at home Edi and I flew to Milan were we spent 2 days and then drove to Verona were our private tour guide Alceo (and CEO of our operations in Italy) showed us the real Italian life, food and wine. On day 4 I dropped Edi of at the airport and drove the Fiat500 to Lago D’Aro were the Mandali retreat is based on a mountaintop.

Mandali is a magical and special place. I signed up for a 1-week retreat named “Intensive Breathing”.

And that’s what I did, I’ve learned how to breathe in new ways. Ways that helped me experience my body in a way I’d never experienced before. I was at Mandali with 20 other “students”. Ages were between 30 and 65. A mix of open-minded women and men from around the globe. The day started at 7.30am with meditation, yoga and light breathing. Then we had a silent breakfast from 8.30–10am. From 10–12 we had intensive breathing sessions, intensive dancing, talking and meditation. Lunch was served at 1pm.

From 14.30–16.30 more breathing exercises. Learning to experience your body & mind in new ways. Then a beautiful diner at 7pm. Closing the day with light breathing & meditation from 20.30–21.30, in bed by 10pm.

We did this Sunday till Friday and it made a big impact on me. On Thursday I had an epiphany and wanted to write down my “break through insights” as quickly as I could.

I’m quite sure that if my business partners would have seen me at Mandali they would not believe what they saw. This was out of my “comfort zone” but that’s the only way to really learn I’ve always told myself.

I encourage everybody that is interested and open to work on the mind and body to have a look at Mandali.com. Give yourself a present and go there for 3, 5 or 7 days You will not regret it ! Mandali is set up as a non-profit and therefore is quite accessible even if you are on a tight budget.

Then I flew to Ibiza for a week with our global leadership team to discuss strategy for the next few years. So I cheated a little bit during my break..;)

It was great to see the whole leadership after several months. It was also great to not be involved in setting the agenda, presentations etc..I joined as an “observer” and that felt really good. We had a great week all together and have an action plan that now needs to be executed by the team.

After spending the last day just with Ruud on the Island we flew back to A’dam were autumn had started.

After a week at home I jumped on a flight to San Francisco we’re I spend a week with Mesut, our co founder In the USA. Mesut is one of the smartest people I know and a great coach. He’s a mirror and deep thinker. This is his strength. We extensively discussed life, how we can live it to the fullest and build a great company that makes real impact on people’s live at the same time. How to find a balance between what we love to do most but not be soaked up by it everyday. It was a great week in California.

With Mesut meeting my old time friend and sustainability investor Stuart and his friend Debra in San Francisco

A great week to warm up to get back in the game on November 4th.

Mistakes I made along the way

Before planning my break I had an idea about a research I wanted to do and new book I wanted to write.

I caught myself going fully into execution mode in the 1st weeks of my break in July.

I wanted to get this new idea started. I set up a few brainstorm sessions with team members and was ready to rock and roll…Then I thought…this is your break..you should not do this now, relax, you have time…do not start now because you know if you start now you’ll get exited and the next 4 months will not be a sabbatical but will only be about researching and writing !

It’s so easy to just do what you love to do best. It is so easy to find something new and get totally lost in it. It’s however do hard to step out of your comfort zone and catch yourself in the act of something you should not be doing

So I told myself 2 things ;

  • You can think about it, come up with new ideas and you can write them down to be picked up later.
  • You just can not execute upon these ideas before November 4th.

So I have plenty of ideas about the book I want to write which is called “The Founders Profile” but have not executed on any of them in the last few months.

While taking your break is good to have a look at habits you want and might need to break

One of the goals I had during my sabbatical was to come up with a list of “bad habits” that I wanted to break.

Most of these habits are work related. Many of them I’ve developed in the last 25 years and many of them I’d love to “break up with”.

One of them is cutting down on the number of meetings I had every day. 12–14 meeting a day was not an exception, more a rule..I know that schedule has brought us were we are today and I know that I can still do this. I just do not want it anymore. So I’ve set a new rule: not more than 4–5 meetings a day. No back to back meetings, which don’t even give you the time to take a walk to the bathroom.. and take at least 30 minutes to prepare for each meeting. Let’s see if I can stick to these new rules. I’ve given my PA Loana the task to manage me on this one.

Another one was not picking up my phone to check messages when I wake up. This is just a bad start of the day. The last 4 months I’ve developed a new routine : I only check messages after I’ve had breakfast. Works way better. I’ve promised my self that as of next week I will not check emails or text messages before I get to the office.

I’ve come up with about 10 bad habits that I need to break. I shared these with my family, will share them with the team and will them to tell me if I’m falling back into “old routines”.

Suggestions to everybody that considers taking a break

  • prepare your break well with your family, team and yourself
  • Explain to your team what your “Why ?” Is for taking a break. Why is it good for the company, your family and yourself
  • Make sure you fully step out ; so no calls, txt’s, updates, signing legals etc
  • If you travel taking a break from work is easy
  • If you do not travel and are just at home while everybody is at work or school it might sometimes be hard. This is a good thing.
  • For me if I did little for a few days and got a bit bored I also got a bit lazy. Which was ok but did not feel that good. Keeping a rhythm and have things to do made things more fun for me
  • Think about the bad habits you want to break
  • Enjoy the ride !

Last but not least ; books I’ve read

I love to read and be inspired. I did however promise my self not to read any business related books in the 1st 6 weeks when I was traveling with my family.

Here’s a quick overview of books I did read ;

TRILLION DOLLAR COACH

The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell

Amazing, must read for founders, leaders, mentors etc..

OPEN — An Autobiography

The life of Andre Aggesi — amazing, must read for 12–99 years old

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It

Very good, must read for founders & leaders

Aligning the Stars

Very good, must read for founders & leaders

Managing the professional service firm

Good read for founders & leaders

The obstacle is way

Very good for 12–99 years old

The secrets of sand hill road

Not finished yet — very good —must read for founders, investors, mentors

The Snowman

A crime story of serial killer and it’s so so I would say

I hope this was a useful read and that sharing my insights and feelings will make you think and brought some inspiration.

On 4th November I’m back in the game and ready to play it different..;)

Onwards !

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