15 Startup Lessons I Learned From Parenting
When you’re a parent, you’re a leader — whether you want to steer the ship or not
Before I became a parent, I was a manager who didn’t revel in the role of a low-level manager in technology. (It wasn’t the first time.) I liked leadership roles. But, I never thought of myself as a real manager. I always strived to just get by in management. Most of the time, I had a lot of self-doubts. Somewhere inside myself, even as a child, I knew I was a leader.
As an adult, I am more of a leader in my life than a leader in the corporate environment. After my career change, I find it liberating to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps entrepreneurship has always been what I was destined to pursue.
It all started on this one night.
There I was, pushing out my baby after 36 hours of grueling labor. Suddenly, I’m a manager, a leader, a founder, and perhaps even a CEO all rolled into one.
I am a one-woman family enterprise. This enterprise now includes the baby who will grow into a man someday. In this enterprise, I have to figure out everything: food, the budget, car, vacation, education, housing.
This is a huge responsibility. I don’t have another parent to bounce ideas off of. I am the leader, whether I want to be or not.
So I started to learn: what does it mean to be a real leader in a new startup?
1. It’s not about you
One of the biggest lessons you learn as a parent is that it’s never about you. It’s always about the child or the family. In other words, your startup and your employees should come before your ego. A good leader doesn’t necessarily reference his or her title. Instead, a good leader references the results generated by the startup. Similar to any employee, a good leader knows that at the end of the day the leader is just another part of the company.
2. You can learn anything
Parenting is unpredictable. In the first two years of parenting, I Googled more and read more books than in the first two years I learned to program for work. There are just many issues that creep up unexpectedly. Sometimes, you can’t find the solutions to your problems. But, somehow, you just have to cope.
Running a startup is similar. There might be books out there with step-by-step instructions on how to manage a startup. But, inevitably, you will encounter problems. These problems often can not be fixed immediately. Learning all you can about the subject matter that’s causing the problem is a must. Learning can be from books, news, forums, conversations, investigations, and mentorships. But, most of all, accepting that you can never learn it all is a must. This means that you learn about what “matters” at any given moment in time.
3. This too shall pass
Patience is the key to parenting. The next 18 years will be much easier if you just wait out the small hurdles. I remember taking pride in my patience developed from a crisis management job. But, parenting has taken that patience to a whole new level. I often repeat the mantra “this too shall pass” to get past the immediate irritation.
Running a startup requires a lot of patience. There’s a metamorphosis that takes shape in a startup that’s similar to the growth spur in early childhood. Dealing with growing pains is a part of this transformation. Being patient about the process means that not only do you weather the ups and downs, but also accepting the limitations of the early stages.
4. Your team takes after you
Whenever I look at my child, I’m amazed at how much my child takes after me. I understand where his mischievous looks, his sense of humor, and his rebellious streak comes from. I was the same way as a child.
A leader models without saying a word. In a startup, everyone looks up to the leader for direction. Implicitly, everyone also models the culture after the leader. In the early stages, the company culture is set by interactions with people within the company. Most people in the startup will have a lot of interactions with the leader in the early days. With each interaction, the employee is inferring the company culture from the leader’s behavior.
5. There’s never enough money
People often say that if you want to go bankrupt, have kids. In today’s society, it is truer than ever. Just in the first year, to cope with parenthood, there’s a long list of gadgets that are required. Then, there’s the house you buy in the neighborhood that has good schools. There are private lessons in everything under the sun. There’s the organic food, organic cleaning products, trendy furniture, and educational toys. This is all before your child even enters school.
Ideally, any startup should be flush with capital. But, honestly, you never have enough money. It’s better if your startup finds a “cash cow” business to engage in to serve as it’s the source of capital in the early days. This will alleviate the need to pitch desperately for capital. It will also allow you to stay on course to implement all your business objectives without the interference from outsiders.
6. There’s never enough time
Even when I sleep just 6 hours a night, I never feel like I have enough time.
In parenthood, I am on the go almost the entire day. Then, I work a few hours at night to earn a living. I’m often working on publicity during the day when my child plays. I’m frequently working on the weekends to make ends meet. I’m always looking for ways to squeeze in one more item on my to-do list.
Managing a startup is the same. In the early days, you are lucky if you work 80 hours a week. Most of the time, the to-do list is long, even with careful planning. This is not even accounting for all the unknown tasks that show up when unforeseen problems encountered. Constant prioritization means having no time. Having no time means that you are tested on your commitment every day. The best you can do is to “make time” for the most important tasks on your list.
7. Just let it go
I hear this from seasoned parents all the time. “Just let it go.” There are too many things to do in parenthood. You simply can not control all the variables in the world. The trick is usually (as Elsa would say) to “let it go.”
Letting go is counterintuitive in a startup. You want to control the outcomes in the early days. But, almost immediately, you find out that there are too many uncontrollable variables. You manage your startup to account for the uncontrollable variables. But, honestly, the time would be better spent at controlling the controllable variables.
8. You have to do it, whether you want to or not
Children, at the end of the day, are their own people. You want to bend them to your will. But, you can’t. They are people just like you. They have a will too. You do what you have to do to parent them as best as you can while adjusting to their behaviors.
In a startup, there are many tasks that you will encounter that you don’t enjoy doing. You do them because they are necessary. They help with the whole process. They allow you to be successful. You overcome the pain. You do them because you simply have to.
9. You need other people
In parenting, you often need support to stay sane. The network of extended family and friends are important to allow you to parent with joy.
Similarly, in a startup, your network of vendors, consultants, and employees are the people who will enable the success of the company. Working with them, leveraging their expertise is the best part of being an entrepreneur.
10. You need to anticipate what’s coming
In early childhood, you learn very quickly to anticipate what your child wants. You learn the cues. You learn the non-verbal language. You learn to read minds. This is all to avoid the inevitable tantrums and meltdowns.
Similarly, in a startup, it’s easier to work around issues if you are proactive. In any project on any given day, you have to anticipate issues that may come up. Often, if you anticipate the issue, then you can have a rough plan of action in place beforehand. Sometimes, with a little planning, it can help (at least emotionally) to deal with unpredictable situations.
11. There’s no work-life balance
In parenting, very quickly, you find out that it’s hard to strike a balance. Your child always comes first. Often, it’s a juggling act to maintain peace and order. It’s difficult to take time for yourself. Most parents are lucky to have some kind of self-care routine without neglecting their child.
Managing a startup requires a lot of effort. There’s limited time. There are limited resources. You are always doing multiple jobs even if you hire the best people. To expect some kind of work-life balance is often impossible until the startup gains traction. At best, work-life balance means the ability to take a few days off here and there (after you’ve accomplished major milestones) to recharge.
12. You know best
Any parent will tell you that your parenting instincts are often correct. Since you spend the most time with your child, you know best.
Managing a startup often requires making difficult decisions. These decisions are clouded with judgments from other people. But, since you are the leader. You have a vision of what this startup can be. You should trust that vision. You trust that you can deliver on that vision. Because you work hard, you also know best.
13. Focus on what’s important — the rest is just noise
In parenting, very quickly, you find out that everyone will tell you the best way to do things. They will also comment on the job that you are doing as a parent. The truth is that no one matters in the relationship between you and your child. Your child is the most important. The rest is just noise.
In startup life, you are constantly pulled in many directions. Some tasks will sidetrack you from what is most important. The ability to focus on tasks that matter often means the difference between success and failure. You have to tune out the noise. You have to have tunnel vision focused on your most important goal.
14. Lean into the experience, enjoy the transformation
Childhood passes by really fast. In a blink of the eye, your children are much older. You have a different set of parenting issues to contend with. Most people tell me to just enjoy the process.
In a startup, no matter how hard the grind is, it’s often easier to just lean into the hardship. When you lean into the long hours, the feelings of inadequacy and the excitement, you will find the process transformative as a human being. I’ve learned a lot about myself from each of my entrepreneurial ventures. In many ways, my entrepreneurial journey also changed the way that I think.
15. It’s necessary to dream it
Parenting involves dreaming about your child’s success at each stage of your child’s development. You learn quickly that your dreams for your child may not come true. But, you dream anyway. You want to unleash your child’s potential. You dream about that for both of you.
Managing a startup involves having a vision. This vision is critical to allow your team to come together. It is also critical to help you weather setbacks. This vision will serve to motivate everyone on your team. This vision may change as the company grows. But, it originates somewhere inside you. When you dare to dream it for your entire company, then you are ready to make your vision come true.
Startup life is not easy. Being a leader of a startup often means managing your way through the unpredictable while maintaining firm focus, commitment, and balance. As parents, we have been in training for such a leadership role. With each day that passes, we can learn from our lessons, and embark on the startup journey with a little more confidence.