Doctor Wife, Startup Husband: Making it Work

This post is dedicated to all those founders out there hustling to make it work without sacrificing the rest of their lives to do so.

Lots of founders are in their early 20s with no spouse, no mortgage, and no real serious commitments outside of their startups. So they can (and do) work basically 24/7 in the startup grind, eating nothing but Cup o’ Noodles and sleeping four hours a night.

It bothers me that people think you have to go all-in, 24/7 like this to build a great company (or be a part of one).

I never had the luxury of going all-in, because when I co-founded Salsify I was married to a Doctor in Residency in the Harvard system (yes, I’m bragging, because she’s ridiculously impressive), had a mortgage, and generally had more “life baggage” than 22 year-olds have.

My co-founders were also both married before founding Salsify. Jeremy even had twin boys two years into Salsify (for the record: two babies at once is more than twice as hard as one baby, but story time with twins is awesome). Our Chief Architect had twin toddlers before Salsify and had a third baby while working for us (his wife is also a doctor, and a total badass).

If you’re 22 and reading this, I can’t honestly imagine what you’re thinking besides the typical “your life is over when you have kids,” and you probably doubt that we have the time/inclination/dedication to make a startup work.

Yet, at Salsify we’re close to 100 employees, have raised $25M in two rounds, and have maintained the magic SaaS growth numbers you aim to hit for the last few years.

And we did this while not sacrificing our lives outside of Salsify.

Exactly how to thread this needle will vary from person to person and company to company — and even within Salsify what Jeremy has to do to make it work with twins is very different than my situation — so I’ll just share a few thoughts to give you hope that it is indeed possible to successful found a company and continue to live your life.

Managing My Marriage

I have a great marriage. And it’s because both my wife and I put each other first.

This isn’t always easy. We’re both ambitious — she’s a doctor, I’m a founder — so managing work/life balance including maintaining our relationship requires conscious ongoing effort on both our parts to make it work.

First, if you don’t have friends in the medical world it’s worth noting that they work hard. For all the work-hard bravado you read about in the startup world, becoming a doctor is so much worse. The training itself is an unenjoyable grind, and there is a constant level of tremendous pressure (tests, the nature of the job, fear of harming someone, etc.). Plus — and this is a personal thing — it’s gross. You basically grind 80+ hour weeks for 10 years. My hat off to all the doctors out there.

Also, the schedule is completely inflexible. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to take Friday off since my friend is getting married and I want to be there for the Rehearsal Dinner”. Nope. You will miss the rehearsal dinner. And you may miss the wedding itself, because you have no choice.

<rant>The way we train doctors is inhumane and unnecessarily cruel.</rant>

And founding a company takes all this work and is hard blah blah blah. You know this already. (Aside: Ev Williams had a recent post with some interesting work hour numbers from an informal survey he did of mostly founders.)

But at least in tech you generally have lots of geographic and temporal flexibility. Especially in the early days before we had real customers I had to visit, I could work from anywhere, at any time. In tech we tend to take this for granted, but when you’re married to a doctor it becomes immensely valuable in helping to maintain the relationship.

For example, in my wife’s first year of medical school she was a 2 hour train ride away. I’d go out there from Boston once or twice a week and just work from her apartment, which let us have dinner and take walks together in the evening. Weekends she would come and stay in Boston.

I’m sure I could have made 1000 excuses why I needed to be with my colleagues every single day, and talk about the importance of whiteboarding and the proverbial water cooler talk, and my wife would have believed them, and would have been completely supportive of me not coming out to see her during the week.

You can always make an excuse not to show up.

Conversely, I equally could have said, “I need to buckle down and get shit done, and working remotely 1–2 days a week gives me unbelievable focus and productivity gains compared to being in a noisy office” to rationalize why I was going out there so often instead of being physically at HQ.

But the reality is that I love my wife. I missed her. She couldn’t come to me, so I went to her. And I did what I had to do to make that work.

Similarly, she hasn’t had much downtime in years. And she chooses to spend that time mostly with me, which means that she isn’t super duper close with her med school classmates and has lost touch with some friends. At some point, there is only so much time, and she chooses to spend hers with me.

This is what it means to put your significant other first. And because I have the privilege in tech of working from anywhere at any time, it was easy for me to do just that to help make us work.

One of the women that works at Salsify recently broke up with her boyfriend, the founder of another startup. He was engrossed in his work, and didn’t really make time for her. She asked me how I made it work founding a company and being married.

I told her it’s about priorities. And making choices true to those priorities. Anyone can do it. It may not be easy (you feel a certain loyalty to your company and your employees yet you need to nurture your relationship), and you will have to compromise and sacrifice to make your priorities a reality.

But if you really want to try to find a balance, then there is always a way. It’s only impossible if you think it’s impossible, and if you don’t prioritize properly. Making sound decisions and prioritizing also requires you to be realistic and ruthless about time/location/etc. needed to support your priorities. For example, if you (falsely) believe you have to put every waking and non-waking moment into your startup to have a chance to succeed, then you’re removing most options available to make it work.

Having my Ramen and Eating it Too: Our Trip to Taipei

Both my wife & I lived in China for periods of time. She’s fluent in Mandarin (once again, she’s impressive), and we both love Chinese food of all kinds.

So we really wanted to go to Taiwan. If you haven’t been, Taipei is basically the greatest city ever. It’s clean, pretty cheap, very friendly, and the food is unbelievable. You can get great authentic examples of cuisine from every region in China, and Japan as well (the island was occupied by the Japanese for 3 generations, and they are still very close countries).

About a year or so into Salsify my wife had a full month off, and given the rigors of the rest of her schedule we really, really wanted to take advantage of it, since it might not ever happen again. So we went to Taipei for the month.

Taking a month’s vacation at that time would have been very irresponsible of me. So what I did was wake up at 4am every day to overlap with Eastern Time in the US. I’d have meetings via Skype, and when people in the US would sign off I’d just crush work until 1pm while my wife was tutored in medical Mandarin (badass, right?). Then we would explore the city together.

I got a tremendous amount of work done because I had basically 5 hours of uninterrupted productivity every single day.

It was totally awesome.

We ate all of the noodles.

Family Friendly Culture Means You Can Hire Great People

I just hired an old friend of mine to drive a strategic program at Salsify. She’s a potential game changer for our long term strategic goals, and she’s a mom.

Before agreeing to join she asked to talk to other moms at Salsify.

Why? She previously worked in an environment comprised mostly of 20-somethings who weren’t parents and who made it socially unacceptable for her to leave at 5pm, which she had to do to get home and relieve the nanny. And clearly she didn’t ever want to work at a place that didn’t understand parental needs ever again.

We have moms at Salsify who could talk to her. We have plenty of dads too (including dads whose kids are out of college!).

And all of them do awesome work.

Now, I bet there’s some small voice in your mind saying, “family friendly is great and all, but the reality is that they are unable to put in as many hours as someone without kids, because kids take up time”. And you’d be partly right; they do take up time, which puts a natural limit on the total available hours a parent has for anything at all, including work.

But you miss how focused a parent can be, especially one that is very, very good at his or her job. The parents I see kicking ass at work simply do not screw around with BS work. They are ruthless at prioritizing what must get done and what can be dropped. And that focus means that they’re only ever working on things worthy of their time.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather hire someone who can prioritize and not screw around and who works fewer hours than someone who doesn’t know how to prioritize and sinks days or weeks into projects that are total wastes of time.

Find Your Own Balance

The details in our own search for balance are clearly unique to our situation, but it starts with being clear on our life priorities, what we’re actually trying to balance, and why.

Many other successful founders talk about the importance of sleep and exercise in their routine. These are clearly things that take time that they’ve figured out how to fit into their lives with their startups.

It’s not necessary to go all-in to succeed. In fact, you may be more likely to succeed if you force yourself harder to always focus on what’s important, both inside of work and out.