Eating Million Dollar Cakes
I found The Lessons of Steve Jobs via my friend and fellow dedicated father, Todd Webb. The post outlines four different men (Jeff Atwood, Brad Wardell, Eric Karjaluoto, and Jason Kottkey) who since the passing of Steve Jobs, have decided to scale back their focus on startups and scale up their focus on their children. As a husband, father, startup enthusiast (Obtiva, Mad Mimi, Groupon, Code Academy, StyleSeek, Lease Maid), and former family therapist, I have some thoughts on this topic.
I’ll start with a little of my take on the late Steve Jobs. Although I enjoy iMacs, MacBook Pros, and iPhones, and what their existence has done for the tech and consumer ecosystems, I’m not a raving fan of Steve Jobs. I’ve heard too many stories about his leadership style to admire him as a person. I do appreciate some of his company’s products and his obviously high standards, and his Stanford commencement address, but I think several of our fundamental values are in conflict. Steve’s death served as an inflection point for 4 fathers named Jeff, Brad, Eric, and Jason. They are likely just the tip of the iceberg. But this post isn’t really about Steve Jobs, it’s more about startups and families.
On the surface, The Lessons of Steve Jobs is warm and fuzzy and good. Look deeper, though, and you’ll find a logical trap. A trap that the legacy of Steve Jobs could easily ensnare many well-intentioned people.
In the post, Jeff Atwood said, “Startup life is hard on families.” That’s true. And, “…success at the cost of my children is not success.” That’s true. Cool. But Jeff also said, “…running as fast as you can isn’t sustainable for parents of multiple small children.” I think this is where I have an issue. Running as fast as you can isn’t sustainable. Period. It is, by definition, not sustainable. Regardless of whether you’re single and 21, married and 30, or married with children and 40. It’s not sustainable for a parent, for a spouse, or for your personal health. I think Eric Karjaluoto said it well, when he called Jobs (or at least my perception of Jobs) “the John Henry of our time”.
The trap that I’m afraid people are going to walk into is when they assume that “startup life” means “running as fast as you can”. Perpetual sprinting is not the only way to live the “startup life”. I can tell you about 3 different husband/fathers who contributed significantly to successful startups without having to abandon their companies or their families.
Gary Levitt is the founder and CEO of Mad Mimi. Gary and Leah were married when they started growing Mad Mimi in 2006. Since then Mad Mimi has reached many $millions in annual revenue. Gary and Leah remain married, and have since had 3 children. They are still growing Mad Mimi today and have moved their growing family from Brooklyn to Jerusalem.
Kevin Taylor is the founder and (former) CEO of Obtiva. Kevin and Jenny were married with 2 children when he founded Obtiva in 2005. Since then, Obtiva grew to many $millions in annual revenue, and was acquired by Groupon in 2011. Kevin and Jenny are still married. Kevin is actively involved in his children’s lives. Kevin is now leading talent development at Groupon and, with Jenny, is growing EventWax.
Yours truly, Dave Hoover, is a partner and builder of Obtiva and Mad Mimi. Staci and I were married with a baby when I switched from being a family therapist to a programmer in 2000. I love rapid feedback and growth, so I’ve become increasingly involved with startups over the years. Staci and I have had 2 more children since 2000, and we are about to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. I’ve made time to coach soccer and football teams along the way. Today, I’m leading some engineering teams at Groupon. In my off-hours, I’m helping grow Mad Mimi, Code Academy, StyleSeek, and Lease Maid.
Leah, Jenny, and Staci are all remarkable women. They are huge contributors to all of these families’ successes. With their husbands, they are helping redefine what “startup life” means. It’s a challenging life, but rewarding. There are many other couples that have been invovled (directly or indirectly) with Obtiva over the years who fit a similar profile of people who contributed to successful startups, remained married, had babies, and raised children. I’m proud to say that in the 6 years of Obtiva’s existence (which ended with 50 people on our payroll), we had zero divorces. Zero.
It is absolutely possible to have your (startup) cake and eat it (with your family) too. Billion dollar cakes are astonishingly difficult to make, and are nearly impossible to survive eating. Yet, there are countless million dollar cakes for families to enjoy together if leaders are willing to embrace the constraints of family life.
I’m not questioning Jeff, Brad, Eric and Jason’s decisions to back off from the unsustainable startup lives they were living. I am urging all of us to strive to create a sustainable startup life and culture. It’s possible to do. It’s what we did at Obtiva and Mad Mimi. It’s how I’m living and working at Groupon. It’s what I’m trying to do more broadly in Chicago tech. And I hope that others can spread sustainability into other startup communities across the US and around the globe.