Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Startups and "normal" lives

Scott Converse, CEO at ClickCaster, wrote a thought-provoking piece the other day about being involved in a start-up as a 40-something. Some key take-away quotes for me:

I’m in my 40’s. I’m divorced. I’m in good health. I don’t feel much different than I did when I was 25. I don’t party like a 25 year old any more, but I have no problem staying up to 2am, working through weekends and doing whatever it takes. I also have no problem using my personal resources to make this fly, including my house as our office/development lab for the last year. Something tells me if I were married or had a live in girlfriend, that’s not something that would have been possible (or, if it had, not gone on for anything close to a year).

The reality with a startup is the work comes first. The big difference for me between this and most 40 something’s doing a ‘day job’ is it’s also my play. Given a choice in what I’d do in my ‘off time’.. well, this is it. So the two (personal and professional lives) merge and become one.

My guess is only a small percentage of marriages can survive it (and yes, some can). I know though I would not be doing this if I were married. I would not have turned down that mid six figure executive job at the fortune 50 company with my (now ex) wife looking over my shoulder. The privilege of creating something from nothing but your mind, and turning it into something real, useful and valuable in the world doesn’t carry the same weight as the big title and paycheck for many spouses.

The whole piece is worth a read; but these really hit home for me. FeedBurner has been the most challenging, time-consuming and fulfilling job I’ve had. Period. It’s also consumed more of my time than anything I’ve done since I started the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology while allegedly a full-time student… and instead of being 22 and uncommitted, I’m 35 and a married father of 3. It’s not easy.

The obvious things are the travel – leaving Robin home alone to take care of 3 kids for 2-4 days at a time is never fun – but even when I’m home, the job often consumes whatever waking hours I’ve got. There’s an endless stream of e-mails, the forums (if you ever wondered about our commitment to our users, check out how many times we’ve posted in response to questions from our users over the last couple years), the blog posts to respond to, IMs from customers and partners, and the persistent wondering whether we’re doing everything we can to hit this thing out of the park.

Steve noted the other day that there was a lot he got “wrong” about FeedBurner early on… that’s part of the fun at being at a nimble start-up, and having an executive team that can iterate quickly. (It’s to Steve’s credit that much of what he claims he got wrong is actually a series of examples of how much he and the rest of the team have gotten right.)

One example for me stands out – we had a rocky roll-out over the summer of a new feature; everyone was already insanely busy, and we didn’t do a good job of coordinating things between teams. That’s easy to do, but when the pressure mounts to get it right and you realize that things haven’t gone smoothly, it’s easy to get caught up defending why you did what you did instead of working to address the problem. We adjusted, Eric and Jake kicked ass in addressing our outreach efforts to publishers, and the end result was a dramatically improved process, tons of great feedback from our users, and a better overall service. All in about 10 days. Having worked at companies where everything had to be perfect before anything went out the door, I can say I greatly prefer this approach, even if it means for a bit more adrenaline when you’re in the middle of the iteration.

Startups work when there’s coordinated effort and shared sacrifice. One of the things I noted when I was meeting the FeedBurner guys for the first time was that all four founders were married, all had kids about my kids’ age, and they were around my age. Steve made a point of telling me that everyone had the occasional doctor visits, need to stay at home to deal with an emergency, etc., and that a work/life balance (to the extent that such a thing is possible in a start-up environment) was important. Sure enough, I’m working from home today (Halloweek continues!) — and that’s OK. While there’s no real way to avoid the occasional lengthy trips away from home, being able to see my 4 year-old parade around the block with his preschool class, and then 3 hours later see my 6 year-old do the same thing at his elementary school, well, that’s pretty cool. And I like that I don’t feel guilty when I do this – that even though I’m not in the office everyone realizes I’m still working my butt off.

Scott’s right: this life isn’t for everyone. And he’s also right that the fat paycheck and benefits that you can get with a BigCo can be alluring – but I’m a builder. I am immensely proud of what we’ve built at FeedBurner, and can’t imagine having done anything else over the last couple years. I was at my law school reunion a couple weeks ago, and when I told a classmate that I’d been part of 4 start-ups – one through acquisition, one through an IPO, one through a funding round, and now FeedBurner, through hyper-growth mode – she asked whether it wasn’t a bit exhausting. Of course it is: it’s more than a bit exhuasting.

But it’s exhilarating too. And when you can see the impact of the building we’re doing every single day, it’s incredibly rewarding. That it’s all happening while Robin and I are building a family means I’m spoiled by successes personal and professional… and not a day goes by that I don’t realize that without her and the kids, the professional stuff would seem a whole lot less exciting or fulfilling.

Is Scott right? Does being unattached help? Maybe. But for those of us who are neither 20-somethings nor 40-somethings and are very attached (!), I guess you just find a way to make it work. You just need a few more people trying to make it work for you to pull it off. I’m lucky to have them both at home and at work.


  1. Rick, I know exactly what you mean (smile). Seriously, isn't it great to say that we're both part of this team? It really is all-consuming, but not in the "I'm going to burn out" kind of way -- rather, it's the "I'm always thinking of what to do next at FeedBurner" kind of way.

    Great post. I disagree with Scott about one thing, though -- can you imagine doing this without the support of our spouses and family? I certainly can't.

  2. Eric - nope, sure can't. I love our logo a little more every time my 4 year-old sees it and shrieks, "FEEDBURNER! That's your office, Daddy!"

    Though I suspect they like coming to visit mostly because you can see the Hancock _and_ the Sears Tower from our windows. I mean, how much cooler can an office be? ;)

  3. Think they're happy now? Just wait till they see the photos of costumes people wear to our meetings.

    I also agree with Eric -- no way I could manage this style of work without my family's backing and support, and I don't travel away from them nearly as much as you do. I'm really glad you shared this view.

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