Entrepreneurs, Watch Your Back Side
The gut-wrenching decisions and night sweats every founder can appreciate are well presented in Ben Horowitz's book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. He tells his dramatic personal story of leading startups Loudcloud and Opsware through tough times. He shows us the skills and expectations we have for company founders as leaders, doers and modern cultural heroes.
Horowitz’s story is the “front side” of entrepreneurship but there is a “back side” that is seldom discussed or written about. That makes its hazards all the more treacherous for entrepreneurs.
The back side I’m referring to is the founder’s life away from the company. It’s the challenging task of building a steady financial footing, solid family relationships and staying healthy on the shifting, unpredictable ground of entrepreneurship.
The support structures and metronomic predictability that undergird daily life for most people are generally unavailable to entrepreneurs. Taking your career “off the grid” as an entrepreneur risks pressures that can reduce a founder’s personal life to rubble.
Successful back side management, fittingly, takes desire, effort and flexibility. It also often requires help. As a husband, dad and founder of four companies, I don't see it as optional. I’ve watched many beautiful front-side facades of companies and careers crumble because the back side was poorly designed and constructed.
Here’s a shorthand framework for thinking about what makes up the entrepreneurial back side and how you can begin to wrap your arms around it:
1. Goals. Company founders are engrossed thinking who their company serves and the core values guiding it. Most entrepreneurs never approach their personal mission with the same sense of destiny. It’s not optional -- you must.
2. Wallet: Are you keeping a close eye on your personal finances? Entrepreneurs throw nickels around like manhole covers and can squeeze revenue from the tightest customers but they seldom apply the same discipline to their personal finances. It’s an enormous source of instability and stress for many company founders.
3. Collateral damage. Want to get depressed, company founders? Google “entrepreneur divorce rate.” The break-up of a marriage will crater a company faster than any competitive bombshell. The children of affluent families have their own challenges that can become a huge burden for any entrepreneur to bear. Unless you consider how your drive to succeed is affecting your family, you risk winning the battle and losing the war.
4. Health. By definition, your company wouldn’t exist without you. How hard are you working to ensure that it won’t have to? Watch out for your own physical well-being at least as much as every other indispensible company asset. Your board is not granting bonuses for having a heart attack.
5. Mental health. Staying steady under stress when people look to you for leadership is unbelievably difficult. Watching a company crumble under its founder’s depression or addiction isn’t a pretty sight. You need to manage stress in a healthy way to stay sane under pressure.
6. Accountability. It’s all well and good to have plans and checklists but, as Field Marshal von Moltke observed, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Who keeps you true to your personal vision and well-being and doesn’t let you off easy when you fall short?
Entrepreneurs often lead remarkable lives. But those remarkable lives require significant attention, forethought and work. But what’s good in life that doesn’t?