Startuphood And Parenthood: Not For The Faint Of Heart

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By Christine Tsai (Partner, 500 Startups)

Editor’s note: In June 2011, Dave McClure said “women founders or co-founders are probably 20-25% of the [500 Startups] portfolio.” We thank 500 Startups for being supportive of Women 2.0 and women entrepreneurs in general over the years.

Parenthood is the closest thing I’ve found to entrepreneurship. Looks cool from the outside but can be really messy inside. Everyone has advice, you work like a dog, the highs are amazing and lows horrendous, and it is the best thing ever.

A 500 Startups company founder emailed me this recently and I found it to be the best analogy I’ve heard in a long time.

Being a parent and being an entrepreneur are quite similar. Allow me to elaborate based on my experience as a mom so far and someone who works very closely with entrepreneurs.

Looks cool from the outside but can be really messy inside.

Jeff Lu of Daily Aisle said it best in a recent blog post he wrote about the hardships of doing a startup:

“I find it entertaining observing other startup founders. We all ask each other how everything is going and we all answer “GREAT” and then like a PR firm, we spew the latest good news spin. I then go grab drinks with a few close founder friends and we order stiff drinks, stare off like zombies, and talk about all the things going wrong with our companies.”

From an outsider’s perspective, things could appear to be going very well. Yet people are blithely unaware of the fact that you’re still struggling to make money, you can’t figure out why your customers aren’t converting into paying customers, you get the sinking feeling you’re going to have to fire one of your employees, you and your co-founder aren’t seeing eye to eye. The only toilet in your office bathroom keeps clogging. Every night you go to bed (when you actually sleep in your bed) and have trouble falling asleep because you’re worrying about all these problems.

Motherhood is also something where oftentimes you feel like you’re forced to plaster a smile on your face whenever someone asks you about how things are going. What you expose to the world is carefully curated – my son’s blog features photos and videos that make it seem like having a baby is fun and easy. The reality?

You’re running on fumes with only a couple hours of sleep each night. You barely have enough time to eat a full meal. Every little thing freaks you out and sends you running to the pediatrician. The job literally is messy, too — poopy diapers, spit-up, streams of pee all over your clothes, projectile poops, drool. To be fair, it’s especially difficult when your child is an infant, and most parents will tell you that it keeps getting better and better. But with a new age comes a new set of challenges. So I don’t believe things ever get “easier.”

Everyone has advice.

Launch now. No, launch in 6 months. You should be selling to small businesses. No, you should be selling directly to consumers. Raise a small advisory round now. No, hold off and raise a huge seed round. Your company name is holding you back from getting more customers – change it.

It’s in your best interest to be talking to as many people as possible about your startup. However, this presents a challenge when you’re in coffee meeting after coffee meeting and everyone is doling out all sorts of advice. How do you know who to listen to? Your head spins after hearing all this advice.

Moms get their fair share of conflicting advice, with a heaping of unsolicited advice. Parents debate the pros/cons of different types of disposable diapers, whether the supposed carcinogens in Johnson & Johnson baby products hurt their kids who used it, which method of sleep training to use. The fact that there is no right or wrong answer and the fact that you’re already on edge about every little decision and how it’ll potentially impact your child in the long run, makes parenthood all the more confusing.

You work like a dog.

Entrepreneurs don’t have a regular 9-5 work day. They don’t take vacations. They live and breathe their business 24/7 and wear many different hats. Polyvore co-founder Jess Lee notes in this Fast Company article how she wrote code, sold ads, did dishes, and went on food runs. A few of our founders shared their lesser known roles at their companies in this blog post.

I can say without a doubt that being a mom is the ultimate test of my multi-tasking skills. I spend my day meeting startup after startup, helping our portfolio companies, bringing in speakers, and soon gearing up for Demo Day for our accelerator program. I am also my son’s diaper changer, food source, coach, laundry service, dish washer (or rather, bottle washer), and medical aide. I take phone calls with startups while also supervising my son as he plays on his activity mat and editing slides for an upcoming fund advisory meeting. Once he’s down for the night, I’m back on my laptop. Everyday is a marathon, where I’m left completely wiped out at the end. And then the sun rises and it starts all over again.

The highs are amazing and lows horrendous.

Very few people talk about the emotional roller coaster that comes with being a founder. Even with the most successful businesses, it’s rarely pretty behind the scenes. You make tough decisions, deal with rejection, lose money, lose customers, argue with your co-founders. Founders put everything on the line to start their companies, and it takes a toll on everyone around them. That said, when things are good, they can be good. You feel on top of the world when you land your first paying customer, close a round of funding, hit 500K users, hire awesome people.

Moms know exactly how that feels. Some days I am SuperWoman. I can do anything and everything and feel that I truly do have it all — an awesome baby, awesome family, awesome job, awesome everything! I pat myself on the back for being able to get my son ready for the day, having a bunch of good meetings, and making it home on time while also keeping the house tidy and organized. Then there are days where I feel like I’m failing at home, failing at work, just failing all over the place. Basically, like I’ve hit rock bottom.

It is the best thing ever.

I’ve never met an entrepreneur who regretted taking that path, even if it cost them everything. I’ve never met a parent who regretted having children, no matter what sacrifices they made to raise them. Startuphood and parenthood are not for the faint of heart. But that’s what makes the journey so rewarding and such a thrill. You learn so much about yourself and surprise yourself with what you’re really made of when you’re pushed past your limits.

What I’ve found therapeutic is knowing that I’m not alone. Hearing other parents’ trials and tribulations makes me realize that, in fact, I’m not doing too shabby of a job and that it isn’t just me who finds this whole parenting thing difficult. In the same vein, entrepreneurs should never feel like they’re alone. I sincerely hope that every entrepreneur out there feels like they can be truly honest and transparent about their emotions and struggles — if not to a wide audience, then at least to a small circle of confidantes. It’s never good to keep all that bottled up inside of you. We’re allowed to be human.

As counter-intuitive as this may seem coming from someone who’s a VC — while running a company may seem like it’s all about the destination (or exit), it is the journey that ultimately has the most significance.

This post was originally posted at TechCrunch.

Photo credit: Josh May on Flickr.

About the guest blogger: Christine Tsai is a Partner at 500 Startups where she works closely with early-stage startups and directs the 500 Mentor Network, platform partnerships with companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more. Prior to 500 Startups, Christine worked at places including Google, YouTube, OSIsoft and ChevronTexaco. Christine holds a B.A. in Cognitive Science from the University of California at Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter at @christine_tsai.

  • Akirakur

    Awesome! As a mom of a one year old that has been working on my own startup for the last year – I totally agree. It’s easy to say women should lean in – really tough to live either, startuphood or parenthood individually never mind both together. Brought a smile to my face.

  • http://storycube.com Melanie

    I like your analogy. I do find that as a parent and a start-up founder, I constantly question if I’m doing the right thing. But, alas, even as a parent, we do the best we can, constantly revising and trying new approaches. It’s the curvy bumpy of path of unknowns that makes parenting and start-ups so enticing.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/mariawv MariaWV

    Bravo! Thanks for demonstrating that women can want BOTH start-ups AND babies — they’re not mutually exclusive. And we can be successful at balancing both, even if at times we find ourselves utterly exhausted & covered in vomit while staring, bleary-eyed, at a powerpoint deck…

    This is, I hope, one of those “If it doesn’t kill me it makes me stronger” types of things! :)

    I hope that we’re part of a new generation of emerging mom-trepreneurs who build kick-ass companies and make the anti-mom VCs do a double-take….for while I am currently sleep-deprived, I’m also becoming a stronger manager (both of time and of people), thanks to what motherhood has taught me!

    In sum: here’s hoping you and Dave McClure make heaps of money by betting on awesome moms :)

  • Jenn

    There’s a stigma in being a woman in technology. Even bigger being a Mother. Thanks for putting it out there and telling it like it is – love/hate!