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The Deal: How entepreneurs (and their families) survive the start up life

Back in the early 1990’s, I was attending a “10-250” start-up presentation (named after the number of the lecture hall under the MIT dome), and the speaker made the point that a large percentage of entrepreneurs end up divorced. I have no idea what the rest of the presentation was about, but I came away with the idea that starting a company was hazardous to my marriage.

At the time, I was working as a technology licensing officer for MIT, and I was dreaming about starting my own business. By 1996, I was ready to pull the trigger and start NBX (a VoIP-based business telephone system), and the warning from the 10-250 presentation was still ringing in my ears. At the time, my wife and I had one baby and visions of growing a family, we had a (quite old) home with a mortgage that needed a boatload of repair, and we had barely figured out how to split the chores on shopping for, and cooking, dinners together.

Carpe Diem

There is never a good time to get married, have a baby, switch jobs, move your home or start a company. However, the dream of starting and growing a high-growth technology company had overtaken me, and I remember talking about it all the time with my wife. I’m definitely guilty of thinking out loud and saying the same thing over and over again in many different ways when I’m trying to get my head around something. My wife Laura has the patience and tolerance to listen; so, by the time I was ready to quit my job and start NBX, Laura was not completely surprised. In fact, shortly before we started NBX, she gave me a coffee mug that said Carpe Diem on the side, and the Carpe Diem changed to “Seize the Day” when you added hot coffee the mug. (Cute, huh!) I knew that she was on board, at least in spirit.

Because of all the warnings from that 10-250 presentation, I felt that I needed to cut a deal with Laura so that I had a clear runway to start the business. In my view, we needed to go into the start-up with the clear knowledge that we were putting our marriage at risk, and we needed to be realistic about what it would take from both of us. So, we cut a deal, and it was incredibly lopsided. I painted the scenario in which I would be working all the time and mostly away from home.

Work would come first, and Laura would bear the brunt of the work to take care of our home, our baby, our finances and more. On top of that, she would continue to work as a speech pathologist because we needed the income. I was still in charge of taking care of our (quite small) yard and anything mechanical or electrical that might break down such as our old Toyota Corolla or the furnace in the basement; and I was in charge of dinner Friday, Saturday and Sunday. My jobs were contained and manageable, and Laura took the rest.

S*#! happens (so be prepared to adjust The Deal)

NBX was only a year old when Laura and I found out that she was pregnant with our second child. The original deal was in full force. In fact, I used to go to work all day, then come home to get some dinner to eat, and then go back into the office for two or three more hours of work. Laptops were still too expensive for us to buy as a start-up, and good broadband at home was still in the future, so there was no concept of working from anywhere. When our second son was born, Laura was suddenly faced with the challenge of trying to handle the crazy dinner-bath-stories-bedtime period for both a toddler and also an infant. It was too much. The Original Deal was not going to work.

There were plenty of moments when we did not know exactly what to do and how to make it all work out, so it was a marriage-saving moment when Laura said something along the lines of: “You can work all the time if necessary, but you need to be home between 6pm and 8pm to help feed the boys, give them baths, read them stories and put them to bed.” She was right, and I did my best to adjust. I went to the early shift at work, so I could work from 5:30am to 5:30pm and we invested in a laptop so I could work from home at night (using dial-up as necessary). We had a new deal, and it worked. It was a year later that 3Com bought NBX for $90 million.

Just Shoot Me…

For us, the financial reward from NBX was immediate and it meaningfully changed our lives. It was a good destination, and I suddenly found myself with money and time. However, I have learned that I am happiest when I am working to build an exciting new business while working with a great team of dynamic and creative people. As a result, I got right back into another start-up after NBX, and in the last 10 years I have been involved with starting four more businesses (three of which have been successful). There have been plenty of rocky times along the way. At one particularly bad moment, I even told Laura to shoot me if I got involved with another start-up. Thankfully, she listened but ignored me on that one. I’ve also dabbled with the notion of switching to venture capital in order to diversify my risk across a portfolio of companies and increase my time flexibility. But, I seem to crave the energy that comes from being on a mission that only a high-growth technology company can offer.

Our current deal: the dishwasher and a morning coffee

Back in February, I met a killer new company called ZeroTurnaround. I simply could not turn down an opportunity to help build another company that already had a great business model, super-creative team and profitable growth with an awesome list of enterprise customers. It was time for another Deal, but this time my family had grown to include two teenage boys and a daughter in middle-school.

I would need to make a Family Deal. I would be responsible for building up the sales, marketing and operations in ZT’s Boston office, and it was clear that the day would start early and go long. This time, Laura and I painted the scenario for the entire family to set everyone’s expectations that I would need to be working long hours and that people would need to step up around the house to help with everything from emptying the dishwasher to raking the leaves in the lawn. ZT is a work in process, but the whole family is making it happen.

With all these Deals, it is important to say both “thank you” and “I love you” with some regular little thing that is not specifically part of the Deal. For example, my Dad always used to start my Mom’s car to warm it up before she headed to work. My little thing right now is to make the morning coffee every day for Laura. I’m a bit obsessive about it, I confess. Even when I am up and out the door before anyone else is awake, Laura can turn on the coffee and know that I’m thinking of her and that I appreciate the fact that she holds it all together.

  • Shyam

    Excellent, great inspiration for start-ups