It’s almost there. My cofounder and I have been up all night in our dorm room, every day for almost a week, trying to add this one important feature to our software. Once we get it done, we just know all those commitments are going to come through.
I go across the room to get the two cups of instant noodles I just made – a little sustenance – and as I hand one to my cofounder he picks up his hand and pokes me in the eye with an extended finger.
“What the…” I mutter. He pokes my eye again, then grabs my bottom lip and pulls it as far away from my mouth as it will go.
I wake up.
My husband brought the baby over to our bed in the middle of the night to nurse, and now as a gesture of infant gratitude he’s exploring how poke-resistant my face is. Our older toddler has joined and he’s testing out the bounciness of our kneecaps.
I roll out of bed, and my husband and I juggle the morning routine – diapers-toothbrushes-bananas-sandwiches-outfits-dropoffs. Finally I breathe a sigh of relief, drink some coffee, and get to work on my startup.
Sometimes I find myself extremely jealous of the Ramen Eaters. No little humans depending on them, no spouse to answer to, and (relatively speaking*) not a care in the world except to get to market as fast as possible with just the right product.
“I just wish I had a few hours of uninterrupted thinking,” I commiserated with a friend who used to have a startup over a rare coffee together. “Sometimes I think my attention span doesn’t even remember what that feels like anymore. You know what I mean?”
My friend nodded. We are both huge feminists, very driven, determined to succeed on both the home front and the career front – to “have it all,” as they say. And we’re both blessed enough to have supportive partners who share the load with us when it comes to childcare and domestic tasks. In fact, both our spouses did more at home and with the kids than we did – which made it possible for us to have the kind of career paths we pursued.
We talked about how lucky we are to have husbands who are so good with kids, and to be able to trust them to take care of things so independently of us. But we also acknowledged the difficulties. We talked about a particular investor, whose content we consume like crazy but who pissed us off with his ideal model for a founder: basically young, male, unmarried. In the entire history of his fund, they only once took a startup with married founders that succeeded – and that investor was able to explain this away with a stinging “it’s because they had wives.”
“Being a startup founder with a family means significantly leaning on that family. Sometimes to an uncomfortable extent. It’s a leap that you take together with them.”
“It’s a tactless way to say it,” we agreed, and then hushed our voices so that people near us in the cafe wouldn’t hear, “but he’s kind of got a point there.”
It’s an unpopular opinion among my circles (mostly driven, career oriented women and mothers) but for most people it’s the truth: Being a startup founder with a family means significantly leaning on that family. Sometimes to an uncomfortable extent. It’s a leap that you take together with them.
And when daycare calls you in the middle of the day because your child is running a fever, or when you don’t sleep a wink for a few nights in a row – not because you’re working on some exciting feature – but because your baby decided it’s a good time to start teething, or simply when you realize that if you work on your startup as much as you actually thought you needed to, you would just not see your kids (not to mention your partner) – that’s when you can’t help but agreeing with that investors: those Ramen Eaters have a built-in advantage. They’re already miles ahead of you.
But while it’s true that we rely heavily on our partners to give us the freedom to succeed as startup founders, the ol’ ball and chain(s) can actually be our competitive advantage. In honor of Mother’s day, I wanted to detail exactly how:
1. We work in the name of a higher (practical) cause:
Sure, your run-of-the-mill Ramen Eater is probably going to be quite driven to change something that’s broken in the world, and that particular flavor of motivation will already carry them further than most other humans. But we also have something even stronger keeping us accountable when times get rough – our families. This really ups the ante. It also means that if we’re spending our work time wrong we are not only burning investor cash, we’re also stealing ourselves from our families unnecessarily.
2. We have a home team rooting for us, grounding us, and cheering us on:
So our families act as a firm reminder to get stuff done every possible moment, or suffer the dreaded parent guilt. But what about positive reinforcement? Unlike the Ramen Eaters, we have an outside perspective available to us at the end of every day. A loving, caring, and usually super intelligent ear to listen to us and offer up a unique insight. In the lonely road that startup founders often walk by definition, we have a team of people who understand our innermost fears and desires, who have our backs and give us extra strength to push through.
3. We prioritize better:
Having a family means you literally have less time to yourself, and that includes your startup. But unlike the Ramen Eaters, this isn’t the first time we’re going through this; out of necessity, we work faster to complete tasks, and we have a much more nuanced understanding of what is really “urgent” and what is just a time suck in disguise.
4. We are battle hardened:
If anyone is looking for the next big concept in extreme challenge reality shows, they should seriously consider the task of getting a toddler out the door on time every morning for a week, fully dressed and fed. The contestants should dress themselves too, but they will not be allowed to eat or drink anything until drop off is completed. It’s one thing to be sleep deprived because you’re working on your cool algorithm; it’s a totally different one to put yourself last from the moment you wake up until you’re by yourself again, and it certainly builds character.
5. We know how to make more with less:
If there’s any demographic where you can find the most Macgyver-esque abilities, it’s parents of young children. The amount of improvising we have to do just to reach everyone else’s ”normal” is unbelievable. In my mere 3 years of parenting, I’ve improvised a diaper, a bed, a swing, and a smile when there wasn’t one. I’ve broken into my own home, given a child magic powers to combat a totally rational fear of being eaten by any quadruped, and told scary-looking individuals to beat it if they wish to continue puffing cigarette smoke. We have to be quick on our feet, and we’re always in an arms race trying to out-hack the ultimate, fearless hackers – our kids.
6. We have incredible people skills:
Short of living with an actual tyrant, there’s probably nothing that prepares you better for dealing with completely irrational individuals the way raising children does. To preserve everyone’s sanity (but especially our own), we’ve developed incredible skills that range from reading sensitive social situations, negotiating with the best, mediating between opposing forces, and reverse psychology tactics. Most important of all, we’ve learned that empathy is the strongest force in our people-skills toolbox. After handling toddlers (and teenagers, so I hear), you see even the pickiest of customers, the flakiest of investors, and the lousiest of potential employees through a more forgiving – and more realistic – lens.
7. We are the more advanced model:
If you think about it, finding a partner and having children is still pretty common for most people. The Ramen Eater of today is the harried parent of tomorrow. They may be a slick prototype, but one that will probably change once they have a family. The difference is, we already know what that’s like – and we choose to keep on going with it. That says everything.
A note to the Ramen Eaters reading this: I do have a lot of respect for you. You are incredibly dedicated individuals, working towards a cause with determination and optimism that often hinges on just a hint or a hunch. I think that anywhere you are in life, you think your position is the most challenging one. I can imagine the typical Ramen Eater’s life is not actually carefree – they’re plagued by things that are a mere shadow to me – student loans, the pressure of finding a romantic partner, the stress of finding (and following) your calling, peer pressure to do things you’d rather not, trying to prove you belong in the academic or social circles you feel like an impostor in. Hang in there. It gets harder, but it also gets better.