What a startup does to you. Or: A celebration of new life

What was supposed to happen is that a curious pair of scissors would be offered me, designed for a singular purpose that TSA could never accept, which is to sever the life-line of an infant.

I would then have to make a choice — a choice already pondered — on whether I had the stomach to take that critical action myself, in a modern 1st-world existence where even the most precious and basic of life’s occurrences might be cause for ill-at-ease at the smell of blood or disgust at the realities of birth.

Of course I would do it; I had practiced that desire.

But I didn’t get the chance.

My introduction to my daughter began and ended with a sterile view of a sterile hallway. Mom had been put under and, in the 1st-world, the male component of the mated pair isn’t allowed to accompany the female component in anything termed an “operating room,” lest said male reveals himself to be in fact an emasculated 1st-world male who faints at said smell of said blood or at sight of said scissors and the hideous yet necessary things done to said female, and who would therefore require medical attention in his own right, and/or generate a lawsuit over things that 1st-world non-medical-professioned males perceive as shocking and unconscionable, such as having to reassemble said female’s various bits into their right places, should it come to that, which thankfully in our case it did not.

So I sat there, seeing nothing but a beige wall, more helpless then I’ve ever felt.

Mom was interred in the first place because that cord had wrapped around Abby’s neck causing an erratic heartbeat. Off she had been rushed in a cloud of enscrubbed personnel. Off I had rushed after them, but been planted in a chair, all events invisible and out of reach.

Then I heard the cry. Abby’s first breath. A new life. And I wept.

Minutes later I was bathing my new girl.

Later came something even more miraculous than birth — they let two blatant amateurs take this infant home. Without so much as a pop quiz.

We didn’t know what to do next, but it turns out not to matter as much as you’d think.

“Abigail” is Hebrew for “Father’s Joy.”

There are many people who compare building startups with having children. Could that be right?

Both spend the first two years of life trying to kill themselves. And you spent that time frantically running around doing everything possible to prevent that eventuality.

Both are a combination of your own creation and their own direction. They’re malleable in certain ways and stubborn in others.  Every one is different, even when created by the same parents. Each needs the freedom to find their own way, yet aided and shaped by loving guides. They go through macro-level stages which are predictable and obvious to those who have trod the path before, but also micro-level stages unique to each creation.

How much time do they take? All of it.

How much patience do they take? All of it.

Of course they’re not actually all that similar, it’s just fun to draw comparisons isn’t it. After all, a kid will grow up pretty much no matter what; a startup usually dies regardless of and often due to the actions of the founders.

I think drawing comparisons is not only unnecessary but useless. Even supposing these two endeavors are similar…. so what?  What are you going to do differently today?

But one thing both share is not only important, it’s one of those few things in life which alters your being in a way that can never be undone and forever changes who you are and how you view and interact with the world.

Both are a crucible.

Meaning, a fiery place that will test your limits, not by probing them but by violently exceeding them, all of the time. A newborn feeds every three hours and one like ours takes an hour to fall asleep between those hours. Ours had colic, in which she screamed for 12 hours a day, every day, for three months. Try doing that while retaining your sanity.

I distinctly remember holding Abby out at arms length, thinking, “This is why they say ‘Don’t shake a baby.’” Until that moment I thought that Public Service Announcement was hilarious — who would throttle an innocent 7-pound newborn? Oh, it’s me. I would have.

There’s only a few times in my life where I’ve been taken to the brink, physically and mentally. Aside from Abby’s colic, all of them have been in startups. You’ve already read pithy Tweets about the “roller coaster o’ emotions,” you’ve wondered whether you have the fortitude to quit your job, and you’ve read books like The Dip (Know when to quit so you don’t waste your time, but don’t quit when it’s hard because winners push through the pain.)

You’ve read the words, now know that they’re mere words. You have to live it.

Just like having kids, you won’t understand until you do it.  But if you do it, even if you “fail,” you will come out stronger than you could have ever been without it. Stronger, wiser, ready for the next thing, never able to go back to being a cog, eyes opened.

I’ve never met a person who tried a startup, failed, and said they wouldn’t have done it all over again. Never. What does that mean?

We didn’t kill her, by the way. And so (like a startup) although each day can feel like an interminable mixture of necessary drudgery and constant invention, she managed through her major phases, like sitting up.

And walking.

And on and on, all boring and inevitable and yet precious and impossible.

What’s your crucible?  What’s your all-in move?  Where’s your child-like combination of wonder and determination? How are you forging your own being, taking the most from life?

Awake my little ones, and fill the cup
before life’s liquor in its cup be dry.
–Omar Khayyám.

What’s over there?


20 responses to “What a startup does to you. Or: A celebration of new life”

  1. Spot on. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your personal side.  Neither of my kids even had colic – but I have said almost the exact same thing about the shaken baby ads.  It never made sense to me how anyone could ever do that. It makes sense now.

    I made the leap and started my company about the same time we had our 2nd kid.  Perfect timing.  Just like with children, there is no perfect time. Are we ever ready?

    Through all of this – in the same way I sometimes have trouble relating to people who don’t have kids… I have found that now I am just as annoying to the rest of my friends who haven’t founded their own startup.

    Every once and a while the emotional roller coaster mellows for a moment. And in moments like these – (the day we brought home our new son) https://vimeo.com/36219776

    I know all of the hard work and risk was worth it.

    Finally, hands down the best commentary on becoming a parent is this ted talk: http://bit.ly/NGH5k3

  2. Great analysis and pictures. As someone who is entirely focused on business and putting off family, you make me think twice about my priorities.

    • I can’t (and shouldn’t!) tell you what to do, but I’m happy if I made you ponder things.  And putting off a family can be a GOOD THING if you have other priorities right now!  Don’t want to have regrets on that scale.

  3.  Mom had been put under and, in the 1st-world, the male component of the mated pair isn’t allowed to accompany the female component in anything termed an “operating room,”

    They are here in the UK! Indeed, you’d get some weird glances if you didn’t want to go. A relatively recent thing though, my dad had to wait outside when I was born too.

    In comparing my business to a baby though.. I’ll say just this: the baby has felt 100x harder to get right ;-)

  4. Great post. I currently have 3 kids, 2 of them were born during the first 3 years of my startups life. I got into a situation of too many crucibles at once but I kinda like life that way… I think it almost broke me though.

    • I think the “almost broke me” part is the critical part.  Perhaps it’s “bad” to say that this is a good thing or a necessary thing, and perhaps it’s not necessary, but in my experience it is in fact necessary to get to a new place in your life.

      • It sometimes take reaching new lows to find the resolve to reach new highs.

  5. My daughter is 4 months now.  I was hoping to get my business going when I took a little time off work but I realize that all our time is taken up now caring for her.  Can having infants / babies on one’s hands be combined with starting up a business?  Is that even humanly possible?

    That warning about not shaking an infant was going through my head too!  It’s funny how a tiny baby can make such racket! 

    • It certainly *can* be combined, but one or both will suffer.  Of course they will, since both in fact take all your time or, perhaps more correctly, all your energy.  Maybe it’s OK for them to suffer in exchange for having both, or as some say “having it all.”  But it’s not clear whether you in fact have it all.  I think this is a very personal choice.

  6. Awesome post! I don’t know anyone who’s ever been part of a startup that would go back to any other kind of job. 

    For me, it’s a combination of personal investment, passion and constant learning that I’ve never found in any other job. Would I go back to a safe, boring, 9-to-5? Not on your life. Not ever.

  7. Thanks so much for this great post, a unique comparison. I loved this line: “I’ve never met a person who tried a startup, failed, and said they wouldn’t have done it all over again.” Thanks!

    – Kate

  8. I have to agree with never being able to go back to a 9 t 5 after a startup. A startup can be like a baby because you give them life and it’s almost impossible to let them go without giving it all you have.

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