I recently wrote a post about how to manage relationships when you’re at a startup or are busy executive. It was based on an excellent book I had just read by Brad Feld & Amy Batchelor (his wife).
I had images in my brain of all of the stresses I had placed on my wife in the heyday of my startups. We once took a “vacation” in Spain with Tania’s parents, but we were in the midst of an M&A transaction so this photo is how my wife & her family remember me on that trip.
Anyway, as I winnowed my way through the comments section of my blog post on relationships I realized my own wife has posted a response!
As she is quite accomplished in her own right so I take her opinion very seriously.
She never set out to be a guest poster on this blog, but I did get her permission to publish one previous note she had written - advice for young employees early in their careers - and it was such a hit I thought I’d publish another piece under her byline (with some minor additions from me).
A spouse’s hints for surviving an incredibly busy start-up person
My husband is Mark Suster and before he was a VC and blogger he was a startup entrepreneur like you. He was always over-scheduled, traveled constantly, had too little admin support and fell into the traps of a young workaholic.
So I had to learn how to best interact with him to be a supportive partner yet get what I wanted / needed, too.
Here are my top tips (and I still use these with Mark!). Obviously these are written from the female head-of-household point of view with a working husband. But I’m sure many would apply if the situation were reversed. And I do work – but I take on more family responsibilities than Mark does.
1. Get electronic access to his calendar
Mark granted me read/write access to his calendaring system. I don’t call when I see he is in a board meeting or meeting important investors. I found that often the reason I need to speak to him was to figure out social plans, travel schedule or to block stuff out when he has important kid-duty stuff. I use the calendar for scheduling so I don’t have to bug him about when he is free.
We have a deal that in exchange for not bugging him about scheduling I’m free to make important plans around his calendar. This cuts down dramatically on the needless admin barrage of calls that would be made and means that when I do call it can be for more happy, positive stuff.
When you do call him at work, always ask “Is this a good time to talk” before launching into the full paragraph about the broken water heater and the lice outbreak at school.
2. Respect and develop a positive working relationship with his co-workers
office manager, finance manager and/or assistant if he has one. Often the spouse ends up getting involved in assisting with admin like whether or not expenses were filed, sending in credit card statements and the like. So having a direct connect to the finance manager is important. You can just cut out the middle man! (Mark, you’re becoming superfluous ;-)) If I have questions on Mark’s schedule I know that I can just go directly to Tasha and ask what she’s planning for him. Or if he’s avoiding going to the doctor I can make a secret pact with her that she promises she’ll make sure he doesn’t cancel.
Inevitably work stories & team frustrations find their way back home so having an appreciation for the people in the office can make you a better listener. And that’s often what your partner is looking for.
3. Don’t email him unless you have to
Most startup execs are barraged with hundreds of emails and they spend hours trying to reach the elusive Zero Inbox nirvana. Emailing – even when well intentioned – just adds to this to-do list. I usually text message him if it is important and then I know he sees it. Short, sweet and actionable.
4. Have a “date night”
Here’s one where I have to credit Mark. When we decided to have kids (4 years into startup number 1) Mark pushed me to agree that we’d have “date night” once per week to make sure we protected our couple time. We started when Jacob was about 12 weeks old if you can believe it. We booked a babysitter once a week whether we had plans or not. You need couple time. If money is tight, you can trade babysitting with friends. It’s worth the hassle. Even when you are tired and don’t feel like going out, once you are out you breathe deeply and realize it’s a good idea.
A friend of mine is recently widowed and another is recently divorced. They both approached me separately and said, “I wish I did date nights like you guys. I think it is really important and I regret not doing it”
And even if you don’t yet have kids, establishing couple time independent from work, colleagues and friends is a great habit to commit yourself to.
5. Respect his need for down time:
If he loves mountain biking or poker night – or in Mark’s case obscure foreign films about blind Iranian shepherds – then make sure your over-stressed partner gets to do something that truly relaxes him once a week. If your spouse or partner is anything like Mark, he will inevitably try to over-plan his time off. Help encourage him not to. Downtime is critical to de-stressing.
Also, pro tip. Many startup founders spend all day making tons of hard decisions both big and minute. I found that once off work one thing Mark valued was NOT making the decisions. Picking a restaurant, the movie or where to go for drinks was strangely a huge relief for Mark. I think there’s such thing as decision exhaustion. I’m going to trademark that.
6. Don’t be a Martyr
Plan some fun with your girlfriends regularly, no one is going to do it for you. This is true whether you’re young and dating or have a family and kids. But it is especially true in the latter case. Often men go out on work dinners and while still technically work they get the chance to chat about life, politics, sports and such.
For women who aren’t full time in the workforce or who may be full time. but have young kids and therefore more parent duty, we can lose sight of the importance of this down time. I started a book, er, wine club with some girlfriends all of whom are professional and have families. Other than 50 Shades of Grey we rarely carry on for too long about the books themselves. It’s us time. And we deserve it. And need it. So get some. He’s not going to do it for you.
7. Pick your battle times
Say “we don’t need to discuss this now, but we need to schedule time to discuss X as its really important.” That way you aren’t hitting him up on an important topic when he might be stressed out about company layoffs, fund raising or some other major stress at work. He can then find a calm time for a heavy conversation that is planned in advance.
8. Work Travel isn’t fun
I used to be a management consultant who traveled every week flying out on Sunday and back on Thurs or Friday. If you are a full time mom or have a career that never involved work travel you may imagine staying in nice hotels and going to nice restaurants is great. After the first month believe me it isn’t!
It is impossible to eat healthy, exercise, or get enough sleep when you have jet lag, breakfast meetings through to obligatory dinner meetings. Even at a fancy restaurant you are thinking, “I’m behind on email, exhausted, and really would rather not be eating this or drinking that.”
So while I admit that when you aren’t traveling as much the thought of getting on a flight to go somewhere fun and have real downtime with a magazine sounds or a movie sounds so tempting. Just remember for a constantly traveling spouse, it is grueling. Don’t bust his balls for travel.
As Mark is (too) fond of saying, “International travel is fun. For those who don’t do it.” Or his other favorite, “Car. Airport. Plane. Taxi. Hotel. Meeting room. Taxi. Airport. Plane. Car. Home. What in that is glamorous?”
9. Remember that he is working to make our life better.
When does take that call during dinner or the weekend, he is working for the success of the family, he is doing it for us. It isn’t fun for him. That only makes it 15% less annoying, but it helps a bit. And it also helps if he’s apologetic and grovels a bit But seriously it does help to have an appreciation of his stresses and the need to be a provider. But don’t let him get away with needless calls.
10. Take vacations!
It is mandatory. I used to love our unplugged week each year in Sequoia Nat’l park with no WiFi and no cell coverage. Sadly after 5 years they started getting just enough wifi coverage for him to check in, bummer! He even hooked up his TextPlus account with the camp wifi to make calls last year. Aargh. Americans are so programmed to brag about how much vacation time they skipped. I feel sad for people that do that. Nobody ever remembers the extra 2 weeks they spent in the office when they’re older. And nobody will care later in life that you bragged about skipping vacation for 10 years when you were at a startup. You’ll cherish your memories of trips forever.
11. I love the idea of a Digital Sabbath
some time each week where the whole family unplugs. Haven’t gotten this family to sign up but I would like to try.
At a minimum I know that Mark will occasionally leave his phone at home or in the car when we go out to dinner. If he brings it he can’t resist the Pavlovian temptations to “just quickly check” the text message or email alert. Funnily enough, when the phone isn’t there and checking isn’t an option it is strangely relaxing and satisfying. Try it!
12. Take some weekends without the kids each year
whether you have kids now or plan to one day - it is really important to reconnect with your spouse. It is worth the hassle of organizing and the expense. The kids are going to grow up and abandon us. We need to nourish our couplehood. It won’t happen on its own. The first time you do it, it’s very hard. But luckily Mark is a stickler about our private time and we’ve never regretted a trip.
That said, one thing I love most about Mark is that on weekends he’s such a family man. He usually says no to weekend conferences and events. He tries to fly out on Sunday nights late or early on Mondays. He lives for watching the kids play sports, taking them cycling or to the movies, going to the beach – whatever. And, yeah, he feels compelled to Instagram, Tweet or Facebook it. But having space for the family that is OUR time given how crazy the weekdays can be is really a joy.
Hope that helps. And though gender specific I hope you at least found some gems in there for your partner, spouse or family.