Making the decision to found your own business is a life-altering experience. Of course, it’s what comes after that breakthrough moment – how unique the idea, how quickly you move, how you continue to innovate – that ultimately separates the wheat from the chaff.
And whether you’re in the culinary arts, book publishing or cloud technology, when you become an entrepreneur, work-life balance becomes a thing of the past. Your work must subsume your life if you want any shot of making it big.
There’s a reason why many compare starting a technology company to having a baby. In doing both, you’ll need to make sacrifices. You’ll inevitably miss important commitments. You’ll pull many all-nighters. You’ll be stretched past your limit. The most important thing is that you need to be okay with those changes – and internalize them before their force becomes overwhelming. What’s more, your family and those immediately surrounding you must also be onboard. In most cases, you’re risking everything you have for your idea, and they need to be prepared to support you and do whatever it takes to allow your idea to reach its potential.
There’s no sugarcoating it. It’s not easy. However, if you get in the right mindset and surround yourselves with the right people, venturing out on your own is also one of the most rewarding things you can do in life.
It’s common knowledge that you’re going to have to make sacrifices to be successful. For me, weekend trips became a thing of the past after starting our company Okta. As a big skier, I head to Snowbird in Utah each January with other entrepreneurs to hit the slopes. But the needs of my company became the top priority during these vacations, and I spent the entire weekend of our trip in 2010 in the hotel room closing our first round of funding – and was unable to let my friends know what was going on because some worked in venture capital. I missed the 2011 ski trip entirely due to business, and I’ve missed four close friends’ weddings in foreign countries since founding Okta. My co-founder Todd McKinnon and I have given countless weekends, early mornings and late nights to talk with customers as we build and grow our company.
At the time, there was no question about whether or not I would miss the weddings, or whether or not I would spend my ski trip indoors. Like a baby, our business’s needs come first. Internalizing these decisions was part of building our company and making sure it became successful. If that meant changing my mindset to reorient it toward our business, then that was what I was going to do.
A Strong Inner Circle
It’s common knowledge that the people you surround yourself with during the startup process can make or break your business, but there are a couple of people that will make all the difference.
My co-founder, Todd McKinnon, and my wife, Sara Johnson Kerrest, help me cope with the strain that comes with being an entrepreneur more than any well-prioritized to-do list ever will. As my business counterpart and my counterpart in every other way, the two of them make up my inner circle – confidants that are always there when I need to bounce around ideas or ask tough questions others may be afraid to. And they’ll be there for every risk you need to take.
Todd and I are very lucky that we have such supportive spouses – though when we both decided to leave stable positions at Salesforce.com to start something from scratch (with no revenue stream in sight) just after Sequoia Capital said “RIP Good Times,” tough questions had to be asked.
For Todd, that meant presenting a very text-heavy, yet persuasive PowerPoint to his wife. For me, that meant convincing my then fiancé (and now wife) that it was the right thing to do. Your family is there to ask the tough questions, but it’s encouragement and reassurance from your close friends and family that can make the difference when you start a business.
Things Change As You Grow Up
Of course, the sacrifices you make change as your company grows, too. Collaborating as a team of two is much different than managing a company of 300+, and that means you are going to have to make changes to how you work and also to how your work impacts your personal life.
It may mean no longer needing to review every line of code, and instead, taking those nights and weekends to build out an engineering team. It may mean no longer giving your cell phone number out to every customer as the sole company support person, and instead, giving your cell number out to every member of your new customer support team. It may also mean exchanging the speed of getting things done for the increased process required for automation and scale – and while these types of workflow changes can be some of the most challenging to internalize, they are the ones that ensure your company is able to continue growing.
It also means adapting your professional endeavors to fit with your personal life. When I co-founded Okta, I was engaged. Now I’m married with an 8-month-old at home. I make different sacrifices than I did when I first started. I still work 16 hours days, but no longer work both days of the weekend (or at least not regularly). I don’t watch many San Jose Sharks games on TV because when I do get home, I’m spending time with my son — or catching up on sleep.
While the sacrifices I make now are different, the care of my first baby, my business, will always be a priority, so whether it’s missing out on weddings, hockey games or the appropriate amount of sleep, giving up something is a given. But like having a child, it can be one of the most rewarding things you ever do.
Frederic Kerrest the co-founder and COO of Okta explores for hbr.org