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Insights from an Entrepreneurial Dad

Posted by Joe Garza on 2014-08-13

We all know launching a company requires a great deal of time and sacrifice. But is it necessary to give up all of the little things that make life worth living? Not according to KJ Park, who has successfully managed to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations while still fulfilling his role as a father and husband.

is the Founder and CEO of Arazucon, an online marketplace for construction equipment and parts, as well as a Graduate of the Los Angeles Founder Institute.

In the post below, KJ reflects on his experiences in balancing the lifestyles of an entrepreneur and family man. Startup Decisions of an Entrepreneurial Dad” originally appeared on KJ’s blog, Daddyworthy. It has been republished with his permission:

"As a Dad entrepreneur, I found that the startup path poses unique challenges that differ from those probably experienced by a single founder or a founder without kids.

This article will especially resonate to Dads committed to the startup odyssey with at least the following conditions:

1.     The main breadwinner (income is required for the basic welfare of the family)
2.     Has at least one child
3.     Has 6-12 months of savings as a lifeline

Aside from all of the difficulties that startups face such as raising capital, finding resources, and acquiring customers, two things constantly weighed on my mind.

1.     Time: How to spend quality family time.
2.     Economics: How to plan financially for the future.

1. Time

When I worked for a company that had set work hours, the conscious planning of spending quality time never really entered my mind because I was with my family on most days after work and during weekends. But when I started working with startups, there was a constant stream of work and no set hours to abide by. The amount of work and unconventional schedule forced me to reevaluate the things that were most important in my life. Time management was one. I realized I had to reassess the decision logic of how I spent my time. And the method of allotting time to certain tasks had to be evaluated based on my core values. One thing I deeply believed in was that during my daughter's early years, I had to participate in her life in some way to demonstrate my love and reinforce her significance as an individual. I also wanted to be consistent with when and what I shared with her because I felt young children needed routine in their activities to help them become more emotionally stable. 

With these thoughts in mind, I set a time between 6-8pm as my core family time. When something else came up during that period, I forced myself to ask the following question: What value was this event creating in my life, and how critical was it for work/family? If I felt the event could be rescheduled or was below a certain line in my value hierarchy, I chose spending time with my wife and child instead. Immediate axed were weekly bar hopping events or dinner with friends. In their place were home-cooked meals and maybe a sip of a beer while writing work emails. Gone were the 1.5 hour workouts on weekday nights, replaced by 30min crack of dawn runs or midnight elliptical machines. I fought to secure this time, even if it meant coming home briefly only to return to the office a short time after (I was fortunate to be within 15min driving of where I worked).

I know that every decision is case-by-case, but I feel as a father founder, you really need to invest not just in your startup, but in your child's future. This can only happen if you protect the things that are most precious to your child's development, one of which I felt was time spent with her. 

To this date, I have almost always had dinner with my daughter, read to her, and given her a bath during the 'golden hours'. The result so far has been rewarding. She eagerly looks forward to reading a book and bathing with me while also respecting my time by not begging to play when I am working. Mom is not the only person she gravitates to when we are together, and being acknowledged with a responsive daughter makes you feel special as a Dad.

2. Economics

Regarding economics, I knew my startup decision would create financial duress, and planning for it was difficult. Note: it is really easy for some founders to become attached to this idea of cashing in your 401k and living what I'd call in this age an "Airbnb" lifestyle, hopping from apartment to apartment, maybe even subletting to make extra income. As a single founder, this can work. As a Dad founder however, you have to make sure to protect the stability and livelihood of your family. I feel that because the media sensationalizes certain aspects of a successful founder's initial journey that demonstrate extreme risk-taking or accidental fortune, it can be easy for founders to assume they can assimilate the same methodology to improve their chances of success. Moreover, self-imposed pressure to take a bold risk, not to mention a growing resistance to becoming a corporate drone, may spur you to leap blindly without really planning for what could be an undesirable outcome and the consequences your decision can pose on the family.

In my case, I made sure I had reserves, and consulted part time with my previous employer so that income could trickle in. I worked at an early stage venture-funded startup to gain insight instead of jumping into my own venture first. I applied to and was accepted to an accelerator (Founder Institute) which advises idea stage founders who are also working professionals to develop their business model and network with a community of seasoned mentors. Taking the advice of another successful entrepreneur, Scott Painter, I set a specific time limit to achieve major milestones. For me, this was finding a product market fit and raising a significant seed funding event within a year. All of this was, in part, ways to reduce the initial risk as a Dad founder. 

Even with this early preparation, I wasn't ready for the psychological impact becoming a Dad founder can have on a marriage. Scaling up to a more luxurious lifestyle is easy; scaling down to a leaner lifestyle is really hard. My wife and I sold a lot of things we felt were excesses in our life. How I defined excess was, "Do we use this item less than 20% of the time?" If the answer was "Yes" it was seriously evaluated for sale. We operated one car between us for a while, and I would often walk or take the bus because where I worked was close enough for me to use public transportation. Shopping was restrained, and aside from functional purchases, we drew a hard line on what we considered were nice-to-haves, like new clothes and accessories. Cable and Netflix subscriptions were removed (also for other reasons mentioned here). 

As time passes, the uncertainty of the future plus the constant minimization of your lifestyle becomes emotionally overwhelming for you and your wife. This is when you are seriously tested as a Dad founder. I was. On those days when you feel the lowering quality of life as all your friends are planning family vacations to exotic locations while your idea of a holiday is a window-shopping trip to the mall, or when you decline invitations to eat out because you know that is another unwanted bill on your credit card, you are overwhelmed by the notion of what it means to be a Dad founder. 

What I realized was that beyond the aspirations of finding financial freedom and being your own boss, the only way to stay strong as a Dad founder is to commit to a startup idea that embodies a founding mission which is deeply rooted in your core beliefs. Certainly, the intrinsic concept of finding an idea from your own problems which Paul Graham elegantly outlines here is important. However, as a Dad founder, the additional external forces that come from being responsible for sustaining your family is so great, your first startup requires a higher order of mission and conviction than just a problem that irked you enough to want to solve (I say this cautiously because that problem could be SO great to you, your desire to solve it becomes a higher calling, or a certain part of the problem solving process becomes an enormous passion i.e. customer service). Also, there are some cases where you start something small as a side project which ends up becoming bigger than you originally thought, enough to quit your job and pursue this new venture, so I speak generally here.

Furthermore, I feel it is important to test the market while you are employed and have some financial flexibility. This may mean building out an alpha product and earning small revenue from "untainted" customers (i.e. not family and friends but organic) before deciding to commit more of your time on the startup. This ensures that you are not blindly working on an idea that serves little merit to a wider customer base while risking your financial status. Most likely, your initial idea will pivot several times, and you may not end up with a business you started with, but proving your idea with customers before making a calculated leap, I believe, is critical to a Dad founder. You will also have to work nights and weekends to keep your startup alive while you work part or even full time, so know that social life will disappear.

As a result of my startup journey, I feel like I've matured not just as a founder but as a father. I don't take my time with my family lightly anymore but value every minute of it. I am thankful for the current resources I have and appreciate what it means to have basic necessities like food, water, shelter and transportation available to me. I have more respect for people who I thought previously didn't seem to take risks when in fact, they were actually being more cautious with their decision because they had children to look after. At the same time, I now question the decision process of parents with families who seem to be making really bold bets on the future without a reasoned approach and contingency plans.

Finally, I've realized how important the support of your significant other is in making your startup happen. If your wife starts complaining about the quality of life or questioning your role as a father/husband, this will probably spiral into some devastating emotional breakdown in the future. Without the support of my wife, I'm sure I would have pulled the plug on my venture early, ended up with a broken family, or worse.  We've weathered a few storms, but in the end, it is clear that she wants the best for my future as long as I stay responsible as a husband and father. Just the approval and support from your wife can uplift the spirits of a founder and help counteract the uncertainties and doubts you will surely face.

So, startup Dads, keep the spirit alive, but temper your passion with the reality of being a husband and parent. In due time, with a higher mission, a reasoned approach, an unwavering will, and a supportive family, one of your ideas will materialize into a successful business.

Learn more about KJ Park on his blog or follow him on Twitter at @DaddyWorthy.

(Family life insurance, family services, family policy and supporting families concepts image by Shutterstock)

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