Category Archives: Work Life Balance

Biggest Mistake? Mistaking Business for Life

(Note: I’m posting here my latest column for the Eugene Register Guard Blue Chip monthly magazine. These are not new themes for this blog, but I like what I say here. This is reposted here with permission.)

Let’s put startups, entrepreneurship and life in proportion.

A webinar participant asked me last week about what I think are the biggest mistakes I see in startups. That made me think, and here’s what I came up with. And common mistakes that you and I should avoid. So here’s a list. But first, three stories:

  1. My friend Larry found the job of his dreams and moved from the Silicon Valley, which he loved, to Atlanta for the new job. Six months later he was back. When I asked him what happened, he said: “Tim, it’s easier to find a new job than a new wife.” That was 20 years ago. He and his wife are still married. And Larry doesn’t regret his decision.
  2. A former student asked me, three years after he graduated, what to do about his wife not wanting him to start a new company. He said he had done the business plan and was sure it would work, but his wife was against it. I told him to get a clue. If he couldn’t convince his wife, a) maybe it wasn’t such a great idea; and b) that adds huge personal risk on top of the business risk.
  3. Years ago I was stuck over whether to leave a good job to start my own business. My wife and I had heavy student debt, four kids and a mortgage. She said: “Do it. Let’s take the risk. If it doesn’t work, we’ll figure it out. You won’t fail alone; we’ll fail together.” So I did it. And it worked.
So here, after the stories, is my list:
  1. Don’t sacrifice your life for your business. If you can, make your business enhance your life. And avoid the mistake of confusing business with life.
  2. If business threatens good, important relationships, then dump the business. (The corollary to that one — in honor of my four daughters, who know this — is that if a bad relationship holds you back for no good reason, dump him, not the business).
  3. Don’t use business as an excuse for selfishness and obsession. I’ve lived through this. There is an overpowering temptation to push everything else aside and dive into the business. Everybody who wants you to do anything else is annoying, and “Don’t they realize you’re building a business?” You miss dinner, the kids’ games and teachers’ conferences, everything that matters to anybody else in your life.
  4. If you make it, don’t pretend you did it alone. In my case, for example, I get introduced as chairman and founder of a successful software company, as if I’d done that alone. My ego likes that. But from the very start my wife was there with the risk, the thinking, the key decisions, the strategy, who and what to prioritize, and (repeating on purpose) especially the risk. We both had to sign the papers for the credit line at the bank. We both put our house and everything we owned into play. Perhaps even more importantly, my wife made sure I didn’t fall into that obsession trap. She insisted I stop working for family dinner, every night, even if I had to continue working into the evening. She scheduled vacations in advance, and prepaid them, so I wouldn’t just cancel. She didn’t let me dive into the business and never come out. She maintained that sense of proportion and I’m grateful to her for that.

Final thought: People who start businesses, run businesses and grow businesses have to be able to live with mistakes. You can’t do it without making lots of mistakes. Be able to deal with that. But keep the mistakes inside the business, not in the rest of your life.

(Image: shutterstock.com)

A Marketing Expert’s Must-Read Advice on Living Better

I’m proud to say John Jantsch, the world’s number one expert on small business marketing,  is a friend of mine. I’ve worked with him for years and I’ve learned a lot from him. For example, I still use his definition of marketing (“getting people to know, like, and trust you”) almost daily. 

His wisdom has spread well beyond marketing for a while now. For example, it was John who first suggested to me, several years ago, that regular exercise pays off in productivity time, instead of taking productivity time. 

And I’m glad to see he’s sharing some similarly important concepts, about life as well as business. in his Recover You series on his Small Business Marketing blog. This is must-read material. 

Today’s post is How to Breathe and Why You Must. Here’s a snippet:

Breathing is perhaps the most mindless of all human behaviors and what I’ve discovered is that an intentional practice of mindful breathing is perhaps one of the most powerful tools you can employ.

Earlier this month he posted How to Change Your Thoughts and Why You Must. Here’s a bit from that one: 

Starting today, carve out a 15-minute period and consciously commit to foregoing any thought of judgment. Take a walk on a busy street while you monitor your thoughts and see how actively your mind want to make judgments about everything you see. For some people just keenly witnessing their thoughts for even fifteen minutes is incredibly mind-opening.

Do yourself a favor. Read and follow this series of posts. 

(Image: Taken from John’s post. Photo credit: Mait Jüriado via photopin cc)

What Business For You? Look in the Mirror. Two Good Posts.

I’ve always said that what business is right for you depends not on the market, or what’s hot, but on who you are. So look in the mirror. Today I stumbled on two excellent blog posts that put this in good perspective.

Balance_at_sunset_bigstock_3393994.jpg

First, What Kind of Startup is Right for You, a post by Nellie Akalp on Mashable today. Nellie goes right to the heart of an often misunderstood core concept of small business, which is that the best business for you depends almost entirely on who your are, what you want, and what you do.

The best business is always a matter of context. You look in the mirror and figure out who you are, then you apply that to business. Here’s just a quick piece, two paragraphs:

Create a list of skills that covers what you’re good at and areas where you’re a subject matter expert. Then list out the things you like to do. Compare these two lists and see if any patterns emerge, or point to any business type that aligns both your strengths and passions.

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party, Tweetup or other networking event, and you’re asked that inevitable question: “So, what do you do?” Think about how you’ll respond with each potential business option. Are you proud and excited to describe your new business? Or a little embarrassed and looking to steer the conversation elsewhere?

This is really good advice. She has five points in the post, all of them worth reading.

The second one today is a really nice post called How to Fit Freelancing Into the Rest of Your Life, on freelance folder, written by Laura Spencer. It’s another reminder that what’s best for each individual you depends on your specific needs and nature.

For example, one of her points is “Know Yourself:”

What enables you to do your best work? Do you need quiet, or do you thrive in the midst of chaos? Are you your most creative first thing in the morning, or are you best late at night? What inspires you? Some freelancers are inspired by music, others by art or nature. Does clutter bother you, or can you work just about anywhere? Once you understand what enables you to do your best work, you can make sure that your work environment fits the bill.

Two very good posts. Conclusion: generalizations are dangerous. Every startup entrepreneur, ever solopreneur and freelancer, is a different case.

(image: bigstockphoto.com)

5 Blogging Mistakes And A State of Wonder

Yesterday while flying cross country I read State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. It’s about real people in an almost-but-not-quite magical Amazon jungle, and, although the plot moves steadily forward, it’s more of a spell, woven with words by a great writer, than just a story.

As I got off my first plane, I was about 30 pages from finished, and two hours from my next flight. I didn’t check email first. I didn’t get lunch, which was overdue. I sat next to the gate and finished the novel.  I was immersed in the Amazon jungle and the spell of a the trees, mushrooms, Indians, scientists, doctors, the deaf boy, the pharmaceutical study, and the pregnancy. It wasn’t just to find out what happens; it was about staying inside the spell, keeping the buzz. What a great book!

This morning, jetlagged and back in Oregon, I woke up before dawn and went to the computer to consider my post today, which was, until now, just the two paragraphs above this one and a title that sounded like a high school book review. So I decided to reconfigure this post, cynically, with a new title, and a more business-compatible title.

So here are my five tips, and when I’m done with them, I’d like to ask you a serious question. If you’re still with me at that point.

1. It’s not just content; it’s writing

I got serious about blogging in 2007 because I like writing. I thought the written word was going to be suffocated by online video, boa-constrictor-like, wrapped up and confined and unable to breathe. That made me sad. But blogs and even social media changed that for me, and I feel better about writing now. There’s hope. The quality of writing makes a huge difference. It’s not just blogging. It’s not just content. It’s writing. Enjoy it.

2. All people love stories

What Ann Patchett does with words on a page is a reminder of why people breathe stories as much as we breathe air. You get in the middle of a great novel and you’re lost in a new world. Trite, but true. If you manage to pull up and out of the story and think about it, it’s part of a human craving for meaning, and to create a world out of pure words is proof of God. This blog, with its title Planning Startups Stories, needs more stories. Should your blog have more stories?

3. A few well-chosen details are magic

An American woman is arriving at Manaus, in Brazil, by plane. Watch the detail:

Marina went past security an customs and stepped out into the lobby full of people who were looking behind her. Young girls stood on their toes and waved. Taxi drivers hustled for fares, cruise directors and Amazon adventure guides herded their charges into groups. An assortment of cheap shops and money changing stations vied for attention with bright colors and brighter lights, and right in the middle of everything stood a man in a dark suit holding a neatly lettered sign with two words: Marina Singh

Do you see what I mean? The plot moves steadily forward as a woman named Marina Singh finds a driver waiting for her. But the detail makes the scene live. How about coming through customs to “a lobby of people who were looking behind her.” That’s perfect.

The details make it come alive like that.  Don’t just talk. Create. Write pictures.

4. Lighten up and read for fun more

My wife says angels fly “because they take themselves lightly.” Yesterday on the plane was a reminder to me that I can’t always read the next business book or write the next column or blog post. The goal is living, not working. I had forgotten how much I was focused on business, to the extent that I don’t automatically carry a good book with me when I travel. I’m shocked to realize I do more than 50,000 miles a year, most of which I spend writing, not reading. Big mistake.

5. About the title game

They tell me the best titles are lists of 3, 5, or 10 points, and I’ve seen myself that people like lists of mistakes best of all. So I rewrote this post to play that up with a list of 5 mistakes. Did it work? Would you have read this far if it were titled like a book report on a novel?

And that, by the way, is the serious question I promised in my fourth paragraph, introducing the mistakes: did it work? Should I have just posted the first two paragraphs in this post, and a title to go with just that, and left it there? Or was it worth it to add the somewhat-cynical list of mistakes and change the title? Does this feel like bait and switch to you?

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And one final note: I first discovered Ann Patchett several years ago with Bel Canto, which is — believe it or not — a story about people and love and beauty set in a South American hostage crisis. That’s another great book.

(Image: Patricia Wall/The New York Times, from this review by Janet Maslin)

Heartfelt Advice for Young Fathers

My five kids are all grown up now, doing well thanks, and as I look back on things related to parenting I think I’ve discovered something worth sharing. It’s about dad time with young kids.

Our oldest was born in 1972 and our youngest in 1987, and in our case, during those 15 years a lot of things changed.

With the younger ones I was a lot more involved in the gritty details, like giving them bottles in the middle of the night, and changing diapers.

With the older ones, in contrast, I just wasn’t there that much. We lived in Mexico City, I worked much longer hours, there were no computers for productivity, and I’d leave home at 7 a.m. and get back at 8 p.m. My wife had more help too, because her family is from Mexico City.

We moved back to the United States from Mexico in 1979. I discovered computers and modems and worked much more at home. And my wife needed a lot more help because she was alone with multiple children. So I discovered babies and toddlers and diapers and all that from a radically different point of view.

What happened was that those kid chores, diapers and bottles and all, that nobody thinks they want to do? Dads who do that win big. My older adult children and I get along fine, thanks, so that’s not the real difference. What I regret, simply put, is what I lost out on by not spending more time with my older ones too, when they were babies and toddlers.

Social norms have changed, I’m happy to see, so the involved dads are much more common now than they were 40 years ago. My own son and my son-in-law are both very involved fathers giving a lot of quantity time. So maybe this is just old news. But I’m saying that I learned the hard way that you dads who don’t do this are missing out. You’re not winning your way out of chores; you’re losing their way out of a really great part of your own life.

(Image: Reggie Fun/FlickrCC)

Pam Slim’s 10 Keys to Startup Sanity

I was sorely disappointed to miss Pamela Slim’s keynote speech for the Willamette Angel Conference 10 days ago. I’m a member, but I had to be away, and had to miss it. I hear she was great. Eugene and Corvallis startups are still talking about it.

She called her talk 10 Keys to Maintain Your Sanity While Hustling Your Startup. Great title. Especially when you listen to it.

I was glad, though, to see Pam has posted it for all as a slide show with her audio. If you’re involved with a startup, or thinking about it, give yourself the luxury of Pam’s real-world advice.

Thanks Pam.

Torn: True Stories on Kids, Career, and Conflict of Motherhood

Today is the first day of distribution for Samatha Walraven’s book Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. I got an advance copy and it’s a good read: for working moms, of course, but also for working dads, and everybody else who cares about understanding some of the people they work with. book cover

The book is a series of chapters from contributors, which makes it a great collection of experiences and point of view. It’s about how it feels, working through the problems, dealing with guilt, the importance of choice — which includes choosing to be stay-at-home mom too, by the way; there’s a whole section of pieces from that point of view too — and similar topics.

For example, this, from a Chapter called MommyCEO, written by Sabrina Parsons, my daughter, CEO of Palo Alto Software. I’ve taken a couple of snippets from a larger paragraph, just to give you the idea:

…there are things I have to deal with in the workplace that no man will ever face. No man will ever be in his office using a breast pump during a partner call … and very few men will ever face the reality that no matter how much government protection there is for maternity and family leave, there are some jobs that don’t allow a three-month leave of absence.

And here’s one from the following page:

Last night, as I sat in my boys’ room at bedtime, I thought about how much I have on my plate, how much I am juggling, and the items that fall by the wayside: my blog, my workouts, my sleep. My wingspan is simply not wide enough. If you saw me sitting in their room, you could actually envision this ‘wingspan’ — my arms stretched out wide between my sons’ beds so they can each hold a hand as they fall asleep.

That’s just one of 50 chapters, divided into seven sections, each written by a different woman. They divide into sections on balance, guilt, the superwoman, divided lives, the stay-at-home struggle, and, last but not least: “Maybe, Baby.”

Last week I posted about entrepreneurs needing empathy. Let’s have more empathy for the working moms, and for stay-at-home moms too, when they make that choice. This is a really good book.

Time, Not Money, is the Key To Happiness

Evidence gathers. I posted research agrees: time is the scarcest resource more than a year ago.  Then this week I found Research Finds Time As A Means to Happiness in a Stanford business school publication. This one is about a new study with similar findings, plus a summary of several others.

New research takes a fresh look at this topic. Jennifer Aaker and Melanie Rudd at Stanford University, and Cassie Mogilner at the University of Pennsylvania, published “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time,” in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011. They discuss how happiness is indeed a consequence of the choices people make. So what can people do to increase their happiness? Their answer is surprisingly simple: spend your time wisely.

Author Alice LePlant offers a good summary of a collection of research pointing towards the same conclusion. Among several points she brings up, this one is particularly striking for entrepreneurs and small business owners:

We spend most of our time at work. So understanding how we should be spending our time at work is much more important than people think. It has been interesting to observe which companies are doing a good job of creating opportunities for employees to manage their own time. This goes beyond providing opportunities for flexible hours, telecommuting, and independent contractor relationships. Which companies are allowing opportunities for employees to fundamentally design how they spend their time both at work and outside of work — in ways that are creative and innovative? As Millennials enter the workforce, these types of demands will become even more common.

Definitely worth reading.

Family Business Succession 4 Years Later: The Rest of the Story

There I was, minding my own business, watching my twitter flow, contemplating my next blog post, when what should appear in my twitter but … Sabrinawell, you can see it here to the right, in the Tweetdeck version: mommyceo is Sabrina Parsons, my second of five grown-up children, who has been running Palo Alto Software for the last four years. So I clicked the link to see what she wrote. We do talk a lot, of course, and we’re still in the same company, but I’ve been traveling, and I wasn’t aware of this one. She called her post Family Business Succession: four years later.

She writes (and the “he” in this is me):

He talked to me one day, and the next day, without much planning, or transition strategies, or anything, he told me and then he announced the change to the whole company.

That’s true. I did. She also credits me for staying out of her way:

Does he actually let us make the decisions? What happens when he doesn’t agree to the decisions? What does he do now? The simple answer to the question is yes, Tim actually did back off, and stay true to his word.

And that makes me proud. It isn’t easy. You build a company up and you get used to running things, and that’s a hard habit to break.  Me and my ego like to think that my every opinion should be treasured, but they aren’t. The novelty wore off and then it took some real adjustment. Fortunately, I passed  the baton to a strong woman with a lot of confidence in herself and a good team.

Sabrina’s post details some of the accomplishments. The company has done just fine for the past four years, after the big transition. We both have the right to be proud.

My biggest insight for others in similar situations is what I call the safe harbor concept. I didn’t just pass the command on and then sit around back-seat driving. I passed the command on and dove head first into blogging, twitter, speaking, and teaching. I didn’t want retirement. I love business, entrepreneurship, and business planning, so the change meant being able to do more of that. Without my having a lot of stuff to do, stuff that I think is important, I would have gone crazy; and probably I would have driven my daughter crazy, too.