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Happy Family, Successful Start-up. Impossible?

Yes, start-up life is hard on families. But do you have to be willing to give up a real bond with your kids to be an entrepreneur?
Does this look familiar? Some entrepreneurs are wondering whether there's a "true cost" of success—and if that means never spending enough time with the ones they love.

The likes of Apple and Facebook were once scrappy start-ups battling to transform how we communicate and handle information. Now, between the outpouring of grief following the death of Steve Jobs, Facebook's impending IPO, and the fact that nearly every pocket or bag in the land contains these firms' products, they're more institutions than insurgents. So perhaps now that the dream these firms were selling has become the ubiquitous present, it's time to look at what we've actually got.

This comes in the form of hand-wringing about what our digital lifestyles do to our relationships. (Here's a college kid who went Luddite for three months, deactivating his cell phone, e-mail, and social networks. Chalk, notes, and stopping by made a resurgence.) But it also comes in the form of a more critical examination of the start-up mania that these firms' astounding success have ushered in. How many young people are inspired to dream of founding businesses by the incredible success of seemingly normal(ish) Mark Zuckerberg? Do these start-up dreams have under-discussed costs?

That's what three entrepreneurs whose views were rounded up by Jason Kottke started to wonder after reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs. The short post is well worth a read in full, but the gist is encapsulated in the words of Jeff Atwood, a co-founder of Stack Exchange:

Start-up life is hard on families. We just welcomed two new members into our family, and running as fast as you can isn't sustainable for parents of multiple small children. The death of Steve Jobs, and his subsequent posthumous biography, highlighted the risks for a lot of folks. [...] Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange have been wildly successful, but I finally realized that success at the cost of my children is not success. It is failure.

Designer and entrepreneur Eric Karjaluoto expresses similar sentiments. "I admire [Jobs] for the mountains he climbed. At the same time, I wonder if he missed the whole point, becoming the John Henry of our time. He won the race, but at what cost?" Kottke admits that "since Jobs died, I've been pushing a little less hard" toward a definition of success that involves insane working hours.

And it is not just Kottke and company who are wondering whether most of us really want to pay the true costs of anything resembling the Zuckerberg or Jobs-type of success. Blogger Penelope Trunk has a woman's perspective on the issue and focuses on Facebook's soon-to-be-massively-wealthy COO Sheryl Sandberg in a new post. While she has nothing against Sandberg, whom she praises as super smart and extremely supportive of women's ambitions, Trunk still has questions about whether Sandberg's success is actually an appealing option for the vast majority of women.

Sandberg wants to be a role model for women who want big, exciting careers. But here's the problem: women don't want to be Sandberg. It’s no coincidence that the number one woman on the list of self-made millionaires is Oprah. She has no kids and no husband. She’s fascinating, nice, and smart. But few of us would really enjoy her life.

Sandberg and Oprah represent extreme choices in life. The things they give up are not things that most women would want to give up in exchange for the wild career success they could have.

The bottom line for Trunk is the same as it in for Kottke—seeing your kids and having start-up success are not compatible goals. That might not often be clearly articulated in the culture but it's true, and this makes high-octane entrepreneurialism a hard choice for many. "Sandberg is not a role model. She's an aberration," concludes Trunk.

Do you agree you have to be willing to give up a certain bond with your kids to be an entrepreneur? And if so, is it worth it for you?

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Last updated: Feb 10, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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