Parents balancing Startups

The following is a guest post by Allyson Downey, founder of Weespring which is a Techstars company based in NYC that provides trusted reviews for baby products.

Hanging at Techstars

Hanging at Techstars

Here’s some good news about being both a parent and an entrepreneur: whichever hat you put on first is going to help prepare you for the other. The bad news: it’s because they’re both unpredictable, utterly exhausting, and (usually) thankless jobs, wherein you’re making things up as you go along, constantly dealing with variables out of your control, and cleaning up crap (both figurative and literal). Sounds good, right?

So unsurprisingly, doing both of these jobs at once requires some serious juggling skills. (I like to say there’s no such thing as work-life balance… just work-life juggling.) As the founder of a start-up whose whole mission is to make parents’ lives easier, I’ve spent the last couple years also trying to figure out how to make my life easier — while still feeling like a good parent to my kids and a good CEO to weeSpring.

And the truth is, all of the aforementioned headaches aside, if you get the entrepreneur thing right, you can build in tremendous flexibility for yourself — while building a company that will attract great talent.

Preach what you practice, and practice what you preach: As an entrepreneur, you’re the one setting the culture for your company. Articulate your values early on both inside and outside the company, whether they’re broad (“do your job where you want, when you want, as long as it gets done”) or specific (“no one is expected to answer work email on weekends”). And by the way: these values are important for parents and non-parents alike.

Do stuff that’s just for you: It’s typical to feel guilty about your kids when you’re running your business, and guilty about your business when you’re with your kids — so doing neither can feel pretty awful. But if you burn yourself out, both the family and the company will suffer. Carve out a couple hours every week to do something that’s a little self-indulgent: take a long solo walk, read a novel, go to a movie, or whatever else re-charges you.

Embrace the second shift: Long hours are a given for entrepreneurs, but they don’t have to preclude you from spending time with your kids. We allocate 5pm to 8pm as family time, for dinner, a bath, play, and tucking into bed. And then we’re back online after (and often will do things like schedule conference calls at 9pm).

Think in terms of quality, not quantity: This has become one of our core values at weeSpring, and we apply it to pretty much everything — especially time. Three hours with your kids when you’re checking your iPhone every 10 minutes is worth a fraction of even just 30 minutes wholly focused on them.

Make use of your “found” time: We all have pockets of time that (inadvertently) get frittered away, whether it’s standing in line at the supermarket or riding the subway. Have a running list of small tasks that you chip away at when you have a couple free minutes, like clearing out emails or working on blog posts (like this one).

Leverage your village: I’m a big believer that it takes a village to raise a child, but you have to be pro-active about tapping into it. Childcare is an enormous headache for any working parent, but for entrepreneurs whose work can extend into the weekends and other odd hours, you need an especially solid support system. Find (or start) a baby-sitting co-op and build up a solid stable of friends, family, and sitters who understand and can help you.

There’s nothing easy about either being an entrepreneur or a parent, but nothing that’s easy feels all that rewarding. And now a few years into both running a start-up and starting a family, I can’t fathom anything more rewarding than what I’m doing.

Be sure to check out Weespring and let Allyson know what you think about her post in the comments! Thanks Allyson!

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Making Tech Stack Choices

I received this question today by email and I thought I would share my answer.

Here is my question. We are building a startup and are having to make a technology stack shift for reasons I can explain later. The startup is currently funded but we have a short time to put this together to receive more funding. Based on the skill set of the developers we have, we have chosen to go with .Net MVC 5 for a service layer, Mongo for a db, and knockout on the client side for an MVVM. One of the investors has advised us that .Net could be problematic for us when it came time for VC investors and a possible buyout later. The concern is that such investors or buyers will shy from a .Net based site. My question is simple? Is that true, has that been your experience and do you have any suggestions?

My answer was:

The answer is that yes, SOME investors and SOME acquirers will not be interested in .NET. Then again, some (for example Microsoft) will think it’s great! Don’t make tech choices based on potential exits or investors, make them on your ability to serve your customers. Create value, and things like investors and acquisitions take care of themselves. This is more likely to be an issue in a downside case, where your’e selling the company because you have to – that’s when things like tech stacks get considered as a major part of the equation. When it’s because you, your products, your customers and your data add tremendous value they’ll acquire you even if the code is written in MS BASIC with a BTRIEVE database. ;-)

Let me know in the comments if you disagree.

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Asynchronous Voice is my new BFF

I’ve been saying for years that I hate the phone. I keep wondering why people keep calling me on my mobile computer (which for some reason they still insist on calling a phone even though that is by far the most poorly executed capability it has). Lately, I’ve made good progress on cutting down on phone calls, so I thought I’d share so that together we can eventually eliminate most phone calls.

Internally at Techstars, we’ve been using Voxer for about a year now. It’s completely changed our ability to communicate easily and we love it. We use it for leaving “instant voicemail” for each other. You still get all the nuance of voice communications for important subjects, but everyone gets to listen and reply when they want to. It has cut way down on both email and the number of internal meetings we used to need. As a company, we now treat the various communication channels with the following priorities:

  • Phone call – very urgent or scheduled in advance
  • Text Message – very time sensitive (now) but less urgent than a phone call
  • Voxer – important but any time today or ASAP for you is OK.  <– New!
  • Email – it can wait a few days, it’s not a big deal.

Of course we communicate in lots of other ways (Jive, chat, twitter, etc). But most of our important internal communications are one of the four methods above, and we have a conscious prioritization of them internally so everyone is on the same page about expectations.

By adding in this new third priority (Voxer in our case), it’s massively cut down on the need for scheduled phone calls internally while also decreasing email which has the drawback of having no tone. Given that we’re 50 or so people spread out over many geographies, it’s had an even larger impact. I can’t recommend it highly enough for distributed teams.

Lately I’ve been using WhatsApp as well, and it’s also excellent. I’ve decided to use both. I’m using Voxer for “internal” Techstars work and I’m using WhatsApp for my investments.

So, if I’m an investor in your company via Techstars or my angel or venture funds, please use WhatsApp any time you want to chat! You’ll need my cell number to do that – just add me to your address book and you’ll see me inside WhatsApp automatically. 

Please don’t use Voxer or Whatsapp to reach out to me if I don’t already know you. We need an existing personal or business relationship for this channel to work for me. If you do reach out to me anyway, I’ll direct you to email as politely as I can (probably by linking to this post).

It’s important to understand that in both Voxer and Whatsapp, the conversations often turn real time. I often go back and forth with someone if they happen to catch me between meetings or while I’m walking to my office. It’s just that the back and forth is ‘walkie talkie’ style, and there is no social contract that I have to keep it real time. If it works, it works, without any pre-planning.

I hope this post helps you get more out of asynchronous voice communication and helps you avoid some of your scheduled meetings and email backlog.

Friends! Coworkers! Business contacts! I’ll see you in async voice land!

Note: I’m not an investor in Voxer or Whatsapp, but I wish I was. 

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TechStars London Busman’s Holiday, summer 2013!

Definition: Busman’s Holiday – a break, holiday or vacation during which you engage in activity that is similar to your usual work.

Summer is almost here and you might be planning a vacation or overseas trip. As an alternative this year, why not take a Busman’s Holiday to TechStars London? We would like to invite mentors and alumni from across the entire TechStars network to our new shiny office in TechCity London. We will provide you with a free desk and facilities – to allow you to do the same job but with a different view.

Our London home is Warner Yard, a brand new co-workspace founded by one of the TechStars London investors Federico Pirzio-Biroli from Playfair Capital. The four-story space will be buzzing with over 150 desks – which will include TechStars London, awesome startups, an event space, and angels and early stage funds who have already claimed their desks.

Our only ask is come and mentor some of the teams while you are in London and meet some of the movers and shakers from the London scene. Fish and chips, double decker buses, and sampling local pubs are of course optional add-ons. Alongside the TechStars team, who will be spending time in London this summer, we have already received commitments from David Mandell of PivotDesk and Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures. I’ll be spending all of July there myself, so if you’re an experienced entrepreneur of current TechStars mentor or alumnus, we’d love to have you join on the Busman’s holiday this summer!

TechStars London will kick off July 2, ending September 27 with an awesome Investor Day. If you are interested in helping out – just contact me and I’ll connect you with Jon Bradford, our Managing Director in London – to reserve your desk. Or if you know of any awesome startups, do not hesitate to recommend them to apply now to TechStars London. Hurry, because applications close this weekend on May 5th!

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To Mecca and Back Again

Ethan Austin of GiveForward wrote a great blog post about moving to the SF Bay Area and then back to Chicago and all of the issues he and the company were grappling with. It’s a fantastic work/life balance story that is worth a quick read.

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Introducing TechStars London

Today is a big day for TechStars. With the announcement of TechStars London, we are taking a first step outside of the United States.

Thanks to Bright Move Media for taking us all around London! brightmovemedia.com  

We’ve always been cautious with our growth, always prioritizing quality over quantity. We have great programs in the US that are well respected, and have built an incredible network of hands-on mentors and alumni. We’ve learned that the most important thing when entering a new location is to ensure that the quality of the person running the program (we call it the Managing Director), their team, and the mentors is exceptionally high. We found that in London in Jon Bradford.

The reality is that we found it some time ago. I first met Jon about three years ago when he was launching The Difference Engine in Newcastle. I went there to help him understand how to build a high quality mentorship-driven accelerator. We spent a few days talking about the philosophy of giving first, and about the powerful motivation of building startup communities. It was immediately obvious that we were culturally and philosophically aligned. Jon put the startups first in every thought he had. Because of this, we kept in touch over the years. We compared notes and tried to help each other. Each time I would come to the UK we’d get together, and it was the same when Jon visited the US.

Fast forward a few years and Jon had moved to London and built Springboard. In London, Jon had more “raw material” in the form of experienced mentors and startup talent. More and more interesting companies started to emerge. Jon continued to give back to startups by co-founding f6s which has since grown into a very large and useful social network for startup founders. After one of Brad Feld’s trips to Springboard, Jon encouraged and contributed to the Mentor Manifesto.

Meanwhile, TechStars in the US had funded some fantastic companies such as Memrise (from London, $6M in venture funding), GrabCAD (Estonia, $12M in venture funding), and DocTrackr (Paris, $2M in venture funding) so we also became more familiar with the great talent that TechStars London could tap into.

Then in September of last year when I visited Jon in London again, it was very clear to me that something had changed there. It just felt different. Better. Google Campus was teeming with startups that were thinking big. The Tech City branding had attracted more talented and provided visibility to what was happening in London. Big companies were starting to help the little companies. The community was showing all of the early signs that form the Boulder Thesis in Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities.

This is when I approached Jon about becoming part of TechStars. He agreed and the story is to be continued as TechStars London.

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