This year I’ve had two twin-track projects on the go. The first, building a startup. The second, keeping one (and then two) tiny humans alive.
As you might expect, both are pretty closely linked.
Baby number one arrived in the first half of 2022: at the same time I left government and started thinking about the idea that then became Ashore.
At six weeks old, she came along for the ride down to Devon when we went to set up the first ever Ashore location.
Baby number two arrived about a month ago - mid fund-raise - and about nine months after the founding team had started working together.
And I see - and meet - a lot of people in a similar situation: either building a startup with young children; or considering having children whilst working at an early stage company.
The decision about if and when to start something is fraught and surrounded by a lot of opinions. The decision about children is doubly so.
Meaning I don’t really want to add anything else to the pool on those subjects.
But I thought I’d write something about the three things that have surprised me the most, whilst doing both in parallel.
The first lesson is about time.
Time, for all startups, is the enemy. It’s not the competitor who raised £200m in 2021 off the back of a couple of abstract nouns in a pitch deck. Nor is some random piece of regulation heading over on the horizon. If you’re creating something out of nothing, your enemy is the clock.
Having children changes your relationship with time in two ways.
First, when you have a child you have a constant reminder of time's arrow following you around daily.
The difference between a 29 year old and a 30 year old is nothing. The difference between a newborn and a one year old is a chasm.
If you’re working off a six week roadmap, the time it can take to ship a feature is more from the time to go from crawling to walking.
The question - what did you get done this week? - becomes even more acute when someone else in the family could reasonably answer ‘learnt to walk.”
So you speed things up accordingly - which is a pretty good thing if you’re building a startup.
Second, the concept of “free time” ceases to exist. Procrastination carries a price like it didn’t before.
All time has an opportunity cost - an hour spent scrolling is an hour longer you have to work, meaning an hour taken away from your child.
This only gets worse the more kids that come along. So you end up finding yourself forced to laser in, and less tolerant of “nice to have” things to do.
This leads on well to the second lesson: focus.
When you have children your life shrinks somewhat. It becomes more internally focussed. There are less distractions.
You enter - to borrow a phrase from Deborah Levy I’ve written about previously - the invisible years, particularly the period before your children go to school or start remembering stuff.
And you don’t mind. It’s all about the mundane rhythms of each day. Routines of childcare, cleaning, cooking. And you begin to enjoy it.
In this world anything you get done that isn’t child related seems to me to be a bonus: a motivating factor as you push through the pre-PMF years of startup building.
Your children are there, but in other ways they aren’t. They don’t remember. They don’t really understand your work.
At the moment our toddler’s only conception of what I actually do all day is when she goes to her little toddler desk, sits down, picks up her crayons, and shouts “working” as loudly as she can.
So on her best mental model of the world, I spend all day colouring in.
Startups are risky, and so if that gorgeous green arrow on the chart went from positive to negative overnight, she wouldn’t know. Or care.
Unlike - say my wife, whose family’s first business shut down during the dotcom bust. She was ten at the time. And remembers.
The final lesson is about perspective.
Obviously startups are hard - laughably so - but when you see some people talking about it, you’d think they’d just stepped out of a Higgins Boat on Omaha beach.
It’s difficult to take things as seriously if once you arrive home you have to spend 30 minutes dancing to various Raffi songs (Peanut Butter Sandwich of course, the greatest in his oeuvre), with two people that really couldn’t care less.
As Anu Atlaru tweeted recently: the best gift you can give a founder is another identity to take the pressure off.
Even more than that, when you have children, you are quite often reminded of your own obsolescence. You are looking after someone for whom you’ll eventually just be a ghost.
This speedrun through the total perspective vortex can be humbling, but it’s also pretty relaxing.
With that in mind, that “no” from a potential big investor doesn’t really hit home at all - let alone in the same way that it would have if I was back to being a 20 year old who would have probably thought that person to be the centre of the universe.
That doesn’t mean things are all upside. You have to factor in a pretty massive chaos factor.
You’ll have a finely balanced perfect routine that’s a bit like that Volvo car video from the 00s - but untune one string, take but degree away, and hark what discord follows.
Plus there’s the simple fact of arithmetic: you can’t do 80+ hour weeks throughout the year, and are always reliant on having a pretty powerful support network, and a brilliant partner, which I’m extremely fortunate to have.
But ultimately, I do think the sum is greater than its parts.
And yes, to the outside observer, startup plus children looks like risk piled on top of risk.
But as Dietrich Mateschitz, founder of Red Bull would always say.
No risk, no fun.