Eric Karjaluoto

You Can’t Do Both

There’s a whole class of founders who have ideas, strategic knowledge, and know how to build. They also have kids, a mortgage (or other financial commitments), and family activities that shouldn’t be set aside.

Those in this group are very different from most startup founders. The more stereotypical founder tends to be a recent comp-sci grad, who has ideas, knows how to build—and has lots of time.

How it happens

Those in the former group commonly make the mistake of believing they can “do both.” A common scenario involves them running a services company, and also building a startup (on the side). Both of these pursuits are (more than) full-time gigs, though. As such, this approach only pans out in the rarest of cases.

I squandered 10 years with the “do both” approach. For me it looked like this: Work hard to get cash running in the services company. Wait for a while and tinker with startup stuff. Little happens. Then, get overwhelmed with contracts—and hire to meet demand. When the bank balance is OK, put more time into the startup. This lasts just long enough to get pulled away, once services work demands attention.

You can only do so many things well. So, one of these always ends up winning out over the other. Most times, this will be your services work, because it’s what pays the bills. Additionally, clients/staff don’t like waiting for you because, “your startup needs focus.”

For most, the smart answer is to ditch the startup. Walking away from the studio (as many have done, this past year) might also be smart. Then, they can get jobs at big tech companies. From what I hear, work in these places is interesting and your choices can impact a lot of people. Meanwhile, this is the easiest way to get more time with your kids (a finite opportunity). It’s also the safest path to a decent retirement.

Those who must…

For some of us, though, this isn’t an option. Free weekends and financial stability aren’t as important. Instead, we just need to build (and captain) our own boat, no matter how foolish this might seem. In such situations, I think there’s a temporary means of structuring time in a way that can work.

To build your startup—and be a responsible family member, you have two priorities. The first is to earn enough money to maintain a reasonable lifestyle. The second is to maximize time for your startup—so it can become viable (and cash-flow positive) as soon as possible.

Services work or ongoing contracting (for one or two clients) is a way to manage the first concern. The trick here is to not let your commitments expand beyond that. I’m talking about 10 – 15 hours of weekly billable time, and no more. Take on just enough work to pay the bills and say no to even the fun sounding gigs.

You won’t hire or manage anyone. Instead, you’ll lower your overhead to almost zero. You’ll get rid of your office, and start working from your home. You’ll also minimize any non-critical business expenses. And, you’ll avoid promoting your services offering (this is why the smashLAB site looks out-of-date).

Cutting the fat

Money isn’t just about what comes in—it’s about what goes out. So, cut your pay to subsistence rates. If your spouse works, perhaps depend more on his/her income. Meanwhile, reduce all household costs. Sure, restaurants are fun, but those dinners stand between you and your startup’s success.

The purpose of these changes is to direct all possible time and effort into your startup. Optimally, this is around 80% of your week. Can’t get that number up? Look closely at where your week goes, and ask if there’s something you could put off until later. Once your startup is running, you can come back to these tasks. Meanwhile, a Now page is a useful way to state your purpose (for yourself as much as for anyone else).

I have a lot of ideas/interests, and these are distracting. If you suffer the same affliction, try creating a text document for your new ideas. Note them there as soon as they come to mind, and promptly forget about them. One startup is as much challenge as any founder needs.

Sure, there are exceptions

I’m not saying that the above strategy assures your success. Rather, it’s the approach I took to find more time to work on my startup. And, yes, this direction still (sort of) requires you to “do both.”

The twist here is that it treats one of the pieces as a temporary crutch, as you move on to the next. (If you don’t have a family, I recommend finding another route, altogether free of services work.)

What I present might work for you, or it might not. Either way, I assure you that trying to do both is a fool’s errand.

Want more tips on how to do the above? I’m holding office hours to answer your questions.

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