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The Best Training For Entrepreneurship? Hint: She Doesn't Sleep Through The Night

Trond Undheim: “Of all the experiences I’ve had over the course of my life…perhaps the thing that’s prepared me most for entrepreneurship is parenting.” (Matt Thomas/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Trond Undheim: “Of all the experiences I’ve had over the course of my life…perhaps the thing that’s prepared me most for entrepreneurship is parenting.” (Matt Thomas/flickr)

My best ideas come to me between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. This is not by design — in fact, I wish it weren’t the case — but, as an entrepreneur, I roll with it. My third child is a terrible sleeper. In her two years, she hasn’t slept through the night once. When she wakes up in the wee hours, and it’s my turn to comfort her, sometimes I can’t fall back asleep. I tiptoe out of the room, flip on my iPad, and work on my new startup.

Kids are the ultimate innovators. They question everything. They test boundaries. They don't accept authority at face value.

It’s counterintuitive, but of all the experiences I’ve had over the course of my life — including starting a business incubator, stints in government and at big corporations, and teaching in MBA programs — perhaps the thing that’s prepared me most for entrepreneurship is parenting.

Entrepreneurship is about building something from scratch. It’s about nurturing and developing. It’s about constantly juggling. You try to have structure — it’s a worthy goal — but sometimes spur of the moment opportunities present themselves, and you end up going in unexpectedly fruitful directions. Entrepreneurship is about learning, experimenting and determining what works best through trial and error. And just when you think you’ve figured everything out, the business moves into a different phase and new priorities take hold.

Parents, sound familiar?

Kids are the ultimate innovators. They question everything. They test boundaries. They don't accept authority at face value. They build relationships – and capitalize on unique positioning. By watching kids, martial arts practitioners and executives, I learned there is no need for an elevated position in a hierarchy to have influence, power and authority. Kids assume their perspective is valid and important, and so it is. These traits can sometimes be annoying to deal with as a father, but they’re also some of the most essential characteristics of successful entrepreneurship. As a parent, I often find myself laying down rules and setting expectations, only to end up questioning many of my previously held assumptions. I go through the same process as an entrepreneur. Why does business get done a certain way? Can it be done more efficiently? What would that look like?

Parenting forces you to be acutely aware of your environment. I’ve become more adept at taking negative feedback — such as that from a cranky kid — and positive feedback — such as news that a child is thriving in a new experience — and applying it to my situation. I’ve even become more patient. These skills come in handy when it comes to receiving feedback from investors and customers. Entrepreneurs hear contradictory things all the time, and they must choose which signals to listen to the most.

Venture capitalists say successful entrepreneurship requires a laser-like focus on building your business. True, but this level of concentration is not possible for parents—particularly with more than one child. There is, however, an analogy: As a parent, I can’t waste time on things that don't have meaning. I need to focus on high-value activities. In fact, this is how I came up with the concept for my new start-up, Yegii. I realized how little time I had to accomplish the things I wanted to get done. I needed to keep up to speed on technology disruption in major industries, with minutes – not hours, days or weeks to spare.

Besides, time constraints can work for you because they compel you to strategically allocate your minutes and hours. You may even decide to build a team to get the work done. The lonely entrepreneur on a world-changing solo mission is just a myth. Today’s venture capitalists want to invest in collaborative, relationship-oriented entrepreneurs who can build and lead teams. Parents fit the bill—they’ve likely learned a lot about cooperation and compromise from their spouses, neighbors and children.

As a parent, I often find myself laying down rules and setting expectations, only to end up questioning many of my previously held assumptions. I go through the same process as an entrepreneur.

An obvious drawback to raising kids while you’re trying to get a business up and running is long-term financial constraints. It’s one thing for you to make personal sacrifices, to live in a shoebox and eat only Ramen noodles, but when kids are in the picture, that kind of bootstrapping is harder to pull off. Taking big financial risks might dig into your kids’ college fund. But risk management is a good thing. Contrary to conventional wisdom, entrepreneurship and enormous risk don’t go together. Pulling back a little is healthy. It's not the wildest idea that wins. More often than not, it's the more reasoned, more measured idea—the idea that has taken into account market research and sound feedback—that prevails.

Parenthood has shaped my startup. Parents are, perhaps, older, wiser, wealthier, busier, more risk conscious, patient and collaborative — but by necessity, not by choice. Also, we might look a bit tired before the espresso kicks in.

Related:

Trond Undheim Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Trond Undheim is senior lecturer in Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School and is founder of the start-up Yegii.com.

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