Gender and Entrepreneurs And Who Gets Tired

Tonight, I came across a series of tweets by Tara Hunt (who is, like me, a woman entrepreneur). The tweets were about a blog post written by another woman entrepreneur. Tara’s first tweet linked to the post in question in obvious disagreement (“personal experience does NOT equal general truth”). She later decided the post was written to be controversial and that she should have just ignored the entire thing. The post in question was by Penelope Trunk, who is no stranger to controversial posts about women and startups.

I’m conflicted.

On the one hand, surely Penelope is being purposely controversial. How is a person like me or like Tara supposed to react to blanket statements like “women don’t want to run startups because they’d rather have children” and “if you want to know why you shouldn’t do a startup with women (if you’re a man), read on.”

These statements are absurd.

And yet as much as I want to entirely discount Penelope Trunk and what she has to say, deep down, underneath all of the ridiculous hyberbole, sweeping stereotypes, and flat-out offensive, clueless wrongness, I think she’s trying to say something important and true about what it takes to start a company from nothing.

She’s wrong in her conclusions. She’s likely right in how the truth of what’s hard about startups applies to her (that she wanted to have children, that she had trouble in a coed co-founding environment), but as Tara quoted @LusciousPear, “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

What she may not realize she’s actually uncovering is how hard it is to be an entrepreneur (not a woman entrepreneur, not an entrepreneur with children, but any person who has the crazy notion of starting a company). When she writes  “there is no woman running a startup with young kids, who, behind closed doors, would recommend this life to anyone,” what she may not understand is that there may not be anyone running a start up AT ALL would recommend this life to anyone.

A few weeks ago, someone was interviewing me and asked me about being a role model to younger women. I felt a moment of panic. Do I really want to encourage a young woman (or anyone, really) to work twenty hour days, to work on Christmas, to be almost happy when her cell phone breaks because then she can focus for a few hours on reducing her inbox?

Penelope’s post about running out of money right before Christmas and not being able to make payroll isn’t an exceptional situation that only she has experienced. You can’t stop and rest if you’re sick (or struck blind as she writes about) or you’re tired or it’s your birthday. Yes, it’s not always like that, and yes, bootstrapping makes it all even tougher. But when the company rests on you, you’re the one who has to make sure it all holds together.

James Altucher wrote 100 rules for being an entrepreneur that include:

  • It’s not fun. Keep sharp objects and pills away during your worst moments. And you will have them.
  • You have no more free time.

But he also says:

  • Sleep. Don’t buy into the 20 hours a day entrepreneur myth. You need to sleep 8 hours a day to have a focused mind.
  • Don’t kill yourself. It’s not worth it.

Someone asked in the comments how those two sets of things could possibly go together and he answered, “It’s not easy or everyone would be rich.” Someone asked how to get sleep when they were so stressed out and he suggested medication.

This situation isn’t unique to entrepreneurs. In Tough Calls From the Corner Office: Top Business Leaders Reveal Their Career-Defining Moments, the author writes:

“There is one more common thread that runs through the stories in this book… All of [the executives] knew they were in for a lot of grueling work and long hours.”

When I read How Remarkable Woman Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life (which is an excellent book, and not just for women), I kept looking for the secret to work/life balance (even though I already knew it didn’t exist), and instead the book uncovered that women who managed the chaos didn’t find time to relax and take breaks, they instead identified what energized them so they could keep going.

One of the women profiled in the book, Gerry Laybourne, founder of Oxygen Networks, said “there were times I couldn’t breathe. There were times I felt exhausted. There were times I couldn’t imagine how I was going to put one foot in front of the other.”

The book notes that some women recharge by declaring flights a work-free zone and a time to relax. That’s when you can vacation? When you’re on a flight from one meeting to another?

A couple of weeks ago, I was filling out a questionnaire for being one of the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 for 2011 and got to the question about what I did for fun, to relax, in my free time. The truth? I find things that make me happy that I  can do while I continue to work! I can eat ice cream and keep working! I can wear comfortable slippers and keep working! (And now, if you read my answer to that question in print somewhere based on what I wrote on the questionnaire, only you will know that I lied when I talked about beaches and summer reading.)

So, no, likely not many of us really recommend that kind of life.

(Penelope was, I think, trying to make a point about how startups are hard so why introduce friction (friction in this case being a diverse team). There’s a point to made there as well, although again, I don’t think it has anything to do with gender, but that’s a post for another day.)

Through coincidence of another tweet by Karen Wickre, I was led to a post by Nilofer Merchant, who linked to yet another post about shutting down her business of 11 years. She may have gotten to the heart of a real solution.

“In essence, I was a “doing” entrepreneur saying “I’ll be your duct tape”. Which works fine for a while. Then, if you are “successful” as I turned out to be, my little “duct tape” couldn’t hold strong when it was the plug for a big damn of revenues, delivery and projects. Being a “doing-Entrepreneur” is not enough to scale a firm to success.”

So what, then?

She says:

“Entrepreneurs: working hard is never enough; our goal to create a sustainable enterprise. Sustainable doesn’t mean “I will work myself into the ground and hope someone can give me a $1M at the end and then they can grow the firm to the next level”. Sustainable is more like the thing that lets Ev Williams hire Dick Costolo at Twitter and then divide roles so the different fronts are well covered. I would bet the Corporate Board at Twitter were thinking about sustainability so they didn’t lose their talent but found a way for a thriving enterprise.

By being the best “doer” for your business, you’re not necessarily being the best “leader” for your business. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the more important role — be the visionary talented leader that creates value in a business. In other words, be a great entrepreneur. Master your own priorities so you can sustain a business well.”

The way that happens for every business, for every entrepreneur, is different. But I know that it can, and does happen. Advice is welcome. From men and women.

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  1. Meg Geddes August 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    This is a much better reasoned and well thought out piece than Trunk’s. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Danielle Morrill August 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    The “doer” vs. Leader thing is exactly what I’ve been struggling with lately. Thanks for the post and reminders

    • Nathan Black August 5, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      You might try reading E-myth Mastery. I found it pretty therapeutic.

  3. Helen Overland August 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Great post Vanessa, thank you!
    Your points are very valid – I’m also not convinced that gender should be a main concern when deciding to be an entrepreneur. It’s a lifestyle choice – a decision based on commitment and ambition, and kids can be a constraint, but not a barrier. I wish people would remember that men want to spend time with their family too – for example, in my family – I earn, and my husband is a stay at home Dad – no gender biases in our house, please!

  4. Eric Lander August 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Lots of information to digest between the post from Trunk, the tweets, and your thoughts here, Vanessa.

    I have little experience in startup environments and even less as a true entrepreneur. I won’t even weigh in on the discredit of women in entrepreneurial settings because it’s clearly presented to readers in a sensationalist voice.

    My takeaway from it all is that success will come at the cost of balance – and I’d feel equipped to argue that Trunk may be wrestling with understanding true balance in the workplace.

    Balance then becomes “work” in the sense of it being a constant effort that you can never ignore or put on auto-pilot. Pushing or pulling too much in one direction can change your progress from serving as momentum into the distraction that causes you to crash and burn.

    Trunk touched upon this by suggesting that startups need speed and focus. The disconnect is that she adds that startups don’t need diversity.

    In my mind, the “speed and focus” is all about the momentum you have with the others involved in the startup. You didn’t form because you had nothing in common, right? And, you didn’t set forth to do something on your own without the differences the others bring to the table for the startup. Otherwise, you could be phenomenally successful on your own, right?

    The diversity factor (whether it be sex, gender, goals, motivation, personalities, etc.) is really the glue that will hold you together and force you to maintain your balance.

    I envision a skier racing down the slope of a ski jump. They can’t lean too far forward (or to the side) without careening out of control – so they use the drag against them to stay upright while still building momentum towards their inevitable launch.

    What I got from Trunk’s article is that she essentially wants to work with clones of herself or specialists that share her exact personality. This way, she can “throw fits” and accomplish things while continuing to play her cards in a manipulative manner.

  5. Marc Perez August 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I’d like to dedicate this response to my sister Pazit Perez.

    She is a woman in her 30s whom has a passion for photography since she was handed a toy camera as a child. I helped her set up a professional photography studio in a shopping mall. She would often work more than 80 hours a week. The worse part is that she had to respect mall hours! So when she couldn’t find good help, she would sometimes have to stay 12 hours a day. If she didn’t open up shop by 10, she would get fines, even when weather condition were terrible!

    When she was pregnant, she didn’t let up until a few day before she gave birth. And came back to work not even 1 week after. She was able to manage the her career and family life.

    The 2 points that I believe the article lacks, is that if you build a good team and delegate your company will thrive and you won’t have to put in as many hours. The other point, once you are established, their is nothing wrong with taking in less client, and charging more.

    In the end, she left the mall, and was able to find a nice place that she can come and go as she pleases, and works by appointment only.

    I salute women like Tara Hunt, Vanessa Fox, and my Sister. You are clearly the part of the few delusional, audacious, dreamers that have chosen to rock the unclear path!

  6. Whitney Johnson August 5, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Vanessa –

    A thoughtful, reasoned post. Glad to have discovered you.

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