Merging Family and a Startup: An Interview

By Guest Author | startup and family | October 14, 2015

In this previously unpublished interview, power couple Karoli Hindriks and Allan Martinson talk openly with CoFounder about the realities of merging family and a startup.

CoFounder: When did you enter the world of startups?

Karoli Hindriks: I founded my first company at the age of sixteen, which was fifteen years ago. Though it was not a tech startup, I did invent a new product and became the youngest inventor in my country. I needed to find a product market for it, therefore I would say it was fifteen years ago when I entered the world of startups.

Allan Martinson: I founded my first company at the age of 24 (it was still the Soviet Union); that was 25 years ago. It was a student startup that became the largest news agency in the Baltics in its third year of operations. It is still going strong and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

What is or was your company and your role in it?

Karoli: Today I am the founder and CEO of Jobbatical.com — a gateway for smart creatives across the globe. We connect techies – who are open to relocate and join inspiring teams in remote locations such as Malaysia, Finland or Brazil – with companies across the globe. Basically we are creating a community of entrepreneurial workers who are happy to travel internationally and jump into projects matching their skills.

Allan: I have been a serial entrepreneur all my life and never really had a boss. I have co-founded and/or managed as a CEO the largest news agency, the largest online media company, the largest IT services company and one of the largest e-commerce companies in the Baltics. In the last 10 years, I have been mostly active as a venture capitalist and angel investor.

I met Karoli for the first time before I hired her to manage one of my investee companies, so I knew her professionally for a very long time before we became romantically engaged.

Did you already have a family, did the two happen around the same time, or were you already in business before you started a family?

Karoli: When I sat down to seriously start working on Jobbatical, then our daughter Maya was one year and one month old.

Allan: I have always had both.

How old are your children?

Karoli: Maya is two years old.

Allan: I have also grown-up and almost grown-up sons from past relationships who are great big bros for Maya and great friends for all of us.

What is your work schedule?

Karoli: Working between different time zones, then the day often starts at 5–6am, which gives enough time to work a bit before Maya wakes up if I am not traveling. I try to have breakfast with my family and keep that tradition. Our nanny finishes the day around 6–7pm, and then one of us will play and spend time with Maya. If not traveling, I try to have at least an hour with her before she goes to bed. Often after that the work day continues. Working between time zones also means that call-meetings can take place around midnight.

Allan: Karoli already described it in good detail. I like the quiet morning hours and prefer not to work after 8 pm, definitely not after 10pm and rather wake at 5 or 6 am. Both of us value dearly our small routines of family breakfasts and dinners.

I travel on business 1–3 days a week. Sometimes our travels take me and Karoli for 1–2 weeks to the U.S. I’d love to have those long trips together with Maya, but this is not always possible.

How has having a family impacted your colleagues/work?

Karoli: It certainly has had an impact, as in my previous working life I often was in the office until 9–10pm. Today, that is not possible unless I allow my child to grow up motherless. But the different schedule is doable for all sides — it just requires planning and discipline.

Allan: Compared to the time when I was actively running my own startups, I have scaled down my work schedule quite significantly. In the past, I used to work 12 hours a day plus 6 hours on Saturdays. Ten to 15 years ago it was quite common to see a third of my company’s staff in the office on Sunday afternoon.

A funny story: I made a due diligence on a Finnish startup I was considering for investment a few years ago. From old habit, I asked them how many people are at work in their office on Sunday afternoon. The answer was utter silence. I believe they did not understand my question.

Talking about merging family and a startup, what kind of impact do you think your work has had on your partner and child?

Karoli: As the schedule requires compromises, then living a full-time startup founder life while being a parent and a partner consequently means that somebody has to lose somewhere. As we are trying to run a life where neither our child nor our professional lives suffer, then it often happens that it us who have to sacrifice something from our personal lives. Finding “my time” or “our time” becomes a very rare event. I imagine that this might be the biggest trigger for a burnout.

Allan: You really, really must love what you are doing and believe in it to combine family and a startup. And you really, really must love and understand your partner. Running a startup is so resource-heavy, so energy-consuming that it is impossible without a major impact on your family life. One needs to recognize that you cannot excel in both. More often than not I have asked myself if the upside is really worth it.

Sometimes I secretly wish for Karoli’s company to fail just for very egoistic reasons: I want more of my wife. But at the same time, I also know that going to a day job from 9 to 5 will not make her or me any happier. Karoli has always done all her jobs as if she’d be running a startup, and that’s why I love her.

But, hey, startups are tough trips into unknown waters by definition. They can’t be taken rationally.

What have been your greatest adjustments at work or at home?

Karoli: Time.

Allan: Freedom. There are almost no moments in our lives that are not filled with responsibilities either at home or at work. But I believe all of us must have some totally unplanned time slots — just for ourselves or for the relationship.

Have there been any particularly difficult times in your work or family? What caused those difficulties, and how did you/your family manage them?

Karoli: There are always difficult times when you are running both a professional and personal startup (your child) while maintaining a healthy relationship with your partner and yourself. The main thing is not to let things get totally out of balance and to find some time for yourself.

Allan: Now and then we have small conflicts when either side feels forgotten, overburdened, overworked. What we have learned is that this must be spilled out as quickly as possible — letting the tensions mount will just make things worse. Luckily, we have an extraordinarily good ability to solve such situations. We love and respect each other, and have always found a way to talk and finally hug each other and press forward.

Are there any particular steps in the evolution of a startup that you think would cause stress for most families/partners? What do you think people can do in advance to make those times less stressful?

Karoli: The fundraising and product market fit stage are very difficult, as the uncertainty level is extremely high then. This is the time when it would be good if your partner would have a more stable and feet-on-the-ground period in his life to be able to support and encourage. Two people taking high risks at the same time can get very tense. At one point, my husband and I discovered that we were doing three fundraising rounds between us at the same time! Would not recommend that to anyone else.

Allan: Actually, it was three fundraising and three other transactions at the same time.

I think Karoli is a bit naive by saying that the fundraising and early stage are the tough parts. Life after finding the product-market fit will be even tougher, and I don’t even want to think about it. Tens or hundreds of employees, trips, further fundraising, millions of problems to manage… It will not get any easier, and looking back we will consider the startup phase an early, romantic one. So, the really tough times will be ahead.

Can you offer any practical advice for people working in startups on how to strengthen their relationships (with colleagues, their own well being, their partners, and their children)?

Karoli: Don’t forget yourself and your partner. However hard it is to take that outdoor run or go to the gym a few times a week, it is better to do it as the consequence of not doing it has more negative effect on all sides. Create Google Cal events for dates with your partner once a week, and find 1–2 babysitters dedicated to babysit in the evenings (in case one is busy, there is an alternative). Maintain a good relationship with your parents and build a relationship between them and your child from an early age.

One thing I would add is taking effort to learn the art of saying no to any request that does not directly help your business, because any such additional activity will then consume the time you could spend with your family. There are tons of meetings people want to have with you, speeches they ask you to give, but if you cannot answer the question ‘How will it improve my business?’ then it probably will not. It will only consume your time, which becomes especially precious when running both a family and a startup.

Allan: Doing two high-intensity jobs AND raising a child AND being a great partner at the same time is almost impossible. You may be very good and caring and loving, but the time math will not add up. So, it is very important to set your priorities and expectations right, and be ready to give up something for some time.

And when it’s time to look back at my life at some point, I will most likely remember the great moments with my partner and child rather than a beautifully executed business plan.

 

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