Yabbly founder Tom Leung and his family

It was Saturday night at 8:12 p.m. and the screaming had just begun.

The source of it?  My two-and-a-half-year old son, who had just been put to bed for the first time without his cherished pacifier.

The truth is, he needed to be weaned off the thing.  And I’d chosen this weekend to do it — the weekend when my wife was traveling overseas, as piles of dirty laundry stared at me, and as my co-founder and I worked madly to find and fix bugs on the Yabbly alpha before our upcoming investor demos.

Probably not the best time to initiate a new toddler behavior.  But I was game.  Because if fatherhood and startuphood have one abiding law, it is this: never underestimate the will of a middle-aged dad out to prove he can still get something done.

“Year2000Tom” would probably have crashed and burned. That guy spent 16-hour days at the office, got into screaming matches with his co-founder, poured every waking hour into nothing else, then flamed out, making almost every rookie mistake in the book.  Twelve years ago, that was me on a good day (I also smoke, drank, and gambled but we won’t go there).

A lot of us may have gotten some more seasoning over the years but the perception of tech founders as exclusively workaholic 20-somethings living off Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy shots still persists.

Tom Leung and his family

But here’s the thing: a lot of us who take the entrepreneurial leap aren’t exactly like that.  We’re married, we have kids and receding hairlines, and we’re doing a daily high-wire act in order to make the dream happen.

In fact, according to the Kauffman Foundation, the average age of tech founders is 39.  Nearly 70 percent of entrepreneurs across all industries are married and 60 percent said they have at least one child. Almost 44 percent have two or more kids.

Juggling the demands of a startup (which is basically like a colicky newborn) with marriage, aging parents, and toddlers to take care of would probably have freaked me out when I was in my early 20s.  But 38-year-old me has discovered something pretty cool — all this pressure can occasionally turn you into a Zen, Energy Star machine when it comes to maintaining your center and efficiently burning that most precious of all resources: time.

Take my co-founder, Ian Shafer.  He’s the father of two girls.  He often arrives at the office by 6 a.m. and for the next 11 hours, he is a laser-focused engineering powerhouse and often gets twice as much done as many other world-class engineers I’ve worked with in the past.  But we literally hit a chime at 5 p.m.

Because by 5 p.m., we have children to pick up, dogs to walk, tables to set, and wives with whom to catch up.  I only reach for the laptop again until the kids go to bed.  For my wife and I, Saturday nights are sacred date nights.

To be sure, this is new territory for us.  Growing up, both Ian and I had mothers who took on the majority share of the child rearing.  Our dads worked.  That was pretty much all you’d expect from a dad back then.  So we haven’t seen this new-generation founder dad dance performed before.  But we’re trying our hardest to learn.

Along the way, we’ve discovered that being older and having families does come with some upside.  Our experience has helped us avoid the startup potholes that would have sunk us in our youth (probably because they did).  We’re less twitchy, more confident, and get more needle-moving work done per hour than ever before.  We also have amazing support and inspiration from our spouses and kids who probably know us better than we know ourselves.

As if that’s not enough, being parents has also hit home our commitment to building a company that will, hopefully like our children, become a great legacy and make a positive dent in this universe someday.

But I think I’ll save that message later for my sons, one of whom is kind of busy right now going through that intense bout of pacifier-withdrawal.  Do you hear him wailing “Daddddddy!”?

Startup Fatherhood: Ain’t nothing like it.

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  • http://www.kickofflabs.com/ Josh Ledgard

    Good post. As a fellow-founder dad I find that we also have to focus on working a lot smarter. No sense wasting time on features or pitches that won’t net users, profit, or money. :) Leave that extra effort to the 20 yos.

  • http://walawrealty.com marc_h

    Couldn’t agree more and nice to hear something other than “any startup founder who isn’t working 100 hours/week with his hair on fire and a red bull main line is doing it wrong.” I’ve found my wife and two kids to be a great joy and help bring balance to my life. Crossfit 5 days a week at 6 am is also a great stress releiver.

  • Michael Zaro

    What a great description of how most of us are actually making it happen. Just goes to show that there isn’t “one right way” to change the world or to be an entrepreneur.

  • RobertinSeattle

    Good observations, Tom. Over the years, much of what I learned about management, I picked up from being a single Dad with a young son and daughter at home. And conversely, many of my best parenting skills came from becoming a good manager at work.

    But I also used to point out to some of my staff that the lame, old ‘quality time’ excuse never really works. I tell parents to try going in to your boss tomorrow morning and saying, “You know – I’m going to start coming in at 10:00 and leaving at 2:00 from now on. But it’s going to be absolutely the best quality time you’ll get from me. Ever!”

    You already know what the boss is going to tell you! So why would anyone even think about trying that line on your family? It’s quality AND quantity that truly count. And that’s what also makes a good, shippable product too!

  • Eelco

    In my case, the mortgage is more of a problem doing my own startup than kids are, as I seem to end up working crazy hours regardless (and yes, that with young kids and a working wife). Encouraging post though, thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/alwaysbshipping Tom Leung

    Thanks for everyone’s feedback. Was also great to hear directly from so many startup dads. p.s. Our youngest has not asked for his pacifier in a few days! Closest thing he said was “It’s gone daddy.”

  • Dave

    Tom, you’re a freaking rock star. Can’t wait to see Yabbly light up!

  • johnhcook

    Loved this post Tom. Good to know others are experiencing the same thing. Got to say, having two startups (GeekWire and my 2.5 year old) it isn’t always easy. But I wouldn’t trade either for the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doduong Do Duong

    Great post. I’m not a founder but I am on a leadership team at a (now) a later stage start-up. Most memorable part of this article, “… we haven’t seen this new-generation founder dad dance performed before”

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