Need a vacation!

I read almost every book that Verne Harnish recommends so when I saw this in his recent newsletter, I ordered do more faster a couple minutes later. Verne wrote:

Brad Feld Saved His Marriage — last month I read Brad’s outstanding book Do More Faster. Aimed at tech start-ups, there are plenty of lessons for all of us in the book given Brad’s background as a serial entrepreneur and well-known tech investor (and founder of two EO chapters!). In the book he discusses work-life balance and how a lack of it contributed to a failed first marriage and his current wife, Amy, almost calling it quits. Here’s a link to what he did – which also served as a short chapter in his book.”

Having spent the last five years saving my health and company, it’s time to save my marriage. Most entrepreneurs will understand what that means without explanation. It’s painful and embarrassing to admit this but here it is — I can’t remember taking one full day of vacation during the last five years.

How that happened to someone like me who loves the outdoors, stuff like fly-fishing, hiking, running, camping, surfing, paragliding, hang gliding, etc is a long story. The short version is that we just rolled from one crisis to the next. Chronic health issues became a full-blown health crisis, and we moved to Colorado as the recession and changing dynamics of the job board industry crippled our company.

During this entire time we were pivoting the company aggressively, nurturing our start-up job-search engine network, Looking back, it seems a bit insane, like grabbing an angry tiger by the tail while bleeding from the first try. So why do it?

First and maybe foremost, I dreamed of being the best in the world at something when I was 12 years old. That became an enduring obsession with LatPro that I can’t and don’t want to shake. Somewhere around 2004, I realized wasn’t very scaleable and so I began looking for something better. Late in 2005 I settled on a new model and we were back in the start-up phase again.

Secondly, my back was up against the wall. I fell ill to the point that I felt certain I couldn’t work a traditional job. Working from home and running my own show allowed me to incorporate the therapy I needed into my daily life. So turning the company around seemed to me the perfect solution to a world of problems.

Trying to work our way out of a hole like that – sick business and poor physical health – was risky and the pressures on my family were intense but I saw no other practical option. The course we chose has been especially complicated by the large scope of our start-up — it should have had $2 to $7 million in capital. But the $1.3 million we raised in 2000 weighed heavily on me over the years.

We spent the money inefficiently and I suffered knowing that my company was a disappointment to our Angel investor. So I was determined to bootstrap Today, the economy is recovering and our start-up is blossoming — it feels like we are finally going to ride the tiger we caught by the tail.

But back to Brad Feld. I love his ideas for creating work life balance (and need them). Love the quarterly vacation idea. Even one day a quarter will be a godsend (and fit right into our quarterly planning process). Love his wife Amy’s quote “Brad – be a person”. I recognize my inhumanity in that and know I’m not alone. I underlined a handful of great passages in her chapter titled “Get Away from It All”. This is my conversation with Amy as I read her chapter. She writes:

“If you’re like most startup entrepreneurs, you work every day–Sundays, holidays, your birthday. This seems necessary…”

ah, you know me… you’re qualified to give me a little advice!

“When you’re caught up in the adrenaline rush, you get a lot done, but you also raise your cortisol levels and other stress hormones. Along with the likely food deprivation you’re experiencing, this is bad for you. taking a break, especially from all your electronic devices, allows your brain and body to recover so that you can plunge back into the thing. Play is good for you physically emotionally and mentally.”

…love the short powerful phrases as if you were speaking to a child; “…this is bad for you”. Brilliant in its simplicity and truth. Reminds me of the other paradoxes I’ve experienced in business. Hire someone quickly, and chances are you mire yourself and your company in the mud. Simple and true, but until I felt deep pain, I couldn’t live by this simple good advice.

“My husband and I have different definitions of his work. He often does define it as play; but I define his work is any time he’s not available to play with me.”

feels like you’ve been eavesdropping on Carolina and me. I hear you saying “Heeelloooo Eric!”. Of course I knew this has been a problem for us, but somehow seeing it in print, sharpens it. Now, the question is… what am I going to do about it?

“Years ago, when he had nearly exhausted my tanks of patience and support, we negotiated a contract in which we would get away from it all for an entire week every quarter: no work, no phone calls, no e-mail, no electronic devices–no exceptions.”

pure genius – I want it. Is it ok if we start small, say one night away at first? We’ll scale it up, i promise…

Reading Brad’s book and blog, I realized he’s done all the things I fantasized about. Successful serial entrepreneur, Angel investor, mentor, author. Those are still reasonable possibilities for me. But it’s too late for me to make it look easy, way too late. We’ve struggled and I’ve made so many mistakes over the past 14 years with my company, they would fill a book like Brad’s.

Now, I ordered do more faster in spite of a few reviews on Amazon which call it more appropriate for early-stage entrepreneurs. And, it was a great read – I tore through the book, just eating up the examples and anecdotes. It walked me through my career step-by-step re-living the mistakes I made, helping me categorize them and sometimes seeing them in a slightly new light. It reminded me that I’ve often thought of writing in more depth about the mistakes I’ve made.

So here’s a catalog of my mistakes for the book I’ll write when LatPro Inc grows up (to be fair, I’ll also list the things we’ve done right afterwards):

Hire friends – We hired friends for speed and convenience. As a new entrepreneur with no management experience, I was looking for a team at the height of the .com boom. I didn’t know how to hire so bringing in friends looked good, a case of going with ‘the devil you know’. In reality you don’t really know how your friends will perform under stress in new and difficult situations. If they don’t outperform, you have a tremendous problem on your hands. My advice – instead of hiring friends, learn how to hire.

Failed to solve a critical business model problem – We were riding several different waves and our business was growing. But I could see one structural flaw in our business which nagged at me. I knew dealing with this flaw could be postponed. We had so many other problems that were more solvable and I focused on those first. What I didn’t take into consideration is that my company’s ability to change gears would decline as it grew in the wrong direction. My advice – face the music early and solve the impossible problem first. The impossible problems are solvable.

Allowed our business to grow in nonscalable ways – I was so hungry for growth that I turned a blind eye to unwanted complexity. The costs were less immediate than the revenue growth and this was very seductive. We added human touch to improve quality but sacrificed scalability. We developed very costly features used by a tiny minority of customers out of fear. My advice – never lose sight of the holy Grail, a business that sounds like a jet engine revving as it grows instead of sputtering and coughing like an old biplane. Say no to “opportunity” often.

Failed to find mentors when I needed them most – when I most needed guidance I was too busy digging my hole to go out and find the mentors I needed. Just before the .com crash we formed an advisory board but it did not include any Internet entrepreneurs. I operated in a vacuum of critical knowledge and spent years learning the basics of running a business when I should have been tinkering with the business model instead. My advice – find a co-founder and mentors who’ve already done all the things you need to do. Do it early.

Allowed developers to make too many decisions

All right, this is fun and interesting and I have a long list, but I’m taking the day off to take the family for a trail ride in Estes Park where we’ll spend the night at a bed and breakfast! Later when I get some free time, I’ll move these mistakes to a new post..

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