Father-of-two and entrepreneur Aaron Birkby at River City Labs. Picture: Tara Croser
Father-of-two and entrepreneur Aaron Birkby at River City Labs. Picture: Tara Croser

How to avoid a startup meltdown

Entrepreneurs often take leave from family to pursue crazy, high-risk endeavours with low odds of success but there are things you can do to stay in the game according to this expert

As entrepreneurs we often take leave from our family to pursue this crazy, high-risk endeavour of launching a new business. It's a journey where the odds of success are low, and it is very common for founders to go for months, if not years, drawing minimum to no wages, putting incredible financial strain on home finances and relationships.

The curse of the entrepreneur is that we delay gratification in the belief that one day we will have a successful business that will enable us to achieve financial freedom and live happily ever-after. Meanwhile our entire family sacrifices. Our business becomes all consuming. We work long hours, often across multiple time zones. We travel frequently. We skip date nights to work. We miss our kids school events. We get home after they are asleep. We work on weekends. We struggle to sleep due to stress and anxiety. We stop exercising and our health deteriorates.

Aaron Birkby in search of work life balance.
Aaron Birkby in search of work life balance.

We've lost touch of the very things that matter most. Entrepreneurs fundamentally see the world differently. Unless you are an entrepreneur, you will likely struggle to fully understand why anyone would consciously choose the emotional turmoil that comes with being a founder. Sharing our stresses with our loved ones is often met with well-intended responses of "well stop doing this business and go and get a real job then." Of course, those responses only cause us to stop sharing our stresses, and so instead they bottle up inside us.

It's why being an entrepreneur can feel incredibly isolating and lonely. But even worse, as dads we can develop strong emotional guilt triggers over our inability to be the provider. As men, when we express this guilt or sadness over our long working hours away from our kids it is often met with toxic stereotypical comments like "toughen up princess".

It is why entrepreneurship has one of the highest rates of mental health issues, and why we are increasingly seeing founders burnout early in their journey. I also feel it is contributing to why so many founders sell out early, rather than building bigger businesses, impacting our Gross Domestic Product.

That's why it is so vitally important to me to take time for myself. Being selfish enough to take time for myself actually makes me a better dad. We all need to give ourselves permission to prioritise ourselves. To fill our cups so that we can then give more to those we love. This is exactly why I formed Peak Persona, to help more founders to learn how to better manage themselves.

For me it means starting every day pre-dawn: getting up early to exercise and enjoy extended time alone to process my thoughts. I get myself completely ready to face the world before my children even open their eyes so that when they wake, I am able to be fully present with them and have the patience to listen to all their thoughts and to encourage them to be noisier and more playful.

It's also about realising we have the flexibility to choose how and where we spend our time. For me, when the kids have something special on at school, I make sure I am there, even if it is the middle of the day. I drop the kids at school three mornings a week, even though it means I don't get to my desk until well after 9am. I can genuinely say that I am far more productive and creative at work exactly because I prioritise this time with my kids.

But more than anything else, I draw the most support from the tribe of humans I surround myself with. Those other entrepreneurs and dads who understand the unique challenges, and who understand me. If you are struggling with anything, my advice is to find your tribe of like-minded souls.

Aaron is a father of two young children, and currently serves as the CEO of Startup Catalyst leading missions to global startup hotspots, and is the co-founder of Peak Persona, helping entrepreneurs and business leaders in personal growth and life balance.