I just returned from the first out of four months of (part-time) parental leave. While I was spending time with my wife and my newborn son, I had lots of opportunities to think about my situation – wondering why it was still relatively uncommon for startup founders to officially take some time off. Here are my thoughts – I’d be happy to hear yours!
Why is it so uncommon for startup founders to take parental leave?
After the birth of his oldest daughter, Mark Zuckerberg made global headlines when he announced to take two months parental leave. Two years later, he did the same for his second child. However, Mark Zuckerberg’s case still remains an exception to this day. But why?
Why is parental leave still such a controversial subject, especially in tech leadership roles? In my small (non-representative) sample of about a dozen other startup founder-parents, none of them officially took time off. Some were even surprised that it is possible at all if you’re self-employed.
With 10+ years of leadership experience in several startups, I learned the hard way how difficult it is to let go of work tasks. There’s always a strategic project to manage, an important deal to close, or a new product feature to develop. The pressure to deliver results to your shareholders and to keep the company growing is always there. This obviously conflicts with taking time for the family.
However, while there’s ample opportunity to help your startup grow, there’s only one chance to be there for your partner and your newborn baby directly after birth. And, in hindsight, I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
We need to challenge the expectations of the startup community
The startup community is increasingly vocal about “mental health” and “equal opportunity for male and female founders”, yet when it comes to actually taking time off for the family, it is awfully quiet.
Dear startup community, “mental health” is more than just writing some snappy blog posts, hiring expensive coaches or occasionally going on a one-week meditation retreat in an instagramable natural reserve. If you want your founders to remain happy and stable, you should not just (grudgingly) accept, but actually promote taking longer periods of family time. After all, isn’t this the “new work” we’re all so passionate about?
And yeah, I totally believe that this is also an issue of gender equality. Male founders can theoretically go back to work directly after their child is born (although they shouldn’t), but female founders don’t have that choice. The only way to balance the scale would be to actively encourage founders of all genders to take some time off. On a side note, this would also fight the outdated perception that raising children is primarily a mother’s job.
And why stop at just taking some time off! Here in Germany, both parents can together take up to 14 months of paid parental leave. Again, this clashes with the startup community’s expectation that founders should be available as much as possible. Many founders (including me and my friends) feel that they would be evaluated as “not fully committed” by investors if they don’t live up to this expectation.
I’m grateful that this doesn’t apply to my current investors in Sponsoo, who were fully supportive of my plans to reserve some months for the family. To be fair, I didn’t take full parental leave, but just scaled down my work to part-time (to about 30% of the hours I usually work).
I would wish that the decision how much time to take is fully within the realm of the soon-to-be parents, and not constrained by the startup ecosystem or shareholder expectations.
Be creative, be flexible
To address the obvious: Yeah, it’s clearly not possible to just leave your startup un-managed for an extended period of time without prior planning. But who does that? If you are a founder, your startup is your other baby. No one leaves their baby without ensuring that it is taken care of.
If you’re part of a team, and have enough planning time ahead (and usually you have about 9 months…), it should always be possible to find a way that works for you and your startup.
To just throw some ideas into the room: Work part-time. Work flexible hours. Work from home. Temporarily hand over some responsibilities to other team members. Find an interim manager, if necessary. Split your time off into several smaller chunks. Be creative, be flexible, and make things happen!
Turn the startup ecosystem into a (more) family-friendly environment
So, what remains? From my personal perspective, it was great to have the opportunity to take some time for my family. I don’t think that Sponsoo’s growth suffered at all from my (partial) absence – quite contrary, I feel much more energised and able to focus on my work.
If I had a wish, I’d love to see more founders take family time, and be vocal about it – so that others are encouraged to follow their example. In my ideal world, running a startup and having a rich family life wouldn’t be at odds. In my ideal world, the startup ecosystem also wouldn’t miss out on all the would-be founders who were forced to decide between family and founding a startup, and selected the former.
What are your thoughts on parental leave for startup founders? I would love to start a discussion!
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