Thomas Clayton
Thomas Clayton
11:08 am on Apr 30, 2013

Tom Clayton has started and run numerous high-tech startups in Silicon Valley. Now running Bubble Motion, a Sequoia Capital, SingTel Innov8, and JAFCO backed social media startup that is one of the largest VC–backed startups in Southeast Asia having raised over $60M+ in funding.

Tom and his daughter

Tom and his daughter.

Over a year ago, Kiip CEO Brian Wong made a rather definitive comment at a tech conference in Singapore: “You can’t have kids and run a startup.” He went on to give examples of former employees with kids who didn’t last at his company because they couldn’t balance their work and family life.

Hmmm… That made me do some deep introspection. Was I doing a disservice to my startup since I was now a father? After all, I was single during my previous six startups and only had kids in the past few years. Moreover, was it a problem that 34 of our 60 employees have kids? It was easy to blow off the flippant comment by the 20-something-year-old founder who did not have kids, but it did cause me to reflect nonetheless.

For me, being a dad and running a startup seemed to be working fine. In fact, I don’t think I am slacking at either job and I often get asked how I balance both tasks. After significant reflection and a great conversation with my three-year-old daughter on the topic, I think I started to understand what it takes to manage both lives in parallel.

First of all, I disagree with Brian’s comment. It is possible to be a parent and an entrepreneur – and I think there are thousands of role models out there who prove this. However, in order to do so, you must be absolutely ruthless with your schedule. This means giving your personal life the same dedication that you give your startup. I have always had an extremely busy work schedule – logging 90-hour work weeks and 350,000 plus air miles a year; I am currently the CEO of Bubble Motion, a Sequoia-backed startup based in Singapore, but I have also founded and worked at six different Silicon Valley startups before this.

Even with the hectic work demands that I face on a daily basis, I’m still able to be very involved in the lives of my wife and two young daughters. Before having a family, I had a “work hard, play hard” mentality and the “play hard” was my free time to let loose. Now I’ve just replaced the “play hard” with intense family time; thus, whether you’re 25 or 35 or 45, it’s no different. This balance hasn’t always been the case, and certainly doesn’t come easily – it takes a lot of effort and perseverance to achieve an equilibrium.

4 lessons for a good work-family balance

Here are some of the lessons I have learned that may help aspiring entrepreneurs maintain a strong work-family balance:

1. Managing time effectively is a must – When everyone wants your time, everything must be scheduled. Rather than attempting to multitask with the deluge of daily requests and to-do’s, creating 15- to 30-minute increments per task helps me hone my focus. Most tasks and meetings can be completed in less than 30 minutes and by keeping to a rigid schedule I can turn my focus on and off. With this comes the ability to prioritize more easily. It’s also important to have one central means for communication and staying on top of things. For me, it’s my email Inbox. Everyone knows to get something on my list, email me. I read every email and reply to most of them. I religiously empty my inbox at least once a week. This allows me to focus all of my communications and ‘to do’ items in one place and ensure I’m not missing something.

2. Maximizing off time at home – When you do get to be home, it’s important to make the most of it. For me, this means setting aside time to relax with my family and give them my full, undivided attention. Each week, my daughters and I have a “daddy-daughter” night where the three of us go to dinner. Both my daughters and I live for these nights out – they keep me grounded, and I’m sure my children love to see a distraction-free dad. In addition, having a supportive spouse who understands your lifestyle and is able to pick up your slack when you need it helps tremendously and is basically a necessity to finding simultaneous success in both the startup world and the daddy world.

3. Making sure work trips aren’t all work – For founders with children, why not bring them with you when you travel for work? This is something that I try to do whenever possible. My three-year-old has already been to 23 countries across four continents! Hotels can always get a sitter to watch children during meetings and then once work is out of the way, the evenings can be dedicated to them. Not to mention the fact that children often love the opportunity to get on a plane and go on an adventure with their parents. Everything is new and exciting for them; even the most mundane places you have seen a hundred times. Some of my best one-to-one time with one of my daughters is sitting in the airport lounge together – time that would otherwise be wasted. I’m not exaggerating when I say that bringing my daughters along makes business travel ten times better – not to mention how much they learn and see the world in the process!

4. Be available when out of the office – Ignoring email when you get home is not the answer. It’s important to be available to your employees during off hours at home. Getting online and staying responsive some mornings, nights, and weekends will help to keep productivity flowing when you’re out of the office and save you the stress of being bombarded with emails when you walk in on Monday morning, which can be paralyzing to productivity. I’m online 24/7 and always checking email. My most productive times of the day are often at night, after I put my daughters to bed, or early in the morning before they wake up.

So, in short, it’s possible. I started my first company when I was 15 years old and was always fearful that when I had kids, I’d have to settle for a boring 9-to-5 big corporate job, so I was determined to figure out a way to make it work and keep doing what I love – starting and building companies. To be honest, it’s actually more fun now with a family. They keep me recharged and my morale much higher.

Building a company is tough and we face so many more ‘down days’ than ‘up days’, so having someone that’s always there to cheer you up and put things into perspective does wonders for your startup stamina. So for those that think you can’t run a company and have kids – it’s nonsense. You absolutely can and it can be some of the best years of your life as well.

  • Kim

    Good to point out. It’s possible to have family and startup really. Thanks you

  • funkywunky

    Sorry, have to disagree. I’ve been doing start-ups for 5 years with kids on tow, and it’s a struggle to the point now that I’m leaving the start-up world next month. The BIG difference is that Bubble Motion is well funded. It was particularly tough in the first 2 years when both myself and my wife had no income and 2 kids to bring up whilst working on a start-up.

    So this is an outlier case, where security is ensured due to funding (most start-ups are bootstrapped or off savings/credit cards). Point 3 in the article is clear, either he can afford to pay for the family flights and hotels or the company can… that is a company that already has reached a stage of financial security. Secondly, this start-up is not really a start-up 60 employees is not a start-up, that’s a mid-sized company.

    Let’s ask Tom this… How would he do it if he had to start from scratch with no access to VC funding and no savings and his wife had no income either.

  • Eric Koh

    Enuff said, it’s certainly tougher with kids than without!

  • Der Shing

    Hang in there guys. Definitely possible to run startup and have kids. I got married, have 3 small kids and built up jobscentral with my wife/cofounder without any funding. So funky wunky,hang in there! What works?

    1) time mgmt super impt. But though to do during the real pain start up days. We made it a point to get home by 7pm. Engage the boys and back at work via email about 10 after they sleep.

    2) vacations and getaways. We need to recharge anyway. So once business was stable, read profitable, we took 3-4 days beach vacations with kids.

    3) choosing your family over work. Was I obsessive about work? Of course! But sometimes I chose to let something slide over my kids. Not easy but it got easier with practice.

    4) balance got a lot easier once startup was profitable.

  • Wizcoder

    Hey Der Shing, didn’t know anyone actually build a startup with 3 kids especially in Singapore. Its tough enough to look after 1 kid, you got 3 and no funding. What did you feed the kids with?

  • Himank

    Play hard definitely gets replaced with time for the family. Family (kids) are the best stress buster, and obviously keeping them happy ensures you can have greater focus towards your work life.

  • BubbleTom

    Der Shing – great insight… completely agree with all of your points!

    Funkywunky et al – thanks for the perspective and apologies that I didn’t give much insight to the details of when we were really struggling and truly a “startup”. Things haven’t always been operationally smooth. In fact, twice we actually had negative cash (ie, far more debt owed to the bank than cash) and struggled to even make payroll or cover rent. At one point we had to layoff over half of our employees and make payroll by taking an advance out on a credit card – that was just before my wife gave birth. Firing a couple dozen employees sucks. Layering personal financial struggles on top only makes it worse. Pretty stressful times. As an entrepreneur, I’ve had way more down days than up days. This is a pretty draining career. My wife doesn’t work either. Not knowing how you’re going to provide for your family, much less pay your employees is tough – and a crossroad I have faced a couple of times now.

    As Eric Koh said, it is DEFINITELY always harder with kids. One would be lying to say otherwise. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, I would definitely not give up. However, if you are really struggling, then it’s okay to throw in the towel and try again later when you’re more financially comfortable. I’ve thrown in the towel twice in the past and learned a lot from it. You learn way more in tough times than you ever do when things are easy.

    Glad to meet up and discuss live – just ping me – tclayton at bubblemotion dot com.

    PS. My daughters flights were free until they were 2 – and afterwards, I had so many miles accumulated, that flying her with me occasionally on miles was not an issue. Of course, the company never paid – and I still fly all over the world in Economy as matter of principle. I grew up with nothing and its pretty easy for me to stick to that same scrappy lifestyle and frugal principals.

  • Der Shing

    Wizcoder, it does not cost a lot to bring up a kid in Singapore. Highest expense is the live in maid, followed by preschool education. For 3 kids, that adds up to be about 1500 to 2000 a month all in? The bigger issue is time and attention. That is much harder to give during the tough first 5 years of business. Once your business is profitable and you are taking back say 100k a year and up, then it really is the willingness to balance.

  • Steven goh

    Hi. Great article. Completely agree with Tom. If anything being a parent makes you a better exec / entrepreneur. Steven goh

  • justinchina

    it also depends on the kind of start up you are working on. i have decided to target hiring parents, as they are our target market. hours are often not as long…but frankly i often find the Mom’s that i hire, are much more focused, and work harder during the hours that they ARE here, than a single guy who, while sitting in the office for longer each day…isn’t necessarily as productive. So i would say the kinds of products you are building should also be thrown into the mix, as well as levels of funding, past successes, etc. overall…balance is good.

  • Vince

    Respect Der Shing! Even with the live in maid that is an incredible achievement. Me = father of 2 ankle biters.

  • Kristine Lauria

    Impossible for half the population! I can absolutely be a founder but can never be a daddy.
    – Kristine

  • wizcoder

    I am a dad of 2 and 3rd on the way pushing for my first startup at 40. It is hard but never impossible.

  • Artur

    Thank you for the article – sitting here at 6am ( with 5hrs of sleep ) after feeding my 6month old boy, thinking about how to scale via bootstrapping.. and staying positive. The sleep deprivation sucks and can really fuc#k with your mind at times..but at times this also produces the occasional brilliant lightbulb. My challenge now is to know when to throw in the towel and when to keep pushing.. Since having a new family is generating more pressure for stability. However it would be a damn shame if we give up now with over 2 years of chipping away at a dream :
    Our full story :

    Im now faced with keeping my family comfortably here in Buenos Aires
    ( a lovely city but with no VC opportunities ) or moving to SF/NYC and score a quick Seed round. CCards are not an option ( we need to keep our cc score high so we can buy our first home one day )… ahh decisions decisions..

    Anyway.. what do you folks think of our platform?
    We’re looking for beta-testers >

    good luck everyone!

    Artur | CEO & Co-Founder

  • Artur

    hmmm maybe we should try moving to Singapore?
    is this cost of living data accurate?

    how much is a live-in maid and preschool for just 1 kid?
    thanks again.


  • CEO

    All depends on what you really want, as well as if your spouse is willing to go through such a roller-coaster with you. But it is definitely doable. My recommendation — go do your startup; work hard at it, be proud. There is nothing like founding or help run one. Life is too short.

  • Christian MacLean

    I think it’s easy for Brian (who I’ve met a bunch – nice guy – VERY high energy) who doesn’t have kids to mix up causation and correlation when it comes to kids. 3 of the 4 co-founders in our company have kids, one likely will in a few years. While it’s hard, I would say there’s likely a lot more factors that are dependant on Brian’s unique business and circumstances that make it hard for his employees to have kids.

    Really can’t make the leap from being a founder with kids, and having employees not work out in your company because they have kids.

  • MartiMoose

    @Der Shing -> “We made it a point to get home by 7pm”

    Kindergarten closes at 4:30, children have to be sleeping by 7:30. Who will feed them? Who will wash them? I cannot get home after 5:30 (and my wife gets the children before that).

    For some of you 5 hours of sleep each night might be sufficient, but most of us need 8 (that’s when I fall asleep immediately, which is never). I work another 8. 1 hour every morning taking care of the kids, 2 every night. That leaves 5 hours. But I did not eat yet, did not shower, did not take some time to talk with my wife (yes we need that). Surely did not read the news, even less a book… and if I read one, it will surely be about some technical subject related to my work. Did not take care of the lawn, the house, the car… Who does that for you?

    I can’t remember the last time I read a novel. I don’t go to the movies anymore, no time. Yet I cannot spend the amount of time that most people seem to put in their startup.

    I know, you have to be focused… but still, it’s not everybody that have all this focus, that can put every spare second in a single endeavor. I need to divide my time in more than 2 things (children and job). Good for you if you can, but you have to realize that it’s not because it’s possible for you that it is for everybody.

  • Chris Turitzin

    Thomas you mentioned that your wife doesn’t work. Do you think managing your company would be possible if she did?

  • Art Harrison

    Great article. As a Husband/Dad/Founder I completely agree with all of your advice. I wrote my own take on being a multi-faceted (obligated) and happy dad-founder on my blog last night as well! — — glad to see there are more of us out there!

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