The hard thing about tech careers and relationships
One of the startup founders who had just graduated from the first Google Launchpad Africa Accelerator walked up to me after the recent graduation ceremony in Lagos and told me he wanted to discuss something in private. He wanted to know what to do about balancing a full-time commitment to his startup and keeping a relationship. He was afraid that he was going to lose another potential partner because the young lady was tired of competing for attention. He wanted to learn how I managed to balance marriage and the demands of a technology career.
It was a tough question; I told him that the struggle was one of the reasons I married very late in life. It is a topic that is rarely ever discussed. I went through the same battle he was facing and had a lot of failed relationships as a result of it. I was lucky that I finally met someone who understood because she was also working with a Ghanaian technology company when I met her. She could understand why I had to travel a lot and what it meant to devote time to try to grow a technology business. I still, however, had to make a conscious decision to spend more time with my family after my first child was born.
Jason Njoku, the founder of IrokoTV, wrote a heartfelt social media post once about how his young son called him “Mummy” because his mother was the only parent who was always around. The same thing happened to me as well in spite of my best efforts. I still had to travel, and it took a long time before my son started calling me “Dad”. As for my daughter, I had to reintroduce myself to her again after every trip.
For a young founder, early success is a mixed blessing. You become more financially stable and can then think of supporting a family. The problem is that you need time to get to know the person you want to start the family with and build a relationship. Some people, like my friend, Femi Taiwo (the founder of INITS), are lucky to have their spouses as business partners. Femi’s wife is his co-founder and runs the business while he focuses on the technology. Other people like Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla and SpaceX) are not so lucky; he got divorced.
Young African women in technology suffer a lot more when it comes to balancing careers with romantic relationships and starting a family. Some families discourage their daughters from pursuing tech careers because they believe it distracts them and prevents them from settling down on time. Female founders have to cross this hurdle with their families before dealing with the same issues their male counterparts encounter. It is much worse for them in a society that still believes in “traditional” gender roles.
What makes it so hard?
Naval Ravikant, the founder of Angel List, was asked at a “Google I/O” event in 2013 about what makes the people who go on to build successful technology products and companies unique? His answer was “you have to be fundamentally broken to be in it.” Justine Musk, the former wife of Elon Musk, confirmed it when she spoke of her relationship with her former husband, he is broken and not like anyone else.
In Africa, we struggle against greater odds, and it becomes not just an obsession for success but a need to survive. Technology is different for us because we are consistently playing a game of catch-up as we have major disadvantages. We are continually learning and building at the same time. We also learn more about the market because there are few precedents or existing reference points. For a first time manager, it becomes compounded by learning how to manage people. All of these take time and time is the resource that also makes relationships work.
How can we make it better?
My answer to the Launchpad founder was – find a way to make his girlfriend an active stakeholder in what he was building so that there are fewer conflicts. The real reason for dysfunction in relationships between technology people and others is ambiguity.
We were interrupted before I could tell him this fantastic story from the venture capitalist Ben Horowitz from his bestselling Book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”:
“…One very hot day my father came over for a visit. We could not afford air-conditioning, and all three children were crying as my father and I stay there sweating in the 105-degree heat.
My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”
Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”
“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.
Again, I replied, “No, what?”
He said, “Divorce”.
Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously.
But this joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family.
By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing…”
Ben is still married and runs one of the largest venture capital companies in the world.