12 parenting lessons that accelerate startup skills

It’s not only children who grow.

There are parents, and there are entrepreneurs. And then, some parents are entrepreneurs. (Or you could read it the other way around, as in ‘entrepreneurs who are parents’, if that order matters to your context).

I have been fortunate enough in two ways in this context. One by being a parent and an entrepreneur. And the other, by having several friends who are in the categories described above.

This has helped me get lessons from both sides, via conversations and observations for nearly two decades. However, like in any other arena, my real experience as a parent has taught me more than anything I could hear or see from others and validated some key concepts that I felt were just overreaction from other entrepreneurs or parents.

Here are the main takeaways.

The Oxygen mask

Please put your oxygen mask before helping others. We have heard this many times during flight announcements. This is my favourite one even for other life situations. And very true.

Image Calle Macarone

When your oxygen is depleted, anything that you say, do, advise or help with is not understood in the way you meant it to be.

We have emotional attachments with our children and our business. We can easily switch to a martyr mode if it means our children and our business will prosper. However, we tend to underestimate the time it will take for our children and business to use our help. In that period, if we lose our energy, peace, health, and/or money, we are indirectly creating a liability instead of helping our children and business. We start questioning our ‘why’.

Please identify what are the equivalents of ‘oxygen’ for you. In most cases, it is health and money. Health includes both the mental and physical aspects.

The Golden Rule

I was discussing a recent ‘white lie’ with a founder when his son came into the room. The context involved his school and he asked a simple question in the lines of, ‘What about my school?’.

It was not my place to say anything and I kept silent. The father took a deep breath and said, ‘We are talking about moving schools and we thought to understand the pros and cons so that we can discuss with you in a better way. You know preparation is better than a hasty piece of news.’

We both waited for the kid to give us a fit of desperation or anger but neither happened. He said, ‘Let me know when you have talked on this, dad — I better finish my game.’ The father turned to me and said, ‘My parents lied to me a lot when I was a kid. I try not to do that’.

Do as you would be done by.

This is a simplified version of the Golden rule and it pays back dividends in greater measures than you can imagine. If you don’t want to be treated in a specific manner, you do not do the same to others. You want clarity from a team member, you give them clarity too. You want trust, you give trust. You want passion, you give passion.

The art of getting (or grabbing) attention

You are pitching. It’s an important point. And an investor in front of you is checking her Facebook messages. You are speaking. You are making an important point. And your kid is checking his or her social media. You get the comparison.

I am not saying that investors have the attention span of a kid. They do when the message you are saying, or the way you are saying it, is not enough to grab their attention.

Image Vincent van Zalinge

In these days of social media (television is long gone from taking attention away), you are competing with celebrities inside your own home to get someone’s attention.

Why is your point important? What is it that will influence them enough to take action? If you have done this successfully as a parent, talking with investors will be a relatively simpler task. It does not work the other way around. You have been very successful with investors — this does not have any influence on how successful you will be as a parent in such conversations.

Getting attention as a parent is more difficult than pitching to distracted investors.

The pain resolution hooks their attention, while the satisfying experience after that with a promise of care, nurtures them for life.

Getting attention is not just for investors in the case of a business. More importantly, it is for customers. How do you summarise your key message that solves the pain-points of the customer? The pain resolution hooks their attention, while the satisfying experience after that with a promise of care, nurtures them for life.

Listening with empathy

You hear. You listen. You understand.

Listening is a very crucial part of a conversation. Four out of five conversations have the other person simply waiting and preparing mentally on what to say next, instead of capturing the essence of your point. You do the same at times. And when there is a ‘discussion’ between a couple, they might as well be speaking different languages at the same time.

And for parents, there is no actual listening going on. I am not here to accuse just the children. Parents are equally to blame for not listening to what the child has to say.

Apply this to listening to customers, team members, and investors. Knowing the key message being conveyed puts you in a position of power, as you can now convert that knowledge to actionable steps. Doing this with empathy puts you on the same side of the conversation.

Know how to say no without guilt or hesitation

I have deliberately separated this point from ‘negotiation skills’ — this is about saying, ‘no’.

I sometimes wish that I had the determination of a 5-year old when she asks for the exact toy or pet that she is looking for. Children are determined about what they want. They may not be clear about what is good for them. Even so, they may not be clear about how capable you are of giving them what they want. But they do know how to make you feel strained, hesitant, and/or guilty about saying no.

And the key transferable skill here is how to say no without any version of remorse.

Image Ben White

When team members, customers, larger businesses, and/or investors demand something which borders on unreasonable, it is unreasonable. If there is something that questions your ‘why’, it is unreasonable.

Say no when no is the answer.

You love your child. You love your business. A ‘yes’ will go a long way to make you the favourite, trusted parent (some things that you have longed to be and it shows subconsciously) — yet this is a benefit just in the short term but not the long term, and hence is the cause of your hesitation. Another Lego set or Barbie doll is not going to fix things in the long run. Giving in to a tangent demand from a customer can make things look beautiful in the short-term, and yet you are hesitant. Say no when no is the answer.

The power of clearly asking what you need

The 7-year-old comes to me and asks me if I am on a work-call. I take off my headphones and listen to her. She wants a Lego Friendship House, that she has a YouTube link for, and that comes with a list of characters (that I have forgotten by now). She said that I understand this will be a big ask compared to her last one and that she is happy to practice handwriting to make up for it. I am astounded by the clarity and specificity of the topic. I pause and am lost in my thoughts. Not understanding the reason behind my pause, she moves on to the next stage of holding me and saying ‘Please. Please. Please. Please and I love you.’

If I give this kind of clarity to my developer, I will have some apps developed at least twice as fast.

Clarity is a key skill. Oh wait — isn’t this article about the skills of parenting and I just described something about a child’s skill? I have seen time and again that when I am clear in my instructions to my kid, and even in other circumstances, the output that I get back is very close to what I need. It works both ways.

Image David Travis

And it works very well for customers, investors, developers — you name it. Being clear in what you need is more than half the work done towards getting the output you want.

This brings me to my next important point and it is closely related to clarity. However, it needs a special section of its own.


We understand clarity now. We understand about getting (and grabbing attention). And we did talk about listening skills. All this needs to be woven by the thread of simplicity.

If there is something to explain, do it in the simplest manner possible.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Complexity is the enemy of execution.

Simplicity empowers clarity, attention, listening, and every other aspect of communication. It also makes it easier to measure the output of the communication (be it with a kid, developer or an investor) — I wanted X, I got Y — did I get what I aimed for?

Complexity as a sign of more knowledge is of no use to anyone. It will have its place in research and science. However, if you understand something well, you can simplify it without hurting anyone’s ego.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Complexity is the enemy of execution.

Superwoman and Superman to have limits

This point goes well with the points about saying no, and that about putting your oxygen mask first. It still needs a separate section to convey that even with your dedicated oxygen mask, and a decisive ability to say no when you want to, you still may tend to inch towards ‘martyr’s syndrome’ — both with kids and with your businesses.

Martyr syndrome does not help your kids. And it does not help your business.

Martyr syndrome has a direct correlation with victim syndrome — only that you may feel a temporary sense of pride.

The feeling is temporary because, in almost all the cases, no one cares for your extra effort. Why? It’s not because they are bad. It’s more because they don’t know when you have crossed to the martyr level of effort. From their perspective, this is business as usual, when most certainly, it is not, especially for you.

Image Zbysiu Rodak

However good your oxygen supply is, and however well-balanced you are, learn to draw a line. Create a set of rules that apply to both sides.

Time management & adaptive flexibility

Some interesting discoveries about yourself become clearer when you are a parent and/or an entrepreneur. I have mentioned above to not be a martyr. I have talked about saying no. And to keep your oxygen supply. But none of these are to let you slack.

You will realize how much you can get done when your children are off for a few hours, or when the investor is asking for a 25th revision on the 22nd slide for a specific reason.

It’s like time has a different level of fluidity when you are under such constraints.

You may not have thought about producing a 2,000-word write-up in one evening — and yet you can and you will.

A bunch of rules about time management does not apply to parents and they have to create their own rules. The same happens with startups.

Even if an entire industry is sustained on just one topic of time management, a lot of theory fails when hitting reality. The answer is to customise all these theories to what works for you, my dear.

Negotiating with a 5-year-old

Know your BATNA and negotiate from a position of power, said my professor at HEC Paris, and even at HBS Online.

BATNA = Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement.

Negotiating when the other side has too little to lose, is a daily affair for parents. It may not be for startups. And it helps to use it in your business.

Negotiations need an understanding of the person/party with whom you are negotiating. If you know their needs and situation, if you can predict what they will need in the near and distant future, you can create a fair assessment of their negotiating position.

Image Senjuti Kundu

When you know their position, negotiations become conversations instead.

Not all investors, suppliers, or other parties will negotiate like a 5-year-old. Few of them will do so. However, when you are not clear of their position, it puts you in the same position as when you are negotiating with a 5-year-old. You have more needs or more to lose than the party in front of you.

I used the age of a 5-year-old as an example. My point is even stronger when you use the arguments with a teenager — good luck 🙂

Love and care for your self-esteem

Self-esteem is a measure of your sense of self-worth.

Remember the word, ‘sense’ in the sentence above. It is not your self-worth but a measure of your sense of self-worth.

Self-esteem is a measure of your sense of self-worth.

When things go downward in any situation, either as a parent or as an entrepreneur, your mind functions well if your self-esteem is where you kept it.

If for any reason you get physically, mentally, or emotionally tired, and it has blurred the senses to let you forget your self-esteem, hit the pause button. Take a break. Understand your ‘why’. Re-energise.

People use this against you even when you are not tired. They start an argument aka discussion, that could potentially affect your self-esteem. When the world questions you, and your self-esteem is intact, you can field the questions very well.

When the world questions you and your self-esteem is wavering, you question yourself. Like an idiot in a movie, your ego goes and sides with your critics leaving you very helpless and alone.

Hit pause. Take a break. Understand your ‘why’. Re-energise.

Being wrong is part of being right

Image Kari Shea

Irrespective of all the knowledge available from friends, family, the Internet, and whatnot, there is no guide for being a parent. Every rule goes to hell.

The same is for your business. Tonnes of knowledge, hours of videos — all strategy goes to hell after the legendary first punch that Muhammad Ali talked about.

The one thing that brings it back altogether is the fact that being wrong is an integral part of being right.

One key lesson I learned from my experience with entrepreneurship and validated by Harvard is that — you test, you see, you learn, you test it out again. Rinse and repeat.

You keep one foot after the other. Keep going.

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Jeev Sahoo

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