Todd McKinnon: A Startup Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Todd McKinnon: A Startup Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint


GUEST MENTOR Todd McKinnon, founder and CEO of Okta: It takes a long time, a decade or more, to build an important technology company. Don’t lose sight of that, even though you’re in startup mode right now. You can burst onto the scene and attract a lot of ephemeral hype, but the goal is to transcend it and build something that’s great and long-lasting.

Anybody who’s in the startup game to build a real business with staying power must realize that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Plan accordingly or you’ll fizzle out. Work at a pace that’s sustainable for the long term. That’s not to say you won’t need to sprint at times (say, when shipping a key feature, closing an important customer or preparing for your first round of investor meetings) or spend a night or two on the office couch before a big meeting, but in the grand scheme of things, achieving balance is the only way to be successful in the long run.

See what other startup mentors have to say about work-life balance.

Prioritize. Every few months, I write down my personal goals. They vary every time, but I always frame them according to my priorities of family, health and work (in that order). Everything else, friends, advising startup founders, investing or charity — I’m on the board of directors for Family House, a not-for-profit organization that provides temporary housing for ill children being treated at the UCSF Children’s Hospital — falls below that line. Similar to building a startup, it’s critical to focus on a few key areas in your life instead of attacking everything at once (and risk spreading yourself too thin).

Family Time — No Matter What Time Zone. I have a wonderful wife and two wonderful young children, and they are my No. 1 priority. I leave work at 6:30 p.m. to eat dinner with them, a tradition my wife and I started during the early days of Okta and one that hasn’t changed since. It’s very rare that I miss this. When I’m on the road — as CEO of a growing company, travel is inevitable — my family and I video chat every night. It’s not dinner, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Given the technologies available today, there is no excuse to let a few thousands miles get in the way of these relationships.

Make Your Body Your Machine. Your mental health isn’t the only casualty of an imbalanced life. You’re body will break down if you don’t take care of it — and I don’t sacrifice my health to answer a few more emails. Eat well (and often), get a decent amount of sleep (6-7 hours every night, at least) and exercise. A lot. If the president can find time to hit the gym, so can you.

Regular exercise — whether it’s long bike rides to the North Bay or morning CrossFit sessions — has allowed me to keep the marathon pace required for a startup founder and prepares me for the inevitable sprints, which sabotage my sleep schedule and require extensive travel. Exercise also helps to release the constant stress burden that is startup life.

Leave the Phone at Home. One thing I didn’t expect before starting Okta was how much it would occupy my mind — even when I was with family, friends or on my bike. Like many other founders, my thoughts stubbornly wander back to work often, so I constantly remind myself to be present with what I’m doing (and who I’m doing it with) outside of work. Don’t feel guilty by not working 24/7.

Never lose sight of where you’re going. You may be leading a startup today, but that won’t always be true. The journey from startup to mature company is a marathon, not a sprint, and you might be hiring a former boss in 10 years if you do it right. But run too fast, and you’ll burn out before you get the chance.

Source: – Author: Todd McKinnon.

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