Life: Turning It Up to Eleven

When working on a startup, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details and lose track of the things that are most important in life. Late in 2011 I had the opportunity to realize this – one could say that life completely blind-sided me and forced me to stop and smell the roses.

At the beginning of September we’d had our first official board meeting for TribeHR, and flush with positive energy and excitement, I had a schedule jam-packed with recruiting and business development meetings. Mid September I left for a trip to San Francisco to pursue a number of conversations and my wife, Xiaopu, took the opportunity to cash in a bit of vacation from work and join me. The blind-siding I mentioned earlier happened on Sep 22 when our water broke early and we were rushed to hospital. On Sep 26, at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, our son Evan was born.

Working at a SaaS startup, I’ve conditioned myself to measure our stats rigorously. And Evan’s stats kept staring me in the face:

  • 26 weeks 2 days.
  • 1 lbs 8 oz.
  • 3536 km (2197 miles) from home.
Holy crap San Jose is far from Waterloo

It abruptly felt like our world had been completely changed. Was Evan going to be ok? What are the long-term implications? How are we going to manage a surprise 3-month stay in California? How will we cover the medical expenses?

It’s been four months since the initial scare, and although there have been moments of crisis and elation along the way, things are going well. Evan is home and doing extremely well and during this journey I’ve learned a lot. All platitudes and obvious lessons aside – here are a few things that stood out from this experience.

The Best Teams Improve Around Adversity

I’m involved in a number of volunteer and business organizations, and something that stood out from all my other experiences, was how well the TribeHR team pulled together. I can’t imagine the uncertainty I must have caused with my short email to them explaining … an emergency has altered my plans and I’m going to be down here for a longer period of time,” but their ability to device processes and patterns around my absence was incredible. While I was spending most of my time in San Jose, they managed to help us win accolade after accolade after accolade after accolade. Any lesser team would have been hobbled, but these guys managed not only to lead critical events and hiring activities in my absence, but they managed to do it at an award-winning level.

Personal Touches Go Far

Conversations with potential investors and partners is part of my role – it was expected that I’d use some of my time in the Bay Area to connect with new partners and to follow up with investors. One person in particular, however, that stood out from the rest was Karan Mehandru of Trinity Ventures (@kmehandru) – not only did he make it clear that I could lean on him if my wife and I needed any help, but when he realized that we’d be stuck in San Jose for a prolonged period, he went so far as to invite us to his place for a BBQ and for Thanksgiving so that we’d feel more comfortable. That kind of consideration made a world of difference and is one of the major reasons that Karan is at the top of my list of valley VC’s that I’d want to work with.

Rewards Optimization Doesn’t Equal Customer Loyalty

Just before this incident occurred, I signed up for two customer loyalty programs to try and consolidate the travel expenses I was incurring: Hilton Honors and Enterprise Plus. When I realized that we were going to be stuck in San Jose for approx. 90 days, I thought to contact both rewards programs to see what options there were for more cost-effective options. My experiences couldn’t have been more different. Enterprise not only offered me the special rate for the local hospital, but also offered a free upgrade at a further discounted rate, and helped with scheduling our pick-ups and drop-offs. The care they showed had us rent a car from them for the duration of our stay.

Hilton Honors, on the other hand, couldn’t help me directly – their number is just a call center. Instead they suggested I contact the sales managers at two local Hilton properties. Of the two sales managers, neither returned my call, and the one that I did manage to reach was unsympathetic and kept telling me to go to their website as that’s where I could find their best rates. Over all, it was an experience that pushed me away and we spent our time at a different property.

Comparing the two, I realized that although both started with loyalty programs, they ended differently. I am loyal to Enterprise – I rent from them almost exclusively now. I am gaming Hilton – I stay there only when it’s convenient to take advantage of points optimizations – as soon as I encounter a different brand that has a better points program I’ll likely end up shifting.  The point I’ve taken away from this is that a loyalty or rewards program is still only as effective as the attitude of front-line staff.

So now, four months later, when the stats are looking much better (43 weeks, 6 lbs 11 oz, 0km from home, and we’ve learned excruciating lessons (like the value of travel insurance), I’m looking forward to joining the ranks of startup fathers that juggle their ventures with their families.

Wish me luck.


VP HCM Products at NetSuite and Founder of TribeHR and Lewis Media. Waterloo Region Enthusiast and active volunteer.

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