The Yo-Yo Life of a Tech Entrepreneur

Next Story

Will China Eat America's Lunch in Cleantech?

This is a guest post by Mark Suster, a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He started his first company in 1999 and was headquartered in London, leaving in 2005 and selling to a publicly traded French services company. He founded his second company in Palo Alto in 2005 and sold this company to, becoming VP Product Management. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner focusing on early-stage technology companies.

TechCrunch Europe ran an article in November of last year that European startups need to work as hard as those in Silicon Valley and I echoed the sentiment in my post about the need for entrepreneurs to be maniacal about their businesses if one wants to work in the hyper competitive tech world.

yoyoOf course articles like these are going to inflame people because not everybody who is running their own business (or aspires to) wants to believe that you need to go all out to compete and win on a global scale. I agree that not all businesses require this level of dedication and the lifestyle choice isn’t for everybody. But … global tech does require an absolute, singular commitment level.

Having been through this all before myself I would like to tell a cautionary tale that can happen to the best of us: The Yo-Yo life of the tech entrepreneur. Mine started this way …

I started my first company in the “go-go years” of the Internet: 1999. We were based in London. We raised a seed round of capital in 1999 and our first venture capital round was the first week of March 2000. We were immediately thrust into a globally competitive market for B2B collaboration tools.

Our first big institutional round was $16.5 million, which by any normal standards was too much money. But this was early 2000 and our US competitors had already closed rounds North of $45 million. They announced their European expansion plans and put pressure on us to feel the need to keep up.

Within a year I hired 92 permanent staff and another 30 full time contractors. We built 4 products simultaneously to compete with the perceived need to offer end-to-end solutions like our US counterparts. I was on an airplane 2-3 times / week meeting potential customers, investors, employees, business partners and the press. I stayed up late every night after a day of meetings doing email until 3am so that I didn’t feel out of touch with our product and sales pipelines.

Dinners were consumed with customers or in hotels and often past 10pm. Alcohol wasn’t consumed in enormous quantities (OK, well, occasionally it was) but it was an ever present fixture in our socializing. It also served as the trophy for any big business win.

We had a $40 million round lined up to close in the Autumn of 2000. But the stock market continued to tank and one of our investors who had committed $12 million pulled out. Fawk!

I flew from San Diego (where I was visiting) to New York to persuade investors to stick with us. I then caught the red eye the same night to Paris to meet our investors there. I took the night train that night to London to try and hold investors firm. I didn’t sleep much for days on end.

We worked out a plan to merge our company with another European competitor, raise money from both sets of investors, cut the cost base and live to fight another day. The investors of our competitor agreed to a merger and we were going to raise $15 million between the two companies. And at the 11th hour they pulled out. We were weeks from bankruptcy. I tell that story in my post about the need for entrepreneurs to show resiliency.

We cut staff from 92 to 33 employees. We found a way to make our venture capital last when it shouldn’t have, at around the same time one of my all time favorite New Yorker cartoons was published on this topic.

We found a way to get a round of venture capital closed after all of this. Our existing investors supported us and a new lead came in.

extremely fatiguedI somehow never really felt stressed during all of this. At least not externally. Immediately following the closing of the round I flew out to a big real estate conference in France to meet with prospective customers. On the trip I nearly collapsed. I felt dizzy and had an aching in my chest. I started feeling panic attacks. I had never had any symptoms like this in my life.

I was now 33 years old. I had always been very athletic, but a combination of no sleep, late night food, too much alcohol and stress that I didn’t acknowledge started to take its toll. I had probably gained 15-20 pounds in the previous year.

I plodded through the conference and went straight to a doctor in London. I was convinced I was having heart problems. After an EKG and a treadmill test it turns out that my heart was fine. The doctor suspected I had ‘acid reflux’ because the symptoms are very similar. The doctor told me that while I didn’t ever show my anxiety to my friends and colleagues or even acknowledge it myself, my body still went through the stress internally.

If you’re still young I’m sure you think it would never happen to you – you’re fit, right? Age and life catches up with you. I was you, too.

I immediately cut out all most of the things the doctor ordered: coffee, orange juice and spicy foods. I cut down on the volume of food that I ate at any one sitting. I cut back dramatically on alcohol but wasn’t prepared to totally give up red wine.

My life changed dramatically. I took up running again. I woke up extra early (often before 6am) to get runs in. I still traveled for work all the time but I planned runs everywhere I went. I scheduled runs with teammates and even with customers. It became a social activity. 8-miler in Munich with the CEO of a company we were trying to buy. 7-miler in Dusseldorf with Stuart Lander, my close friend and associate. 10k in Cologne with the CEO of my largest customer.

I ran a half marathon, which I crushed in a personal best 1:42. I decided to run the London Marathon, which I completed this in 3:57 and was on top of the world.

But the story doesn’t end there. April 29th, 2003 my first son was born. Sleep deprivation kicked in but my work responsibilities did not wane. My exercise routine was torpedoed by waking up 3 times / night, but my travel schedule persisted. We set up a development center in India and I had to be there for three weeks to tour all of the prospective cities. We opened a US office which increased my air mileage.

Then we merged with a US competitor and I moved from London to Silicon Valley. I started my second company while retaining a board seat at my first company. I had my second child and commuted every month for 18 months between San Francisco and London. We sold the first company to a French services company and were racing around getting our second company off of the ground. About 18 months after building the product for the second company we received an offer to be acquired by

overweight maleI was now 38 and in worse shape than my previous experience. The time zones, the travel, 2 kids, pressure, managing the sales process, speaking at conferences Somehow I had yo-yo’d back to where I was previously.

In early 2007 I focused exclusively on the sale to I stopped doing conferences, traveling or pitching to VCs.

As a result I freed up the time to get back into shape. I swam every morning and ran every afternoon. I started “pulling doubles” often doing the swim then run one after the other. I began bike riding and dreamed of become a triathlete again. I lost 22 pounds between January 1st and March 27th through a combination of serious exercise and watching my calorie intake. I was on top of the world again.

Except that after the acquisition, my job at required that I commute more than an hour each way from Palo Alto to San Francisco. So 2 hours of potential exercise vanished. The work pressure mounted, the food piled in, the sleep disappeared and the exercise was non existent.

I would like to finish this post on a happy note but I can’t. After I left I moved to LA and became a venture capitalist (no, that’s not the sad part ;-) and had a new challenge to prove myself in a new field. My hours picked up, I worked hard to establish myself in a new city and a new industry. My wife said to me, “I thought you weren’t supposed to work entrepreneur hours when you’re a VC?” I still felt like an entrepreneur. I had something to prove.

I lost perspective and my life hasn’t been in balance since then. Exercise hasn’t been enough of a priority in 2008-09. But now I’m nearly 42. This time it’s for real. After a recent international trip with limited sleep I went to the doctor with chest pains again. It’s still acid reflux. But this time it’s combined with high blood pressure. I’m still in the manageable zone of hypertension but the doctor said I’ve got to change my ways. He also ordered me to take medicine to control my blood pressure.

So the yo-yo continues. But with 2 beautiful kids and a lovely wife I have much more to be serious about. It’s easy in your 20’s to imagine you’d never be in my shoes. I thought that, too. But I’ve spoken with many entrepreneurs in their 30’s who are going through some of the yo-yo health issues that I have brought on by work, travel, food choices and stress. And one doesn’t have to look beyond the most prominent technology bloggers, early-stage Silicon Valley angels or even some of the biggest names in tech to find people suffering like I have been.

It’s far more productive to make sure that exercise and healthy eating creeps into your routine. Find something else to cut out – not this. You know what I’m talking about – it’s far easier to stay in shape than it is to get into shape.

So no prizes for guessing my New Year’s resolution for 2010. I plan to be 25 pounds lighter by December 31st, 2010. Based on experience I know I can do this much more rapidly but I care more about that longer term goal of maintenance.

I’m normally too cool to write posts like this. I prefer to write the December 2010 post about what a great year I had. Somehow this is more honest. And the first 2 steps of achieving any goal are to set metrics (“you manage what you measure”) and to make your goals public (it’s easier to shame yourself into compliance than to be the only person holding yourself accountable). I’ve written about the technology to lose weight in this post.

I plan to keep track on DailyBurn to measure my weight through a new wi-fi enabled scaled from Withings. Anyone care to join me in this challenge?

  • Simon Seagrave

    Hi Mark,

    An excellent post – really interesting to get an insight into your journey as a tech entrepreneur and the associated health issues that potentially come with this.

    I will be signing up to DailyBurn as I too need to shed more than a couple of pounds. :)

    All the best,


    • Mark Suster

      Thanks, Simon. I’m 4 weeks in and doing awesome. Remember, “you manage what you measure!” Good luck.

      • Brett H. Pojunis

        Hey Mark,

        I guess I am still in training because at 30 I am still invincible, lol. My start up is NewMediaPlus.Net so I have been in 16 cities in the last 3 weeks finally got back home to Vegas last night. I will be in SoCal Monday through Thursday and god knows where the following week!

        Hearing your story is another tool in the motivational tool box for me. My friends think I am crazy because I am up by 6am and I go to bed between 2am-4am. My MO is that if I am not going to get at least 2 hours of sleep I work through it.

        The positive end to this story is a liquidity event! We are filing our S-1 at the end of Feb and will begin trading hopefully by May. Then we set out to launch our national retail locations.

        Thanks for today’s motivational pick me up!

      • YoYo Ma


        You are a phoney.


      • Bolsa de Trabajo

        Thanks for share your experience Mark you are an inspiration for all entrepeneurs.

  • Eric

    Thanks that’s great. My new year starts 1st Feb; I had to delay it by a month.
    Very serious to be serious about your health and balance. I feel more achievements professionally in years I run with a goal set such as a Marathon.

  • Manoj Ranaweera

    Hi Mark, thanks for being honest! I know another local tech entrepreneur who put up so much weight which caused him to have surgery, which he managed after selling his business.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) my life has not been as colourful as yours. My first tech startup flopped after burning everything I had in two years, now I got the second one well positioned for growth with no external capital (and we are working with and putting lot of faith on them!). I also founded a community of tech entrepreneurs, which will be repositioned in Feb 10.

    Just like you, I have also put on weight, but I have never been an athlete, but feel I ought to do something about it as I would be 42 this year. I also got two lovely kids, both girls! And still married (strange to believe sometimes!)!

    Just like to conclude by saying once again, thanks for being honest! You inspire me to do something about getting fit!

    Best regards

  • Rob Wilmot

    I can identify completely with what Mark says. As a founding exec of Freeserve in 1998 the feet of my colleague Ajaz Ahmed and myself never touched the ground for the two and a half year roller coaster ride which saw IPO on LSE and NASAQ only ten months of trading and an eventual trade sale to Wanadoo.

    Long hours, little excercise, sporadic eating at odd hours left us both heavier and not as healthy as we would have liked. Both of us ended up with acid reflux and, on a visit to a tech partner in Boston I collapsed and spent the night in hospital with what was eventually diagnosed as physical and mental exhaustion.

    On exiting Freeserve I promised myself that I would never put myself under that sort of pressure again. However there are so many interesting opportunities out there that it’s sometimes difficult to say no.

    Balancing the demands of family, customers, staff, investors, personal wellbeing and ones own internal drive for success is a challenge I wonder if anyone in our 24×7 always on industry can master.

    • Mark Suster

      I remember the FreeServe ride very well as I was consulting at BT Internet when you guys launched. It was truly innovative.

      I totally identify with this. I, too, said “never again” and thought it was true in 2003 when I ran the London Marathon. But every next opportunity seemed like the most important thing in life – even after I had achieved financial success. I’m now convinced that one performs much better when you’re healthy. 4 weeks into 2010 and I’m certainly feeling that way.

  • Arvind

    Lovely post. I was tired of reading the out-of-the-box stories whereas maximum junta goes thru the in-the-box lifestyle. The normal stuff.

    Thoroughly loved it.

  • Al Newkirk

    I agree with everything you said, pretty much word for word. I am in the exact same boat, demanding consulting business with clients and contracts and kids and a house w/wife, etc. I am joining, never knew about it until know. I hate excersizing, mainly because I never see/track my progress. This might work for me.

  • Jason Reposa

    Hey Mark,

    Your link for “technology to lose weight” is busted. I’m assuming it was meant to point here:

    • Mark Suster

      Just tried it – seems to work for me but thanks for pointing out. Maybe they saw and fixed?

  • GoofyBMan

    Great post, you can’t be a entrepreneur if you aren’t ALWAYS motivated. yes, 3am still up doing coding is over-board but that is what makes us entrepreneurs most of the time.
    I hardly sleep and I guess i haven’t even made it big, medium or anything similar. I keep happy customers, and make money.
    Not keeping customers happy keeps me up if i were to sleep, lol.

    I have noticed the yo-yo lifestyle and my health going down because of it. I stress and not eat, I stress the other day and passed out. It was really weird, and shocking.
    This incident has made myself realize that I may need to concentrate on my health more.

  • Matt Mireles

    Hi Mark,

    As a triathlete and entrepreneur, I know exactly what you mean. At least for me, exercise is one of the first “luxury items” I cut out in my life when things get crazy. For the last year and a half, I’ve been working two day jobs and building SpeakerText. Exercise so often becomes something that I treat as a reward (to myself) for getting stuff done. I’m 29 and I realize that it’s not sustainable, but I tell myself that it’s only temporary during this crazy startup/bootstrap period. Perhaps I should re-consider, but I just don’t know what I could cut out––instead of spending money boozing with clients, I spend most of my time at the office (aka my living room) getting stuff done. So maybe we are/were in somewhat different situations.

    That said, thanks for the reminder/lesson. It’s easy to lose perspective and tell yourself “mañana,” and then mañana never comes.

    -Matt Mireles
    CEO, SpeakerText

    • Mark Suster

      Matt, thanks for the input. At 29 it doesn’t add up as quickly. By mid 30’s what used to work health wise doesn’t. By 40 results start to show. Stick with things now – it’s much easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. Good luck with health AND your startup.

  • Scott Drake

    Great post Mark. I appreciate it when people let down their guard enough to be honest about about some of the side effects of the modern lifestyle. I’ve gone through many of the same issues as you and at 39 have learned to take at least marginal care of myself so I’m not spending too much time with my doctor. I attribute it to the modern lifestyle more than entrepreneurship because my wife is starting to show some of the same things and she works for a non-prof. But who knows, maybe our great-grandparents dealt with it too 100 years ago and just sucked it up?

    Thanks for the post and letting people know they’re not alone in experiencing some of these issues.

  • Chris

    Hey Mark (any anyone else),

    I am in the same boat and have been for about two years. I went to my Dr. and she recommended taking anti-anxiety medicine.

    Just out of curiosity, did you take any medication before your high blood pressure meds to help control anxiety/pressure?

    Thanks again – great post!

    • Mark Suster

      No, I don’t really suffer from anxiety so I didn’t take drugs. I took drugs for acid reflux for a month and then changes in my diet took controls of things. Good luck.

  • Guy Nirpaz

    Hey Mark,

    Great post, very open and candid – the real people behind the success.
    It reminds me of a diner I once had with a very successful silicon valley entrepreneur, I bitched about the difficulties we had in running our startup and wondered how was it for them. He answered with: “which story do you prefer, telling the story backwards or looking at what really happened…”


  • Curtis Smith

    Mark, I enjoyed that. I’m working on my startup in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve trained for this my entire life. I’ve lifted weights and ran for the past 25 years and weigh the same as I did when I graduated high school. I’m ready for the ride. Bring it on!

  • Trader Bots

    Great post Mark. Sometimes all we focus on is the fruits and joys of being an entrepreneur.

    Although, I have to say my gf is freaked out after reading this post.

  • Aviv

    Great piece here. Hit real close to home.

  • John

    Hi Mark – Great article. To quote a former US Def Secretary, it’s a long hard slog. When I launched my startup, I thought it would much easier. I had resigned from a crueling job that required a lot of travel and crushing hours. I was so confident I’d be on easier (maybe not easy) street, I changed some profile pics on sites to this one:

    That lasted about a month until reality set in. It’s been an amazing learning experience, but a lot of hours and hard work.

    I’ve had a analogous (although much much shorter experience) during a visit to Grouse Mountain outside Vancouver. On the way there, my hiker friends picked up loads of energy bars, fruit, water – “for a short hike?” I thought.

    There’s a gondola that goes to the top, but there was a very long line. My experienced hiker friend, formerly in the army, wanted to wait in line so we could hike around at the top, but I saw a sign indicating there was a hiking path to the top. “Why not take that?” I suggested. Well, the path we took is called Grouse Grind. Basically a rough steep staircase going straight up the mountain. While I expected a leisurely walk up an incline, I ended up clamoring to get up the mountain often using my arms to relieve my legs. When we reached the “1/4 mark”, I couldn’t believe we were only 1/4 done and felt like collapsing and rolling up in a fetal position. By that point, I had finished all my alloted drink and food. At the 1/4 mark!! It was a 1.8 mile trail with a 56 per cent slope (30 degrees) and an elevation gain of 2,800 feet (2,830 stairs).

    But we got to the top and walked based down and glad I did it. In the end, if it was easy to launch a startup, probably wouldn’t be as much fun.

    Tip for the overcaffienated looking for sleep – Cherry Juice has a compound like the tryp compound in turkey that helps you sleep.

  • Andy Smith

    Great post Mark.

    I have often heard that doing a startup is a marathon, not a sprint (although it feels like it is at times!). Proper nutrition and exercise is important for anyone, but even more so for an entrepreneur (and I am not saying that just because I run a fitness site).

    When DailyBurn was in Boulder for TechStars ’08, the “do more faster” attitude was great for our company, but terrible for my health. So even though I was on stage pitching for tracking fitness, I was increasingly out of shape.

    Since that time, by going to a pretty strict Paleo/Zone diet and short intense exercise, I am now in the best shape of my life. And what they say is true, being in good shape helps all aspects of your business (focus, energy, determination, etc.). I don’t plan on letting the short-term sprints of business change my workout/diet plans again.

    Let us know if we can be of any help toward meeting your goals!

  • aditya Vempaty


    As normal your posts always leave me yearning for more!! But what an ingenious way to work out and talk to investors/clients at the same time. The fact that you can work out and convince others to work out with you and talk business just shows your persistence :) So this time around with your yo-yo life how do you plan to keep the weight down in the long term? I have a same issues (lose weight, then putting it on again not enough sleep etc) so curious to hear your strategy on it. Also how did you convince the other company to team up with you?

    • Mark Suster

      Re: health – I plan on measuring what I consume. You only manage what you measure so showing myself what I consume and how much I exercise at least forces me to look in the mirror every day and be honest about good or bad behavior.

      I’ve been working out 5x week since January. I went swimming at 5.30am yesterday and 7.00am today (saturday). If you’re committed you’ll make it happen. I find the morning exercise is the ONLY way for me. Once the day is started my chances of working out are near zero. Other people differ but with two kids I can’t really work out when I come home from work. And lunch time ins’t really an option.

      Good luck.

  • J. Jeffryes

    We have a useful phrase: “work smarter, not harder.”

    What this means is that as soon as you start pulling all nighters, destroying your health, and killing yourself with stress, you’re doing it wrong.

    You’re wasting energy doing the wrong thing and doing it poorly. You’re flailing and panicking. You think if you just work harder, it will somehow work. Sometimes it does. But it would be much better to calm down, de-stress, and regain the clarity necessary to do things right.

    I say this as a veteran of multiple startups and a father. I destroyed myself physically trying to do it all. With my 3rd child I committed myself to giving that up, and being a good father instead of a fool.

    The result is far more efficiency, a more effective startup, no more wasted effort on things that don’t work, and most importantly, I have time to be a real father to my children, instead of being gone or too stressed out all the time.

    Go read 37 Signals, they’ve got it right. You can be successful by killing yourself and doing it wrong, or you can be successful by doing it right and keeping a healthy balance.

    • igniman

      You nailed it! If you find your work taking up a bigger part of your life than it should, stop and rethink. Try another idea – hell, you can try a new idea every month. The author seems to be giving the wrong idea that the internet is no fun

    • Mark Suster

      I totally agree with you. Unfortunately I feel like I’ve learned this lesson 3 times already. I’m having a great January – finding a balance but still being productive.

  • Noel

    I’m in, 15 pounds is my number. Thanks for your candor on this post, Mark, it was a great read and definitely relevant for me right now. Exercise is the first thing I cut out when things are stressful at work. Skip the gym, head to the office instead. Then, when the stress takes a short rest (a funding round or deal has closed), I look up and realize I’ve forgotten where the gym is. 

    The point of building businesses seems to be lost if you’re not around to enjoy your life for awhile after (or aren’t enjoying it now). Thanks again!

  • Uday

    Dear Mark,

    I heard you speak the other night at UCLA and learned a ton from your feedback to the presenters – I mainly appreciated your honesty because it was the sincerest way to really help founders improve themselves and their product.

    This post gives me a deeper respect for you because as a second time entrepreneur now 37, I work a lot on figuring out a life balance which keeps my longer term commitments (my health, friendships, quality of life) in line with the goals of growing a successful company. Often times it feels it’s not cool to say I don’t want to adopt the bi-polar ride of being an entrepreneur to the exclusion of all else but hearing success stories like yours, especially being honest enough to admit where you’re falling short (and focused on improving), is inspiring.

    Thank you,


    • Mark Suster

      Thank you. Feedback like this is always rewarding.

  • Charles Zhang

    Granted, amist the dot com boom, he was able to sell his company. That guy should of focused on the product and marketing. He wasted a lot time raising money and hiring too many employees

    Do you really need $55 million + and 120 employees to develop software? This scale you are competing feature by feature with Oracle and IBM. That is never pretty. You lose the efficiency, agility, and smart code.

    • Charles Zhang


      My last comment might be a bit harsh. You have been very success which I can say that I am yet.

      However, I don’t think you have to prove yourself anymore. Enjoy your beautiful kids and family.

      • Mark Suster

        Charles, you’re totally right. I raised too much money and hired too many people. I freely admit that. If you check out my blog I talk about this mistake all the time. It was “very 1999” to do so but regardless – it was a mistake. In my second company I only ever raised $500k. And don’t worry about “calling me out” or being harsh – you’re right ;-)

  • Lincoln Nguyen

    Im constantly running into the same work-life balance issues you mentioned. In terms of health, I made it a priority to eat 6 smaller meals a day and forced myself to turn it into an unconscious habit. I’d say diet is 70% of the battle, if not more.

  • Chris Hall

    I can relate to your health/weight situation, having begun my new startup about 6 months ago – with the pressure of deliverying product, finding investors, etc. – not to mention keeping my Wife happy.
    My solution might not work for everybody, but a variant might: I live in Boston’s South End and I chose to walk to and from our office in Kendall Sq, Cambridge every day. It turns out that at a brisk pace, the walk is about the same time as taking the T (subway) and it guarantees that I get an hour of exercise everyday. Side benefit – walking home late at night is a great “quiet” time. Combined with a little South Beach diet action, I have lost 35 pounds in 3 months.

    Not everybody is in the position of being able to walk to work, but they could do what some of my co-workers do – Park about 10 minutes walk away from work and walk the rest – doesn’t seem like much, but that gives you 20 minutes of exercise every day – better than nothing.

  • Matt Johnson

    Haha this reminds me of me and many other entrepreneurs… We would love nothing more than not to worry about our health; and we usually don’t until we get in trouble and even then we don’t pay enough attention.
    Cheers entrepreneurs

blog comments powered by Disqus