Business First? A Delicate Balance

The balance of personal and business life remains a delicate topic - especially for a CEO who is expected always to put business first.

By Jan Pieter Versluijs

Back to last July, when I drafted this article. It was a very exciting time for me, and there were some events both in business and in my personal life that inspired me to write this article. We announced the closing of our investment round of €4M. This is the result of very dedicated work for many long days. It is a big milestone that we are very proud of! And it allows Solar Monkey to further expand our business in Europe and increase our impact. This is what happens when you put business first! Right?

Well, that has a lot of nuance to it.. Shortly after announcing the investment something else happened to put that into perspective. My 5 week old daughter got really sick and we had to rush to the hospital at night. There she spent 3 days on oxygen before recovering. All of a sudden it became crystal clear again: family, health and happiness go before business! Some entrepreneurs might call their business their ‘baby’ but if something happens to your real baby it is immediately clear what is more important. It was super frightening to see our vulnerable baby girl struggling like that. 

Happiness and strength are prerequisites to perform at work

Sometimes friends ask me how I combine everything I do. We are successful at Solar Monkey and to call the job as founding CEO challenging is an understatement. It challenges me on every front: both intellectually and personally in the field of leadership. There have been countless of the toughest challenges to solve. Very often there is not a straightforward solution or even a clear problem. This occasionally makes me feel very insecure. And although I like to believe I have a very high resilience to stress it can eat on me from time to time.

Besides work I have 2 daughters and I want to take a more or less equal part in caring for them with my girlfriend. I love to surf, and I am in the water as often as possible. When there are no wind nor waves you can find me doing any other sport. It makes me super happy and keeps me fit and strong.  Finally I also play in a band as a guitarist. And yes I have a social life as well.

It can be tough to combine all of these activities, especially with our youngest baby daughter joining the family. Some prefer to sit down on the couch in the evening as they are too ‘tired’ from work. For me however it works the other way around: after not doing sports for a couple of days I feel that my mood and concentration start to decline. Social events and parties with friends and strangers inspire me to see things differently. They are an important driver for me to keep going.

I was first writing this article next to our campervan from a little beach town in Spain with family and friends. My face was still salty from the sea. That more or less describes the key for me: personal and family health are prerequisites to performing well at work. If these are in order, the rest of the time and mindspace can be focused on work. In fact, most of my best creative ideas are formed when sitting on a surfboard waiting for the waves to roll in. You don’t have to be spending time in the office to direct your mind to work. Here on holiday I get great ideas to implement back home.

At Solar Monkey we try to embed as much flexibility in work as possible. We have a very remote friendly culture which requires a great deal of flexibility. Some Dutch colleagues have chosen to work from abroad temporarily. We focus on results, not on the location or number of hours worked. We are ambitious and sometimes it means long days. Targets and results are agreed and chased after. But in how to get there, there is much room for flexibility to meet personal needs.

That’s why I am not a fan of the phrase ‘business first’. Personal wellbeing of yourself and relatives come first and second. Healthy and happy people create successful businesses!

An uncomfortable topic and feeling of falling short

Honestly I believe what I describe above is the right way to go. A healthy and free mind delivers best results at work. However, it still makes me uncomfortable writing this. I cannot get rid of the feeling that ‘an entrepreneur always has to put business first’. It is never enough. When I started Solar Monkey I worked 60-80 hrs per week, with no kids at the time. Now with 2 kids this is down to only 45-50 hrs per week. It still feels the same: we are doing well but it’s not enough. This is driven further by people challenging me that working 1 day from home with a newborn child is seen as ‘a bad example for the company’.

Women are slowly progressing in emancipation, but in practice it is barely accepted that men take time to care for their children. Also being on holiday I have some feeling of guilt when I see colleagues working hard for a company I am ultimately responsible for. Some colleagues might expect a CEO to be available 24/7. Having high ambitions is a blessing because it allows you to do great things, but at the same time it’s a curse as you are never 100% happy with results.

At home I have the same feeling of falling short: when I get home at 1800 – which is an early stop at work for me – I have 30 mins to get food on the table, eat, put my oldest daughter to bed, survive the loudest imaginable crying and clean up. Then it’s 2100, time to prepare the next working day. I want to be in bed at 2200 because I know I’ll have to wake up 3 times for our baby girl. This challenge I realise is not just for founders. All young parents with high ambitions at work are struggling with this.

How to find the right balance?

I think I have the balance about right. Today I started with a surf session, then had a cracking day at work and was able to read my daughter a bedtime story. Finding the right balance is one thing, but what’s even more important is addressing the feeling of falling short due to even higher ambitions.

Sometimes it still feels like it’s not enough. Getting recognition from family, friends and colleagues helps. So one part of the solution is making sure we support each other for the tremendous effort we are putting in juggling responsibilities. But the only one who can really influence this feeling is yourself. Allowing ourselves a high feeling of self-worth, linked to who we are rather than to what we achieve. Over time I am getting better in combining high ambition with pride and peace of mind. This helps to enjoy the journey and results along the way. 

Sharing this and still feeling slightly uncomfortable, I am super keen to hear your experiences in finding the balance. How do you juggle your personal life with work and feel confident about it?