Families pay price of startup nation’s push to success

Long hours at jobs that are seen as more personal crusade than professional endeavor can fray relationships and unsettle home life

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative: Families enjoy a warm summer day in Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: Families enjoy a warm summer day in Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The first thing Eyal Waldman did after he held a Nasdaq initial public offering of his company Mellanox Technologies Ltd. in 2007, raising over $100 million, was to call his ex-wife Ella to tell her the good news.

Ella was his wife in 1999, when he founded the Yokne’am, Israel-and Sunnyvale, California-based company, which makes server and storage switching and software solutions; she came up with the name Mellanox — a mix of her name Ella with millennium, because the company was founded at the start of a new millennium, and Xerox, a techie sounding name; and she was present when the company’s first meetings were held over snacks and lunches in their sun-drenched kitchen in Sunnyvale.

But by the time Waldman held the share-sale exit of his company, a peak moment for any high-tech entrepreneur, she wasn’t by his side anymore.

The journey to success “took a toll on our married life,” Waldman, the 56-year-old chief executive officer and president of Mellanox, today a $2 billion company, said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel. “You see your kids less; you don’t spend time with them. This is one of the most difficult things, because you don’t go home in the evenings.”

Even so, he said, the hard work was part of the deal, and he has no regrets. “To succeed in any profession you need to invest a lot of time,” he said. “It is part of your job. My ex-wife also understood this, we both did.”

Eyal Waldman, President and CEO of Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (YouTube)
Eyal Waldman, president and CEO of Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (screenshot YouTube)

The high-tech toll

The high-tech industry has played a “historic role” in the economy of Israel, according to a report by Israel’s chief scientist — born from a combination of technological maturity, market reforms, an integration into international markets and the arrival of thousands of skilled engineers from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Israel has more startup companies per capita than any other nation, according to data compiled by Tel Aviv-based IVC Research Center, which tracks the industry. And it feels like almost everyone today aspires to be a startup entrepreneur when they grow up, instead of doctors or firemen. The number of active high-tech companies operating in Israel has jumped from 3,781 in 2006 to 7,400 in mid-2016, according to IVC. What’s more, entrepreneurs who have already held an exit of their company — either through a sale or a public offering of shares — tend to return to the fray with new initiatives and companies.

There is a price, however.

Interviews with healthcare professionals and players in the industry — both entrepreneurs and employees — reveal a picture of extreme work satisfaction coupled with long working hours, high levels of stress and a lot of travel. And this at times puts a strain on relationships and families.

“Things are not black or white; there is a lot of gray,” said Belinda Schwartz, who works with families of high-tech professionals in her role as private family therapist and head social worker at the Child Development Center of Maccabi Healthcare Services in Israel’s Central Region. Maccabi is one of Israel’s largest healthcare providers.

Belinda Schwartz (Courtesy)
Belinda Schwartz (Courtesy)

“Workers in high-tech get a lot of excitement, interest. The work enables people to realize their potential and their ability to develop, but there is a huge price,” Schwartz said in an interview. “The workplace becomes your family — because of the long hours and the need to be available at all times. Once people go home they still deal with emails, conference calls, and you cannot be continuously focused on your kids. The boss expects you, particularly in high tech, to be around 24/7. But what does this do to the relationships of couples and the family?”

Singles working in startups often have no time to date, and as the companies initially employ just a small number of workers, they don’t get many opportunities to meet new people; those who have a partner sometimes don’t have time to develop their relationships, as they tend to sleep late in the morning and then come home late at night, after having had a meal and a beer with their co-workers and going back to work. Some high-tech companies offer three meals a day to their employees while others employ a chef to cook for them.

“Hanging out to eat together becomes a social thing,” Schwartz said. “You get a pizza with your colleagues, a beer on the roof — you are making friends at work — and they actually become your family.”

Couples with children have a whole other set of challenges. If both spouses are working, they often have a grandparent or babysitter pick up their kids from school or daycare and then stay with them until a parent gets home. Working parents often split the week: each goes home early once or twice a week, and a grandparent or nanny fill in the rest of the days.

“The parents may be coming home, but they are not coming home together,” Schwartz said. “There is no together time as a family. They are often missing out on joint family meals.”

But family meals are an important opportunity for children to practice communication skills, develop an interest in other people and learn how and what to eat. Family time also gives children a sense of belonging and teaches them how to interact in a group.

The stress of the startup baby

Dr. Sivanie Shiran is the head of the leadership development in the graduate programs at the Arison Shool of Business at IDC Herzliya. She has worked at Harvard Business School and at the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland where she ran leadership development programs for about 20 years. A clinical psychologist and Jungian psychoanalyst, Shiran has worked internationally with senior executives and teams in the private, public and nonprofit sector.

IDC's Dr. Sivani Shiran (Courtesy Gadi Dagon)
IDC’s Dr. Sivani Shiran (Courtesy Gadi Dagon)

“In my work with senior executives in Israel and abroad, I am often witness to the tremendous stress and pressure that is the fate of modern managers,” said Shiran in an interview. “Those in the field of entrepreneurship and innovation tend to be, if it is possible, even more driven — compelled by what often feels more like a personal crusade than a mere professional endeavor. They often refer to their startups as their ‘babies.'”

But sometimes these proverbial new parents have real babies at home too, and that creates an environment that is “quite charged,” Shiran said.

In order to maintain “some semblance of mental sanity” these entrepreneurs need to either completely delegate the parenting role to their spouse or grandparent and nanny or try to compartmentalize their roles as parents and workers: “Now I am exclusively parenting” or “Now I am exclusively at work.”

“Unfortunately this mental compartmentalization is a strategy that is extremely hard to maintain,” said Shiran. Those who try and juggle the roles often “live with a poignant sense of guilt” that trickles into their parenting styles, she said.

“They sometimes have a harder time setting clear boundaries for their children because they feel that when they actually manage to show up they don’t want to be perceived as just the bad cop,” Shiran said. “So it is harder to take a tough stance with the kids and that leads, ironically, to what we observe as a lack of authority – or a faltering of authority in the parenting style of our generation today. We have a harder time setting limits with our children.”

Why is this industry different from all other industries?

What perhaps distinguishes the high-tech industry from others is its volatility and uncertainty. High-tech professionals need to constantly adapt to changing environments that could pull the carpet out from under their entrepreneurial sneakers. And what characterizes Israel in all of this is that women also generally need to work to support their families.

“You are constantly under a sense of threat and on edge, and not quite sure from where the next challenge lurks,” Shiran said. “So it is kind of hard to check out and check in to just being. So often what our children need is for us to be present — to really be available to them.” So instead of “just being” with their offspring, managers often default to managing their children’s schedules, their rewards and punishments, rather than just hearing what the kids are expressing without judgment.

On average Israelis work harder than most of their counterparts in OECD countries, surpassed only by Turkey, Mexico, Korea, Japan and South Africa, according to an OECD report. Over a sixth of Israeli employees work 50 hours or more per week, and Israelis devote just 13.9 hours a week to leisure and personal care, compared to 16.4 hours in France, the top ranker in the category. In the work-life balance, Israelis rank a low 5.2, compared with 5 for Korea, zero for Turkey and 9.4 for The Netherlands, the highest ranker. Sixty-four percent of Israeli women work, compared with an average of 58% in other OECD countries, the report shows.

In addition to the long hours at work, many high-tech workers also spend a lot of time abroad, close to their investors and markets. The time difference can makes it difficult to communicate with their families even with apps for interacting like Skype and FaceTime.

“The absent parent sometimes becomes a norm, and when the parent comes back that is out of the norm,” Schwartz said.

At times the at-home spouse can feel it is easier when their partner is not around. When daddy or mommy come home they want to be the good guy. “Sometimes kids sleep with their mother, but can’t do that when daddy comes back,” Schwartz said. “Also, when do you have time to develop a couples relationship when you travel so much?”

“All of these are big issues but all depends on being able to speak about it, compromise, put things in perspective,” Schwartz said. “When they travel, parents should make sure they spend quality time with each kid. If they can, they should go to work a bit later, arrange a bit of time to give their kids individual time around their daily routine.”

Working on relationships and family

Thirty-six-year-old Asaf Shapira, the founder of Tel Aviv-based CheckOut Apps Ltd., starts his workday between 10 and 10:30 a.m. and spends 10 to 11 hours at work.

Asaf Shapira of CheckOut in his Tel Aviv office. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Asaf Shapira of CheckOut in his Tel Aviv office. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“If you are a startup and not making money and you go home before 8 you are perceived as wasting someone else’s money,” Shapira said in an interview. “Working in high-tech is different from other professions because everything can change in a second. Competition can come from any direction, there is a lot of pressure and you are responsible for success or failure.”

Shapira has been going out with his girlfriend for two years and they are planning to get married in the coming months. “Most of the day I am at work,” he said. “In high-tech you need to be present in order to survive.”

Natasha Shine-Zirkel oversees marketing and business development at Rounds, which offers instant group video chat on mobile. Shine has a 7-month-old son, Ori, and has been at her job for seven years. Her husband, Gilad, is chief technology officer at a startup company and they take turns coming home early — between 5 and 6 p.m. — to be with their son. Ori spends the day in kindergarten and is picked up at 4 p.m. by a babysitter. Shine’s mother comes once a week to pick up Ori from kindergarten instead of the nanny.

“We always make sure that one of us is home to play with him, bathe him, feed him, read him a bedtime story and put him to sleep,” Shine said in a phone interview. “I am always home by about 7-7:30 p.m. to make sure I see him before he goes to sleep.”

Once Ori is in bed, Shine and her husband often continue working from home, answering emails or on conference calls. But they make sure they eat dinner together after their son is put to bed.

Natasha Shine, in charge of marketing and business development at Rounds (Courtesy
Natasha Shine, in charge of marketing and business development at Rounds (Courtesy

“I feel I have a very even balance between my work and my family time,” Shine said. “I have time for myself, for my son, for my husband and I have time for work. I split them into four different timing categories. The time I have for myself is on weekends or in the mornings or when my son goes to sleep.”

Shine never schedules calls for the time she is with her son, unless she knows he is going to be asleep. And if someone calls while she is with her son, unless it is really urgent, she will call back later. “Because I only have an hour and a half a day with him I try to make sure I focus on him,” she said.

When Shine went back to work 14 weeks after giving birth, she felt a lot of “judgment” about her decision. “For me the choice was right,” she said. “I don’t feel guilty because I feel I am doing the best for my son, and I think that as long as you are constantly analyzing whether you are happy and you can appreciate the moment you are in – that is the important part.”

Tomer Tagrin, the CEO and founder of Yotpo, an Israeli startup that enables companies to generate online reviews and content, is happily married to Adi — “the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said in an email interview, with a smiley sign at the end of the sentence. “Her support plays a crucial part in what I am able to do at work.”

Tagrin spends two weeks a month in Tel Aviv and two weeks a month in the US. At home, he gets up at around 7 and answers emails until 7:40 before heading to the office, where he stays till 6-7 p.m. Video calls with the company’s US branch occupy his time from around 8:30 till 11:30 p.m. When he’s home, he tries to eat dinner with his wife but “we might miss from time to time,” he said. On weekends and vacations he spends as much time as possible with his wife, friends and family.

Yotpo's Tomer Tagrin and his wife Adi (Courtesy)
Yotpo’s Tomer Tagrin and his wife Adi (Courtesy)

“I am not doing good enough job disconnecting myself from work,” he admits. “I usually stay connected through my phone most hours of the day. That is something I need to improve.”

He spends much more time with his work friends, than with his family. He is working on spending more time with his wife. “”I try, although not always succeed, to help more around the house.”

Tagrin has only worked in high-tech and he believes that what makes it different from other industries is the challenge of growth. “We grow in hyper-mode in people, revenue and overall results — this forces you to make a lot of fast decisions, tons of mistakes and requires a really fast response time as a company. That leads to a lot of stress as well.”

Small steps go a long way

Just small lifestyle adjustments can go a long way toward impacting the quality of life and family relationships, said Schwartz.

Taking a child regularly somewhere once a week – like to a class or to speech therapy — can make a huge difference, because it gives parents the opportunity to spend quality time with their children. Driving together gives parents time to talk and laugh with their chillden, waiting together for the class or therapy gives them a few minutes to play, relate to each other, enjoy a snack together. “All of these are opportunities for strengthening your bond with your child,” Schwartz said.

When parents are happy and enjoying their work and are feeling fulfilled it is a very positive thing for the family, said Schwartz. But couples need to think things through and work things out together.

“You can overcome some of the issues by discussing them, setting out the expectations,” Schwartz said. “Make sure you make space for the other person’s career by getting outside help. Splitting the week is not a bad thing, as long as you make sure you have family time.”

Some high-tech companies are already trying to pay more attention to the well-being of their workers, making sure they take time off to be with their families.

Gett, for example, promotes flexi-time, and employees are judged by their results and not their work hours, said Anat Asaf, global recruitment manager at the ridesharing start-up.

And Hola, which has a chef who cooks for its employees, makes sure workers take enough time off to be with their families. “Working 12 hours a day is unproductive and not healthy and we encourage our workers to be efficient and then go home to their children or hobbies,” said Hola’s Limor Kidron, a VP of human resources at the Netanya, Israel-based provider of a free virtual private network service.

Either way, the high-tech players interviewed by The Times of Israel are undaunted by the challenges ahead and are generally secure in their choices, with no regrets.

“High-tech people who work hard also party more than others,” CheckOut’s Shapira said. “The environment is young and happy. In the end of the day, you work hard but you are satisfied and you play hard.”

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