How My Special Needs Daughter Has Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

How My Special Needs Daughter Has Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

My wife and I launched PFI Advisors on September 25th, 2015.  One month and one day later, our 6-month old daughter, Layla, had her first seizure.  She was admitted into the hospital the next day, October 27th, and stayed there for 6 weeks.  It turns out that her brain never fully developed, which has led to seizures, spasms, feeding and digestion issues, vision issues, hearing issues, muscle-development issues, and of course, brain development issues.

By December, as we continued to uncover more problems with our baby, I sat my wife down and said, “Maybe this isn’t the best time to start a business and go several months without a paycheck (thank god we had already secured health insurance!).  If you need me to go find a ‘real job,’ I can do that.”  My wife, who is the true entrepreneur in the family, looked me right in the eye and said, “We have three kids now.  Luke (2 ½ years old), Layla (8 months) and PFI Advisors (2 ½ months).  We will not allow Layla’s condition to adversely affect either Luke’s or PFI’s growth and development.  Get back to the office and grow that company!”

The next few months were filled with the typical activities of any newly-launched firm: building presentation decks, meeting with potential clients, asking centers of influence for introductions, and finding PR opportunities wherever possible.  As any entrepreneur will describe the early days of their company, it was an exhilarating time filled with much uncertainty.  Unfortunately, my wife and I had the added uncertainty of not knowing the future outcome of our daughter’s quality of life.  I became an expert at multi-tasking: articles were written after midnight, with the glow of Layla’s hospital monitors illuminating my keyboard; press interviews were conducted by phone in the hospital cafeteria; our third client engagement was finalized on the side of the road, stalling long enough before entering the “dead zone” underground in the hospital parking garage. 

At first I thought I was at a huge disadvantage trying to juggle so much.  However, as we continued to grow the business, and I kept studying more and more startup businesses, I began to realize that every entrepreneur feels overwhelmed in the early stages and fights with the exact same issues I was having: how to get more hours out of the day; how to push through your self-doubts and fears; how to successfully wear multiple hats every day and still get everything accomplished.  I slowly came to appreciate the fact that my added burden was actually helping me with these common entrepreneurial hurdles.

Productivity


When we finally got Layla home in early December, she unfortunately didn’t stay there for long.  Over the next several months, she spent more than 80 nights in the hospital, with most stays lasting over a week.  When I was in the office, I became a “productivity ninja” – whenever a task came across my desk, I would complete it immediately.  I never knew when the next phone call was coming to say, “Layla just pulled her feeding tube out of her nose – heading to the ER!” or “She won’t stop vomiting – heading to the ER!” and I would be pulled away.  Not only was I afraid to “put off until tomorrow what can be done today,” but I didn’t even have the luxury of putting things off until that afternoon!  Every entrepreneur needs to build the habit of completing their To Do tasks every day, and Layla was helping me develop that productivity “muscle.”

Travel


When you are traveling with an expense account, business trips can be a lot of fun.  Swanky hotels, room service at the end of the day, taking an afternoon off to see the local tourist sites, etc.  When you own the company, you realize very quickly how expensive business trips can be.  If you are paying airfare, hotel, rental car, etc., out of your own pocket -- a pocket without a steady paycheck --- you need to make every second of that business trip count.  You can’t travel to see just one potential client – you need every minute of your day booked with productive meetings that can increase the value of your budding company.  With a sick daughter at home, I was more than just financially motivated to make every second away from home productive – I had to justify to myself and my family that my time away was more valuable than being home to administer medications, perform physical therapy, weigh and measure her special formula, and of course, be nearby in case of another dash to the hospital.  If I wasn’t visiting a paying a client, I wouldn’t allow myself to book a trip unless I could confirm a minimum of 5 meetings per day.

Motivation


Successful entrepreneurs find a way to remain determined and motivated in the face of setbacks and rejection.  They don’t allow the limiting emotions of uncertainty and doubt hold them back.  Successful entrepreneurs find a way to remain focused and push through those fears.  While parts of Layla’s condition could be distracting, having an ill daughter also provided me with laser-like focus on the business.  We didn’t have the standard 3 years to become profitable that is often quoted in the press about startups.  Even with a great insurance policy, one of Layla’s many seizure medications would cost us over $12,000 per year out-of-pocket.  This business had to be successful, not just from an ego perspective, but we needed to support our children.  Nothing motivates more than being forced into a “win or wither” situation.

Perspective


The famous Mike Tyson quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” is cited over and over again by entrepreneurs trying to motivate themselves to not accept short-term failure as the end result, but just as one step in the journey to success.  You cannot allow yourself to fall into a pit of despair.  For me, having Layla to go home to every night puts it all in perspective.  In the past, if my day didn’t go exactly according to plan, it would cripple me with anger and frustration, and ruin my entire evening.  Now, when I walk through the door and find our daughter hooked up to a feeding machine, not able to see or hear, sleeping peacefully on the couch with a big smile on her face, my petty “problems” disappear in a heartbeat.  I know that tomorrow is another day, and everything will be fine if I remain focused on the big picture and keep moving the company forward.

Would I give anything to have a healthy daughter?  You bet I would.  Could the timing have been better between starting a business and our daughter getting sick?  Of course it could have.  But life rarely, if ever, lays out the yellow brick road and shows us an easy, well-lit path to our dreams.  I have seen first-hand that the human spirit can endure more than we think imaginable.  Starting a company can feel impossible sometimes.  For many, it will be the most difficult thing you will do in your life.  Watching your child suffer day in and day out is the worst nightmare I can imagine for anyone.  But in some weird way, juggling both at the same time has miraculously lessened the pain of each, compared to attacking each struggle independently.  Maybe David Lee Roth was right all along: “You’ve got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real!”

Matt Sonnen
Advisors in Transition
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Prior to founding PFI Advisors, Matt Sonnen learned the ins and outs of the wirehouse model at Merrill Lynch in the late 1990s. After leaving Merrill in 2005, he was introduce ... Click for full bio

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