Cleaning Your Plate, Startup Style

Today’s post is brought by YesVideo’s CEO, Michael Chang. He reflects on how his Mother’s family rules follow him through his career as he built his former company, Greystripe, through his current venture as CEO of YesVideo, and coming full circle by passing his Mother’s principles with his family. This article was also featured on’s Innovation Insights.

When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, my mom said to me only about a thousand times, “You have to clean your plate before you can leave this table – there is no waste in the Chang family!”

And at age 39, with my mother’s words ringing in my head, I have learned to apply that lesson to my life: You have to clean your plate before you can build your company.

What this means is that a smart startup entrepreneur can balance his new company with his personal life, if you learns to push everything unnecessary off your plate. I learned to keep only what was truly nourishing and necessary on my plate – and feed the rest to the dog.

I became fully entrenched in the startup world in 2005, when my business partner Andy Choi and I began Greystripe, which became the largest brand-focused mobile advertising network by reach in the US. As our company grew, we were faced with the challenges that most startups face, and we knew we had to carefully prioritize both our home life and our new business. In Andy’s case he enjoyed the single life, but for me, the start of Greystripe also coincided with the birth of my first son, Ian, and I had to adjust to being CEO of Greystripe and being a new dad.

It helped that Andy and I were good friends for eight years before we launched the company, so we had a great working rapport. Andy understood when I had to get home to my new family. When you’re putting in long days (and often nights), you want to actually enjoy the people you’re working with, and so Andy and I made a point of building the Greystripe team out with amazing, smart people.

But no matter how smart and amazing your team is, startups still take a long time to get off the ground, grow, and ultimately exit – in fact, almost always longer than you initially planned. And inevitably, the business never works out how you first envisioned it! The work is all-consuming – and that’s not just my opinion, but that of friends who are also entrepreneurs.

And even when your wife is calling you to see when you’ll be home, you find yourself asking, What if my competitor is working that much later or harder than I am?

If you are not throwing as much time into your business that you possibly can and are not committed to the long haul, then you may be non-competitive and miss out on opportunities that you create for the company.

But of course, you will see diminishing returns in your business if you don’t take time to rest, eat, stay healthy, and find time to spend with your partner and family/friends. As a founder, it’s important to prioritize the “must-haves” into one bucket and make sure that those are being taken care of and then move everything else off your plate. My must-haves in addition to my work are family, health and close friends.

Everything else has to go, and you have to get really good at saying “No.” It’s a constant battle though.

Today my three sons are 8, 5, and 3 years old, and I realize that the time I can spend with them is fleeting. Every day there’s something new that I want to hear about or do with them. And so, I make sure to carve out time to on the weekends to spend with them and tuck them in bed. I also made it a priority to train at a local park three mornings a week to keep my mind clear and focused.

In 2011, we sold Greystripe to ValueClick for $75 million. Today, Andy and I have joined another fast-paced, thriving company, YesVideo. Although it is not a startup, it sometimes feels like one as we are growing quickly and there are many exciting plans on our roadmap. I am taking what I learned during my Greystripe years and applying it to my current position as CEO of YesVideo. I’m making time for what matters to me, and we spend two weeks in Asia every holiday season to visit family there.

I’ve learned what to keep on my plate, and what to toss to the side.

So yes, it is possible to have work life balance in the mad rush of the startup world – just keep as few things on your plate as you can.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing what to keep on your plate?
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Michael Chang Photo

Michael Chang is CEO of YesVideo, the global leader in video transferring and sharing. He is responsible for defining the company’s market vision, and leading his team to continued success by creating innovative products and services for the millions of consumers that YesVideo serves.

Previously, Michael cofounded Greystripe, the largest brand focused mobile advertising network, and also served as CEO. ValueClick acquired Greystripe in 2011. Michael also worked at Incubic Venture Capital and was responsible for investments in Internet and software companies. Michael holds an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and a BS in EE from Carnegie Mellon University.