How John Paasonen navigates launching a startup and launching a family
Tell us about your family.
My wife and I started our family in my late 30s. I have two young boys: a 3-year-old—my “threenager”—and a three-month-old. Our family is full of adventure and stories. I’m having a tremendous amount of fun being a dad.
I run Maxwell, a venture-backed startup in the fintech space in Colorado focused on transforming how mortgages get done in the United States. We’ve done $5 billion in loans our first year, growing 20 to 30% each month. I often say I’m leading three startups—a tech startup, a young family, and a fixer-upper house.
How do you balance launching a startup and launching a family?
I’d be dishonest to say it wasn’t hard.
People talk a lot about work/life balance. In my experience, there’s no such thing. Balance means a constant shifting between the two to achieve equilibrium. It’s more about juggling and weighing the scales. You have to be aware enough of when the scales have been tipped one way for too long and compensate accordingly.
One principle I have as a father is that I’m always home for dinner time, bathtime, and bedtime. There’s no more important time than that for my family to model behaviors for my kids. That’s my commitment. I’ve made that clear to my employees, and I’ve made it clear I want that for my employees, too. It’s incredibly difficult to leave the office at 5:30, but I do it. I often get back online at 8:30 or 9:00 when the kids are in bed. But that’s one of the principles I hold myself to.
The benefit of being a founder is that you have the privilege of creating the culture. My founders and I want to build a company where we want to work. At Maxwell, we believe the best employees have healthy minds, healthy bodies, and healthy spirits. We want our people to invest in their families and in themselves, just as much as they invest in the business. Those types of people make the most productive and loyal employees.
What other practices or rituals help you to maintain a health?
As CEO, you have three stakeholders—employees, shareholders, and customers—which can mean a lot of time on the road. Specifically for our customers, I make it a point to show up with them as often as I can. One of the reasons we moved from San Francisco to Denver was because it’s a great hub. I can reach 70% of the United States leaving in the morning and coming back that same night.
Sure, those days are exhausting—schlepping to the airport for a 6am flight is no fun. But it means I can wake up and see my sons the next morning and put my arm around my bride at night. Of course, there are unavoidable multiple day-trips occasionally, but having the opportunity to choose the geography for our business was as much about making Maxwell successful as it was making our families thrive.
Traditions play a strong role for me too as a father—it helps set a cadence I can prioritize. Every Thursday morning, for example, is “Pancake Thursday.” When I put my oldest to bed on Wednesday night, we talk about whether we’re going to do chocolate chip or blueberry, use Einkorn or spelt flour, make big ones or small ones. Then, when he rockets out of bed at 7am, we mix the batter up together and make pancakes in the morning.
I also take him to preschool once a week. I make time to do that and make sure it’s in my schedule. Creating those types of traditions helps my kids have an expectation of when I’m there and when I’m not. It’s important for me, too. If I don’t schedule it in, I schedule it out. If I don’t schedule those things, they’re going to get lost.
What do you observe in the tech startup culture about fatherhood?
There were many reasons we left Silicon Valley. One of them was because it wasn’t a place we wanted to raise our children. We didn’t think the values being promoted there were the values we wanted our kids to model. People flock there to make their millions, often at the expense of their children.
It’s often about monetary success alone. It’s about gaining equity and dedicating your life to your company’s success. Kids don’t understand that and suffer as a result. There’s the view that “one day, when I hit it big, then I’ll spend time with my family.” But I think that path is well-worn to failure as a dad.
We always ask: How has becoming a dad made you a better person?
Being a dad has made me a better leader. I just finished The Whole-Brain Child. The authors, Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson, are psychiatrists. They write about helping your children develop self-awareness. Kids who have self-awareness, they argue, are much better at making decisions at a young age. One of the practices they recommend is reflecting with kids at the end of the day what they’ve learned that day. You have to help your kids process their day. Wasn’t it really sad that your toy broke when your friend stepped on it?
At night I sit down with Finn, our three-year-old, and talk about his day. And I try to model for him how to process the events and emotions he experienced.
At Maxwell, we do something very similar. Every week, we do a retrospective where we look back at all the reactions and learnings from the activities that happened in the prior week. As a startup, there’s a lot of experimentation, failure and success. And it happens so quickly that if you don’t pause to understand why, you miss out. That process of retrospection has built incredible self-awareness at Maxwell.
I’ve realized that being a leader in a family has a lot of parallels to being a leader at work. Listening and learning as a dad has helped me listen and learn as a CEO.
We always ask: What do you believe is your finest fathering skill?
Storytelling, I think. Every night, we tell stories. My oldest gets to pick the characters. He’s so captivated by it. And, it’s great seeing him get to tell stories now. Every night, he says, “next time, let’s do a story about ____.” He’s already thinking about who the characters are going to be in our next adventure.
As a Christian, it’s important for me that my kids are able to interpret my faith and understand why I believe what I believe. To understand my worldview and the lens by which I see the world. As much as possible, I try to incorporate God into our nightly stories. After all, God and our faith are part of our adventures in real life too!
We always ask: What’s one thing you’ve learned from your father?
At the risk of being repetitive: storytelling. My dad was a great storyteller. Every night, he would stand between my room and my sister’s room and tell us stories. My dad has led an adventurous life, and I want my sons to live adventurous lives, too. To be explorers and creators.
We always ask: What is your favorite activity to do with your boys?
With the three-month-old, it’s rocking him and marveling at how amazing it is that I have a little baby in my arms! That’s the best thing right now. With my older son, it’s heading into the great outdoors. Biking, hiking, exploring. We’re going fishing tonight for the first time.
Anything else you’re wrestling with right now?
Technology. I don’t yet have strong convictions yet around screen time. How much or how little should I let my kids interact with these devices? Att just a year-and-a-half my son already knew how to swipe through photos on an iPhone. He’s a digital native. That’s something I wrestle with as a dad in terms of the right limits and right ages. And, that’s something we, as a generation of parents, are going to have to deal with. Just going with the flow with technology could be detrimental.
Postscript: We think Andy Crouch offers great perspective on technology and highly recommend his book. Check out our interview with him.
Need a few tips to get started with storytelling? Start here.