I started my career the way many tech entrepreneurs did–as a management consultant and by doing a stint at a multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley venture capital firm. In my 20s, I was I was well on my way to a lucrative tech career. I happily pulled off all-nighters on a Tuesday or a 10-hour Saturday without flinching.
But my quick ascent ultimately led to my leaving Silicon Valley. I got an unsolicited job offer from a startup my VC firm had invested in (called Motricity) to be their head of corporate strategic development. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. My wife and I packed up and moved to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park–where Motricity was headquartered at the time. We expected to be there for two years, three at most.
Fourteen years, three successful startups, and four beautiful children later, we wouldn’t move back to Silicon Valley for all the gourmet tech-campus lunches and artisanal coffee in the world. Best of all, we’ve learned we don’t need to, even to build a billion dollar-valued unicorn company. I’ve helped do it twice with Raleigh-Durham based startups, and a third is well on its way.
Startup success outside of Silicon Valley
Within three years at Motricity, I helped the company raise nearly half a billion dollars in funding and reach $100 million in annual revenue. Eventually, this led to a billion-dollar public market cap.
This would’ve been a natural time for my wife and me to leave Raleigh, but to our surprise, we’d come to love the place. One of the things that we really appreciated was that we found people to be less caught up in the race for material wealth and more interested in family life and community. While I had previously been on the fast track to joining the 1 percent club of San Francisco, it came at a significant cost to my personal life. I gained nearly 50 pounds and neglected my marriage during my time in Silicon Valley–both of which, sadly, felt “normal” relative to the people and world around me. It wasn’t until I left the West Coast that I realized just how damaging that lifestyle had been. Life in North Carolina proved that I could build a thriving business–and have a flourishing and healthy personal life at the same time.
So I took another leap of faith with another startup focused on enterprise communications called Bandwidth. Once again, I helped build a startup that surpassed $100 million in annual revenue (this time with positive profit), and it eventually reached a unicorn-level, public-market valuation of $1.5 billion. From Bandwidth, we spun out Republic Wireless, a business I cofounded, which provides smartphone service leveraging proprietary WiFi-first calling technology that enables some of the most affordable price plans in the U.S. market. Republic Wireless is also nearing $100 million in annual revenue.
From where I sit, this streak is proof that tech startups and the entrepreneurs who drive them can have long, rewarding, and–most importantly–happy lives outside of Silicon Valley. Here are some of their best practices.
We practice workplace flexibility
When I first started at Bandwidth, my boss and mentor would get up from the desk we shared most days around noon and say, “I’m going for a run. You should do something, too.” At first, I thought he was testing my work ethic. But quickly I realized he was living out one of his foundational business philosophies. We need to take care of our whole selves to do our best work, and he was encouraging me to do the same. So I started regularly going to the basketball court for midday exercise. Not only did I lose 30 pounds, but I also enjoyed the energy boost and saw the same reinvigoration in my colleagues. Who needs an afternoon coffee when they have endorphins firing from a good workout?
Physical exercise at work isn’t so much the point as is workplace flexibility. I’ve carried on this tradition at Republic Wireless and have seen the results. People appreciate being empowered to prioritize their personal goals and being trusted to use their time wisely.
We ditch the unnecessary perks and prioritize work-life balance
I learned early on that Silicon Valley values the hours its workforce puts in–often at the expense of employee tenure. That’s what all the on-campus cafes and gourmet snack corners are about.
I love food, but tempting as those perks are, I will never advocate for flash-and-dazzle ways to keep people in the office through meal times (including dinner) and pass them off as benefits. Not only are they a costly business expense but also we believe there’s a form of reward people prize much more highly. No amount of gourmet snacks or haute-cuisine meals at the office can replace the value of having dinner with our families, or using our lunch hour to feel the sun.
We’ve seen huge payoffs from taking this approach. In 2018, Republic Wireless’s voluntary turnover rate was 4.2 percent, a quarter of the software industry’s average turnover rate of 16.1 percent, according to a report by Radford Partners. We’re focused on laying the groundwork for long, vibrant careers for our employees rather than squeezing all of the juice out of them before they burn out.
We don’t focus on pedigree when it comes to hiring
The “big résumés” I’ve hired in the past have gone famously wrong. I’ve learned to put much less stock in the brand names a candidate presents. I think it’s more important to discover whether our team will enjoy working with this person, and vice versa.
We also focus on hiring versatile team members, rather than specialists. Why? Because they’ll probably be in a better position to adapt as a startup’s organizational structure changes. The right kind of people can quickly learn to take on different roles in different seasons as the business’s needs change.
Now, I’m not saying that these are the only ingredients of growing a billion-dollar unicorn company outside of Silicon Valley. Nor am I saying that the recipe I prescribed is better than the classic Silicon Valley one. What I am saying is that there isn’t just one right way to build a successful tech company. Most importantly, success doesn’t have to come at the expense of personal health and happiness. You might have to make some difficult choices, but if you know your priorities, you can find a way to have both.
Chris Chuang is the cofounder & CEO of Republic Wireless and Relay