“Start, Love, Repeat” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun – an Interview

Years ago when I first opened my writing business, I thought I had it all down. Business licenses and forms? Check. Tax assistance? Check. A business plan in the form of a book detailing the ins and outs of successful freelance writing? Check.

But amid all the planning and preparation, one thing I never considered was this: how might starting a business impact my marriage? Thankfully, my relationship thrived – but that’s not always the case for many entrepreneurs.

The reality is, many entrepreneurs and their families don’t consider how a business could affect the relationships with the people closest to them, often to their own detriment. After all, it’s our loved ones who usually support us in our entrepreneurial endeavors. How can entrepreneurs and their families weather the inevitable ups and downs of running a business, and stay together through it all?

Enter “Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, the ultimate guide for couples navigating life with a startup in the family.

As the wife of Ned Tozun, one of the founders of the social enterprise d.light, Dorcas intimately understands the challenges of being married to an entrepreneur. She’s also the kind of person who tends to worry about things, which makes her husband’s entrepreneurial journey all the more nerve-wracking. I love how Dorcas doesn’t shy away from sharing some of her toughest moments in the process. But more importantly, she offers valuable advice, backed by research and interviews with top experts, to help couples survive those hardships with their marriage intact.

For entrepreneurs in China and their spouses, Dorcas’ book has additional value thanks to her time in Shenzhen, where her husband opened offices to expand the business abroad.

“Start, Love, Repeat” has a conversational tone that will hook you from the beginning, and it delivers sound guidance that you’ll want to return to time and again as the business in your family continues to evolve. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who is an entrepreneur or married to one.

It is a great honor and pleasure to introduce you to “Start, Love, Repeat” and Dorcas Cheng-Tozun (who was also featured along with me in the anthology “How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?” and wrote a guest post for this site titled “Three Words from a Chinese Father“) through this interview.

Here’s the bio for Dorcas from her website:

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer, editor, and speaker. As a columnist for Inc.com, she writes about the intersection of start-up life with marriage, family, and well-being. She also contributes regularly to Christianity Today, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, BlogHerThe Entrepreneurial Leader, and dozens of other publications in the U.S. and Asia.

Dorcas has more than a decade of experience as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional. She served as the first director of communications for d.light, one of the world’s leading social enterprises. A Silicon Valley native, she has lived in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya. She and her entrepreneur husband, d.light cofounder Ned Tozun, have been married for twelve years and have one adorable hapa son.

Dorcas has a B.A. in communication and an M.A. in sociology from Stanford University, as well as a professional editing certificate from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a proud member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the Bay Area Editors Forum.

You can learn more about “Start, Love, Repeat” on Dorcas’ website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. The book “Start, Love, Repeat” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

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What was the inspiration for this book?

This book came about for selfish reasons: After about nine years of being married to an entrepreneur, I was desperate for advice from someone who understood what it was like. But there are so few resources for entrepreneurs’ spouses out there, and many that exist are unrealistically optimistic.

I wanted a resource that was completely honest about how hard it can be to do life with an entrepreneur, but also provided practical advice and offered tangible reasons why all the hardship was still worth it. I wanted someone to acknowledge that I could simultaneously love and support my husband and still hate the ways in which his business turned our lives upside down.

As I talked to other entrepreneurs’ spouses, I heard the same thing from them. They couldn’t find the support or help they needed. They couldn’t find a book that reflected the experiences they had lived.

So I decided to write what I would have wanted to read when I first married my husband. I wanted to tell the whole story of what marriage to a creative, inspired, ambitious business founder looks like, in all its imperfect glory.

Why is the start-up journey so difficult for couples and families?

There is nothing quite like starting a business from nothing. It requires entrepreneurs to lay almost all of what they have and who they are on the line: financially, professionally, but also emotionally. They’re signing up for a heavy load of uncertainty, stress, and responsibility.

Significant others, whether or not they are entrepreneurial themselves, are inevitably pulled into these risks. Being with an entrepreneur forces you to confront your own issues around security, money, quality of life, self-confidence, control, and more—all at the same time. Unsurprisingly, such couples almost always have challenges around conflict, communication, and decision-making, even while neither partner is operating at their best because they’re so stressed.

In addition, spouses often feel like they’ve been demoted or replaced because running a company is such an all-consuming vocation. Imagine: the person you considered your life partner has entirely dedicated him- or herself to another entity. More than one therapist I interviewed said it was comparable to your spouse having an affair. That feeling of betrayal can lead to deep, longstanding wounds if not proactively addressed.

On top of all this, entrepreneurs are so revered in American culture that there can sometimes be an extra shiny veneer over everything about them—including their family lives. That can make it hard to talk about, or even acknowledge, the personal pain that entrepreneurs and their partners and children carry. Many of the spouses I spoke to felt isolated and unable to find confidantes who could really understand what they were struggling with.

Throughout the book, you share some of the challenges you and your husband faced after moving to China for his company. Based on your experience, do you think there are any unique issues couples might face with a startup in China?

While entrepreneurship is growing in China at an exponential rate, the typical Chinese founder is likely going to face quite a bit of pressure from his or her family to choose a more traditional profession or to provide a stable income for the family. Such cultural norms can also make it more difficult for start-ups to hire well qualified employees, as there are fewer experienced professionals willing to take a risk with a new company. This is what we found when we were in China.

All these factors can cause couples to be under greater financial strain and stress, and may make it challenging for the business to scale. So I think it’s even more imperative for entrepreneurial couples in China to be clear with one another about what doing a start-up will require of both of them and what support they will each need before moving ahead.

What advice would you have for couples when one or both are running a startup business in China?

In the U.S., only about one in every four small businesses is run by spouses; in China, this is far more common. Co-preneurs, as they’re called, have the ongoing challenge of trying to retain some separation between work and home. I would advise such couples to prioritize times and places where you will not discuss business; perhaps you set aside one night a week for a date, or you establish your bedroom as a non-work zone. One couple I spoke with used a dress code: they would only talk about work stuff when in their work clothes. You should establish whatever routines or activities you need to remind you that you are life partners first and business partners second.

In addition, in China work hours tend to be long and leaves are short–and entrepreneurs in particular will be tempted to push themselves to their limits. It’s important to remember that the amount of time you spend working isn’t related to your chance of success. It’s more critical that you and your spouse work in a way that’s sustainable, because it’s going to take years for your start-up to become an established company. So that means taking time to rest, to do weekend getaways, to pursue hobbies, and to take vacations. Doing so will help your relationship and it will give you more energy and clarity in leading your company.

How did writing this book change your perspective on your own marriage?

As a perpetual pessimist, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the hardships of my marriage. I find myself counting the sacrifices, the inconveniences, and the ways in which I have been hurt.

But as I reflected on our last twelve years together, I saw how—even though there were plenty of ugly episodes along the way—our relationship has matured and been positively transformed because of all that we’ve been through. Ned and I were forced to confront personal weaknesses, mismatched expectations, and conflict early on in our relationship. Thankfully, we were both willing to make adjustments along the way, and we have been able to move closer toward a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.

I also saw how profoundly Ned cared for me each step of the way, even when I felt isolated and neglected. I realized how he had done so many things, big and small, to try to make things easier for me or to respect my wishes. He has made plenty of sacrifices as well, like booking crazy flight itineraries so he could get home twelve hours earlier, or saying no to amazing business opportunities so he would have more time to spend with our kids and me.

Being married to Ned has also pushed me to live with more boldness and courage, and to take more risks. I don’t think I would have been able to write this book without Ned encouraging me and cheering me on along the way.

What do you hope are the main takeaways for your readers?

I hope entrepreneurial couples—especially those who are struggling in their relationship—will recognize that they’re not alone. No matter how crazy your life is because of the business, it’s likely that someone else has been through something similar and found a way to make it through with their marriage intact. With few exceptions, there is always reason to hope, and there are always changes you can make to try to improve your relationship. Even tiny steps can make a big difference.

It’s never easy to change ourselves or our relationships, of course, and it takes a fair amount of dedication and effort. But I hope readers will realize that it’s worth it. Nobody ever regrets spending too much time with their family when they’re on their deathbed; we’re far more likely to regret not spending enough time with our loved ones. And if you can move toward a relationship that is healthier and nurtures both of you as individuals, in all likelihood you’ll experience rich, long-lasting benefits—in your family and your career—from living the adventurous start-up life.


A huge thank you to Dorcas Cheng-Tozun for this interview! Once again, you can learn more about “Start, Love, Repeat” on Dorcas’ website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. The book “Start, Love, Repeat” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

Three Words From a Chinese Father

(photo by somecanuckchick via Flickr.com)

Almost two months ago, while scanning through my inbox, I came across a post called How to be Mistaken for a Prostitute in China. What a title — and what dazzling writing. I devoured the entire post, right down to the byline introducing the author and her forthcoming memoir about her experiences in China.

That’s how I first discovered Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, and I’m thrilled to be sharing her essay with you, titled “Three Words From a Chinese Father”. 

Dorcas’ story revolves around something I’ve touched upon in the past — how Chinese families show their love through actions, not words. She explores this as she looks back on her relationship with her late father, a man who had never told her “I love you”.

Thanks so much to Dorcas for contributing her work! 

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“I miss you,” my father said to me over the phone.

I hadn’t seen him for four days. He had been in the hospital for more weeks than I could keep track of, and had recently been transferred to a specialist hospital about an hour away from home. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, so I had to attend school during the week and could only visit him on weekends. My mom spent most nights at the hospital with him while I stayed home alone.

My surprise lasted only a couple seconds, during which I became very still and swallowed hard. “I miss you too,” I choked out, holding back tears. They were the three most significant words my father had ever said to me.

When he passed away less than a month later, they became the most significant words he would ever say to me. He had never said “I love you” to me. That night was the first and only time he ever told me he missed me.

My father had never been a man of many words. He left that to my mother, the chatty, extroverted half of the pair. For years I barely understood what he did for a living. All I knew was that he was an engineer, which in my young mind meant one thing: trains. I imagined my dad driving steam engines across the back roads of America, always somehow returning home in time for dinner. (He was, in fact, an electrical engineer.) I certainly knew nothing about his childhood in Guangdong Province in China, the few years he spent there before the realities of the new Communist regime prompted his family to send him away to Hong Kong.

I’m sure being the only male in a family with three women—his wife and two daughters—didn’t help. My father would often escape to the garage to tinker with small pieces of technology—a circuit board, a watch, a cassette player. He would take a Chinese-language novel with him to the bathroom or bedroom and remain out of sight for hours. Or he would park himself in front of the television to watch a San Francisco 49ers football game.

By the time I was ten, I had become an obsessive 49ers fan. It had started from curiosity, from a young girl’s intangible desire to connect with her father, but it soon became my own passion. I would pepper my dad with questions about the rules, about certain plays, about this player or that coach. He didn’t seem to mind having his younger daughter impose upon his weekly ritual; I suspect he secretly relished it. We fueled one another’s passions for the sport to the point where we drove my mother and sister a little nuts with our single-minded devotion. I promised my dad that as soon as I was old enough to work and earn money, I would take him to a 49ers game.

I began following my father into other arenas of his life. When my mom and sister went shopping for clothes at the mall, I would go with my dad to the bookstore. I watched with awe as he practiced his pseudo kung fu moves with a wooden rod from a closet. I often stood behind his chair with my chin resting on his head as he and my mom lingered after a meal.

He enjoyed telling corny jokes at the dinner table, jokes that often made my mom groan and roll her eyes. I would always laugh loudly at his jokes, even when I didn’t understand them, and was rewarded by a knowing, just-between-us grin that my dad would send across the table. In those fleeting moments, I may not have understood what he meant, but I felt like I understood him.

It’s hard for me to explain why I felt this way. In many regards my dad was the stereotypical Chinese father. He didn’t trouble himself with the day-to-day details of raising two daughters. He wasn’t the type to shower us with hugs or kisses. He wasn’t the one we went to when we were in need of parental advice. Looking back, I can’t remember a single conversation of deep significance that I had with my father.

But this is what he did do: on one of the rare occasions he cooked dinner for the family, he made salt-and-pepper prawns with so much salt and pepper that my sister and I were raving about it for weeks. (My mother promptly scolded him and switched us back to bland, low-salt food the following day.) He sincerely thanked my sister and me every time we gave him yet another striped tie for Christmas. He watched Beauty and the Beast and other Disney movies with me. He let me into his world and the things he loved on a regular basis. But he just didn’t let me in; he welcomed me and let me know—somehow, without words—that he was delighted to be sharing these things with me.

And finally, just weeks before we had to say goodbye forever, he overcame thousands of years of cultural norms and said aloud what he actually felt: “I miss you.” At the time none of us thought he wouldn’t make it; we were convinced that a cure or a miracle was just around the corner. I wonder, though, if my dad knew he was running out of time, which is why he chose to give me what remains one of my most precious memories of him all these years later.

Those are not the three words that we typically think of in American culture. “I love you” has taken on the status of myth and legend, three tiny words with the power of giants to slay or fairy godmothers to bring enchanted happy endings. We wonder if any relationship can ever feel authentic or complete without these words. Even I have occasionally fallen into this trap.

My dad never told me he loved me—at least, not in words. In the end, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I knew he loved me. And with each passing year that he’s not in my life, I know it with even more certainty.

I miss you too, Daddy.

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Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as a Chinese American living in Shenzhen, China. Learn more at www.transformativewords.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.