Having a newborn baby is a lot of work. So is starting your own company. Doing the two at the same time might sound like pure insanity but we think we’ve found a way to make it work.
“Don’t leave before you leave,” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, likes to say. It’s a quote she shares quite often with young professional women who she’s trying to encourage to stay focused on their career. Her argument is quite simple: We have too few female leaders because we women often hop off the career track to have children long before we even get pregnant.
It’s easy to do — you opt out of the more difficult position being offered to you or you don’t fight for the bigger role that’s open at your office because you think that just one day—maybe in a year or two or maybe five or 10 years out–you might get pregnant and need to take time off.
For most, having a family isn’t something you can control or time perfectly. But you do have the ability to control how hard you work.
We had both been writers and editors at FORTUNE for nearly 9 years when we ran a story in the pages of the magazine on Sandberg and her theory. It struck a personal chord. We were both ready for a change and also ready to have children, but we weren’t ready to sit around and wait for it to happen, and we weren’t ready to leave the professional world. So rather than stay in a safe job, we took the biggest leap of our lives and decided to start our own company.
Many of our coworkers thought we were insane. (The economy was crumbling and we were leaving a great job, health care benefits and an amazing team of coworkers.) Some even thought we were doing this to ‘slow down’. (The words “slow” and “down” are not in any entrepreneur’s vocabulary…trust us!)
We quit our jobs together and started building what would eventually become Altruette. But about 6 months into our startup development, I announced to Lee that I was pregnant. I didn’t know what that would mean for our company, which was still in its own infancy. Lee was supportive but I was already nervous that my love of work would change and my pace would slip in the coming months. Five weeks later, it was Lee announcing her wonderful news.
From a personal perspective, it was fabulous. We could share this amazing journey together. There was no guilt that one of us was enjoying the joys of pregnancy while one was trying to conceive. Or one of us was doing all of the work while the other one was out shopping for cribs. But from a business perspective, it spelled disaster—two of us with morning sickness, two of us with countless doctor’s visits, 9 months of exhaustion, and that’s all before the babies arrive. We couldn’t even contemplate what that would be like.
We could have easily let our daily calls turn into baby discussions. We could have let each other off the hook on our weekly ‘to do’ list. And we could have easily decided to throw in the towel long before we launched with the fear that a new baby and a new business would be too much. But we didn’t really give these options much thought –we just kept going. We launched Altruette, our line of philanthropic charms, 12 weeks before my baby was due.
Here are the three lessons we learned (thanks to our babies) that we think any business person could apply to their startup or to their work life.
Lesson One: Set Hard to Reach Deadlines
As former journalists, we are huge believers in deadlines. We set an insane deadline in order to officially launch before our babies arrived. It also forced us to make our first Christmas season, which turned out to be our biggest quarter of the year. We’ve learned if we don’t set serious deadlines, we won’t get the project done. We now make a habit of strategically getting things on the calendar that will force us to focus.
A commitment to an outside project is the best way to keep focused. It’s one thing to let an internal deadline slip but if the outside world is expecting something from you, you better do it and you better do it well. For example in November we looked ahead to a pretty empty February calendar and decided to sign up for a big trade show. It will be good exposure, and it’s also forcing us to get to projects like updating our linesheets and working on in-store displays that easily could have slipped till March or April without that looming deadline.
Lesson Two: Find your own rhythm
Similar as the two of us are, we still work in very different ways. Julie’s an early riser who likes to spend a few hours with her son before working the rest of the day, while Lee prefers to have her sitter arrive at 8, then check out for a few hours in the afternoon to spend time with her daughter. Julie gets anxious if she doesn’t check email every hour while ‘on vacation’ and it took Lee a few months to realize that she needs to unplug for at least a week or two a few times a year. We let each other adhere to whatever schedule works for each of us – no pressure, no guilt.
Someone once told us that, “A good marriage means you’re never both out of love at the same time.” We’re not sure if that theory works for marriage but it certainly works for an entrepreneurial partnership. We know it all evens out in the end, and in the meantime it’s actually a good thing to have each of us on a slightly different schedule and pace. It means one of us is always around in case of an emergency, and if one of us is feeling a little run down after being up all night with a baby, there’s a good chance the other is feeling refreshed and ready to pitch in.
Lesson Three: Don’t let the ups get you too up, or the downs get you too down.
Business and babies can both feel like a roller coaster. When something goes right you feel on top of the world, when something goes wrong it can feel like the world is ending. We learned very early on that we were going to have plenty of disappointments, but the key is to shake it off and work even harder.
And it’s funny: some of the things that at the time were earth shatteringly depressing – for instance a magazine that wouldn’t return our calls or emails – turned out to be some of our biggest wins (they ended up calling us back six months later, which meant the story ran in the middle of the holiday shopping season!)
This has happened so many times that now when things go wrong, we automatically take it as a challenge and assume that it’s going to lead us to something better down the road that we cannot foresee yet.
Now the real test will be in remembering this lesson when our babies hit the terrible twos!