Entrepreneurial Re-entry — Businesses for Moms

Recently Gotham Gal opened the question: What does workforce re-entry mean for the modern mom?

She observes that a completely structured environment is unlikely to be fulfilling:

I am not so sure that someone who had spent the last ten years at home raising a family has any interest in re-entering at the same speed, level or capacity.  I believe most want to re-enter but not after having the flexibility and life that have had for the past ten years.

Of course commenters jumped in with good intentions, but ultimately they’re not much help in resolving the issue.

Several commenters opined that “being a mom is like being an entrepreneur.” While it’s easy to draw parallels between parenting and startups, it’s pointless and inaccurate, as my wife also attests (having run her own business and food blog for 8 years and our daughter for 3).

It’s equally futile to extoll the difficulty of child-rearing versus corporate work. It’s true — after getting a kid up, dressed, brushed, fed, packed, and ferried to school, when you finally get back to the car after just 72 minutes of harried effort, already you feel like the commute and rest of the day is relaxing compared to debating a three-year-old. (“I want to play barn.” // “OK baby, let’s play barn!” // “Why do I want to play barn?”)

And yet, many millions of Americans raise kids with a “success rate” far greater than those of startups. So while it might indeed be more physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing, it’s not comparable to a startup, and it doesn’t imply that somehow after powering through child-rearing that a startup will be easy in comparison.

After reading the article and all the comments, I felt like the question wasn’t answered. So I want to take a stab at it.

What are the characteristics of the perfect job or startup? It’s idiosyncratic of course, but we can put some boundaries around it.

First, a part-time, flexible schedule. With kids in school there’s a solid 5-6 hours a day for work, but even that is cut up by projects or errands, and sometimes obliviated by sickness or an out-of-town spouse. It might be possible to work at night.

With time in short supply, other axioms appear. For example, commuting is a bad idea because you can’t waste those precious few hours in transit.

Most stay-at-home parents are specifically looking for intellectual stimulation and interaction with other adults. (Play-dates and Facebook are a thousand times better than nothing but they aren’t sufficient.) So the job in question shouldn’t be filled with mindless tasks, performed in isolation. (“Mindless tasks performed in isolation” isn’t a bad description of the infant and toddler years; the whole point is to do something else!)

Another important question is: What additional skills does a parent bring to a business?  I’ve had people in interviews say things like “if I can put up with colic for a month, I can do anything.” That sounds good in the moment, but the truth is that millions of people put up with colic but aren’t particularly good at a given job. (We put up with colic for 3 months and it was hell, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can calm a disgruntled customer over ZenDesk.)

But there are useful skills. I know a startup founder who likes hiring parents because they understand time-management and the importance of being present in the moment. You could probably argue that parents would on average be better managers or mentors or moderators due to increased empathy and using non-verbal cues to figure out what someone is really feeling. (“Do you have to poop?” // “No way!”  …but her face says “I pushed out a turtle-head by the Legos.”)

These constraints might sound contradictory, e.g. “Work from home to avoid a commute, but don’t be isolated.” But this is 2012, and we can get creative.

It’s most useful for a person to stack-rank their requirements.  Listing just a few:

MONEY (you must/want to make)
INTERACTION (with humans)
INTELLECTUALNESS (which is actually a word!)
CAREER (professional momentum)

For example, one person might value INTERACTION/CAREER above FLEXIBILITY, so she might commute as an HR mediator in order to physically be around people and build her network, even if that means having to work around other peoples’ schedules.

Or another person might value MONEY/FLEXIBILITY over INTELLECTUALNESS/CAREER, and select a one-person Internet-based business where daily activities are mundane but she can use her computer prowess and operational intelligence to pull down $7,000/mo in her jammies.

And perhaps with more creativity and devotion you can compromise even less. It’s hard to get a job as a copywriter with all these journalists out of work, but suppose someone started as a freelance writer, initially for less money as she builds her career not just as a writer but as a social media marketer, with some meetings in person but hard-core writing in coffee shops or at home, eventually charging 5x more per hour helping her clients build their own social media marketing groups and/or leverage less expensive writers.

Is that a pipe-dream? Well, I know one woman who did exactly that.

It’s easy for me to say but hard to execute. In fact, it’s close to impossible, but not quite.

Well that is the part which is exactly like a startup! In fact, this is a startup — the startup of your life, with constraints and competition but also limitless possibility for those willing to put in the energy and creativity. And it might fail the first time, or even the second time, but the math says that repeated attempts are in fact likely to produce eventual success.

If that sounds too scary, too hard, too improbable, too much commitment, then you see why raising kids, while more difficult and for many people more rewarding than any job, is not the same as a startup.

On the other hand, if you say “I’m ready! I’m up for the challenge,” then awesome. Figure out your hard constraints, your skills, what you enjoy, stack-rank your preferences, and get creative about what form that could take.

And if you want help thinking creatively about what that means for you, I’ll bet the community on this blog can help — let’s talk about it in the comments. I’ll bet Gotham Girl would help too.

  • I can’t believe you wrote “pushed out a turtle-head” in your blog. I guess you’ll stoop to anyth….oh nevermind.

  • I just forwarded this post to a friend who is wondering what she should do her her life as the last child enters grade school. I imagine that after 5-10 years of not working, it’s daunting to figure out what do with the rest of your life, so the simple stack-ranking is a helpful exercise. Thanks for suggesting it.

  • Richard Garand

    If you’re talking about something that’s entrepreneurial, rather than a job, there are a lot of positives. The flexibility can work out well (although the conference calls with crying in the background might be a bit hard to fit in). In some cases the limited time can be a focal point rather than a negative, since the business has to prove itself just the same as if you were building a product on the side in a consultancy.

    However that’s only for a small fraction of people. Jobs could be a lot more limiting. There are a lot of employers who are looking for someone who isn’t as expensive as the smartest, most experienced, and most driven people for various reasons. That might be a good place to start for some.

  • I’ve long had these challenges. I have 3 kids (9,7,1). It didn’t take me long to realise after having kids that I just wasn’t going to get the job I wanted because of the flexibility I needed. Recruitment agencies and companies would run a mile of give me a strange look when I asked for flexibility. Shock horror.

    I’ve gone from freelancing/contracting around my kids and childcare to starting a business. The business side has been a slow burn and has taken a while to figure out, but with a strong focus on making it work financially for me over the past 18 months – it is now starting to pay off. I work mostly from home or a local coworking space and do it all around my kids – during school hours and some evenings (and some help from my husband who works from home).

  • ueberfliegernet

    great article and totally agree on your points. condolences on dealing with colic for 3 months, I had the same and it was torture for everyone involved! I think one distinction when talking about startups being good for moms or not is are you talking about her own startup or working for someone else’s startup? I think starting something on her own is perfect – I think working for a startup run by someone else (presumably a childless someone else) would be far from ideal – many startups are run by enthusiastic workaholic but sometimes inefficient people on a 24/7 schedule. I can’t imagine many early stage startups that would provide a good and flexible work environment for a mom entering the workforce, unless it’s her own or one run by close friends who understand the constraints involved.

  • Oh, that is all so true! I returned to freelancing when my son was 2 months old, and now he’s 11 months and the schedule doesn’t get any better. But the baby himself does get more enjoyable though, and we also invited an occasional babysitter around 8 months.

    And I just launched a personal UI consulting project, such a joy! I’m really going for the intellectualness/career side, it’s a true pleasure for a young mom to give food to the brain!