Fiona Lake Waslander is co-founder, chief product officer and president of Skylight Tools, a renovation services company based in San Francisco and Toronto.
Many people compare building a startup to having a baby: the sleepless nights, the anxiety, the ups and downs, the mistakes. Few, however, talk about what it’s like to launch a startup and have a baby at the same time.
Two years ago, shortly after deciding to follow my passion and launch a tech startup, I had the pleasure of finding out I was pregnant with our long-awaited third child. My career decision meant resigning from a senior level, well-paid, benefits-laden job at a stable company. The timing was about as bad as could be, but with the wheels of my career change already in motion, my husband and I took a deep breath and agreed to embrace the chaos.
In retrospect, I think if I’d taken time to ponder my decision or looked for another senior leader who had done something similar, I might have changed my plans. In a tech community that is dominated by young, single males, there aren’t a lot of precedents to follow when it comes to founding a startup as a woman over 40, with children and a new baby on the way.
In an effort to help demystify the startup experience for parents of all types, I’d like to share a few of my lessons learned and hopefully some words of encouragement. The common belief, especially for those of us with kids, not to mention new babies, is that a startup is out of reach. I found that it’s a challenge, no doubt, but it can work.
The timing is never right
I’ve spoken to many people, particularly women, who are waiting until their children pass milestone X or their career reaches objective Y before starting a new endeavour. You can’t wait for the timing to be right – it never will be. But if you’re passionate about your new project, you’ll make it work.
What I have learned in a short span of time – building a business from scratch while securing funding – is unparalleled compared to my experience gained in senior positions at established companies. Rather than looking at my startup venture as a risk, I saw it as an investment in my career.
Family life will always add hurdles to a career path. That’s just part of life. The key is to proceed confidently.
Blurry lines can work well
I’ve never been one to separate work and home life very well, but in the startup-plus-baby situation, this worked to my advantage. The best way for me to be productive was to blur the lines. Sometimes that meant asking my team to be patient while I rocked a baby during a conference call. Other times it meant seeking understanding from my family while I left for a meeting during dinner.
Starting your own company affords so much more control of your work environment than typical office-based jobs. Our company allows employees to work from home; it’s not only a perfect solution for inclusion of new mothers and parents in general, but even our team members without kids find they’re much more productive under this set-up.
The net effect was more time for both parts of my life. Work and family time intertwined in a way that would not have been possible in a traditional work setting.
Time to think
Absolutely critical for any business leader is having time to think. One of my biggest surprises when juggling a newborn with my startup workload was that I actually had a lot of time to think.
In past leadership roles, I typically found myself in a frenetic mode with little time for contemplation of strategic issues or big-picture planning. With a baby, however, you spend a lot of time sitting, rocking and nursing, and you can use that time to plan your next move. My at-desk working hours became more productive and my output was of a much higher quality than before.
With the right thinking-to-output balance, I required fewer hours to accomplish the same amount of work.
Working around a baby’s schedule is not hard
Any team of founders will face many difficult challenges together: agreeing on the business strategy, the fundraising plan, the approach to investors, how to expand at the right pace, who to hire, where to spend money – the list goes on. Compared to these business problems, working around a baby’s schedule is nowhere near as complex, yet it’s often cited as the reason women with babies or young children are nervous about entering the startup world.
As awkward as it may feel to schedule meetings around the baby’s nursing schedule, it really is a non-issue for a well-functioning team. If a team can’t solve the easy problems, then the hard ones will be insurmountable. Treat it like a test, and the strong teams (like mine!) will focus on the big challenges instead.
And the result?
Success so far! My co-founders and I raised an angel round of financing when I was eight months pregnant and closed a seed round of financing from top Silicon Valley investors when my new baby was 10 months old.
I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty of work-family balance that parents face or the fundraising barriers commonly encountered by female founders. I do recognize that I’ve had good fortune along my way. But I want to tell women and parents hesitating about whether to take the plunge to get out there and go for it.
Our business continues to grow and, while my life is busier than ever, I’m glad I took the leap.
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