If you had told me 20 years ago that I would be running my own business, I would have laughed. Frankly, even 10 years ago, as I was completing my MBA, the only reason I took a course in entrepreneurship was that it fit nicely into my schedule (that, and the fact the class didn’t seem to have a lot of math in it). Despite my lack of entrepreneurial leanings, I eventually joined the ranks of the “mompreneurs”—women who start their own businesses with a view of being available to their kids. In fact, I made the choice before I even had kids.
Indeed, it has been a hot media topic over the past decade, with loads of glossy stories showing smiling women working away at their computers while tidy children play happily at their feet. These “mothers of invention” have been touted as examples of those who, miraculously, have achieved that elusive work-life balance. Well, even if you’ve never been a mompreneur, you can certainly imagine that it’s not always so pretty in real life.
This year Admiral Road Designs, the business I own with my best friend, Amy Ballon, entered its 10th year. While we’ve been shipping cozy personalized fleece blankets to babies and kids around the world, we’ve also been raising our families and trying our best to juggle it all. Though it’s been the right balance for us, it is by no means perfect. Like any job, being my own boss has its ups and downs, things I love and things I would rather not have to do. I like to say that being a mompreneur is good, bad and sticky.
Both Amy and I escaped our bustling corporate careers to start something that we thought would work better for our whole lives. I knew that the demands of my career weren’t going to mesh with my ideal vision of motherhood. By striking out with Amy, I hoped to have a career with more flexibility, balance and time to be available for my children. Since my kids (now aged seven and six) were born, I’ve worked from home. When the kids were smaller, they were in part-time daycare or nursery school. Now that they are in school full-time, I work carpool to carpool; fitting in work between morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up.
Although I’ve structured my time to be available to my children, it certainly hasn’t always been quality time. When they were babies, a lot of time was spent in the car between trips to suppliers or in a bouncy chair in the studio. I have to admit that juggling kids and a business meant that, at times, both suffered. When my son was learning to count, he kept saying “one, second, three, four.” I couldn’t figure out what was going on until one day it dawned on me that he was so used to me saying “one second” in response to his queries that he thought that’s how you counted! He figured it out pretty quickly, but the guilt of that will stay with me for a long time.
Though I’m technically home during the day, I’m not usually available to volunteer in the classroom or go on class field trips. This can be very hard for the kids to understand because, in their eyes, I fall into the camp of the stay-at-home moms who are always available. Every mom experiences mommy guilt at times, but there’s something ironic about it when you’ve set up your work to be available to your kids.
The upside of working from home and having the kids around is that I rarely miss a thing. I’ve been able to take my kids to every doctor’s appointment. I’ve felt all the teeth coming in and am the first to know when they fall out. I’m home at the end of the day, when I give them a snack and hear about the day’s events. I can make dinner, and we can eat together at a reasonable hour. Even with our hectic schedules, there’s something comforting for the whole family about Mom being around and in charge of the routine.
But perhaps the best thing about being the boss of me is the example I’m setting for my children. While I’m certainly not getting it all perfect (see the preceding learning-to-count example), I am showing my son and my daughter the value of hard work and the benefit of choosing a lifestyle that works for our family, even if it’s off the beaten path. I am confident that the image of a working mom that I present is much more positive that the one they’d b seeing if I had staying in my former career.
Fortunately for me, I’m married to a guy who really gets and supports my career choice, though that doesn’t mean that the business doesn’t find its way into my marriage. Many mompreneurs I know report that their businesses cause stress in their relationships. It makes sense, right? A new business is a huge time drain, which takes attention and focus away from the people and tasks at home. Add to that the fact that it’s really hard to make money at the outset, especially if you’re only working part-time, and that it’s possibly infringing on your living space. It’s not surprising that a home-based business can cause resentment in a marriage.
For years we ran Admiral Road out of my home. More often than not, it was overrun with evidence of this. Packing boxes and tape guns served as decor in my dining room, while rolls of fabric became installation art in my kids’ playroom. When we were expecting company, I was forced to stash fleece under my bed so that our guests had somewhere to sit down. Once, amid a disaster scene of packing boxes, rolls of fabric and unhappy toddlers, I hollered at my husband in a moment of exasperation, “Can’t you see I’m running a business here?” Without missing a beat, he deadpanned: “Oh, really? Does it happen to have anything to do with fleece?”
Kidding aside, I think the reason my husband and I have done well is that we made a plan for my business at the outset. We talked about our expectations around finances, child care and housework, and we came to a decision that everyone felt comfortable with. I think that communicating with your better half is key to a successful mompreneur venture. No matter how you structure your business, your whole family is getting into it with you, so having them on board is essential.
At Admiral Road, I have experienced the ups and downs that any business owner faces. There have been amazingly marvelous moments and truly awful ones as well. The thing about running your own company is that you don’t know which ideas are going to work until you’ve tried them. Despite best-laid plans, we’ve signed up for trade shows that were disastrous or tried marketing initiatives that totally flopped. And everything costs money.
On that subject, we don’t make nearly as much money as we would have had we stayed on the corporate track. As Admiral Road has grown, we’ve invested a lot of our earnings back into the company to further our growth. And we’re amoung the luck ones: According to Industry Canada, 30 percent of new small businesses fail within the first five years. But our success hasn’t come easily; there are times when I am working around the clock and my kids hardly see me. And occasionally Amy and I don’t see eye-to-eye, and disagreeing with her isn’t that much fun.
On the other hand, I’ve had the deep satisfaction of bringing a business to life that not only pays us and our employees, but that creates a meaningful product that is loved and used around the world. We’ve had our products featured in newspapers and magazines. Paparazzi shots have been snapped of celebrities using our blankets. And, better still, we have received countless photos of non-famous babies snuggling with their Admiral Road Blankets.
When people ask me about my business, I try and explain the happiness that determining my own work life gives me. As a mompreneur, there are no job promotions or performance reviews, so I have had to figure out how to gauge my own progress. Your path might also be tricky for others to understand. Years ago I bumped into a classmate from business school who asked me what I was up to. When I told him about Admiral Road, he responded incredulously by saying, “But couldn’t you find a job?”
What I have learned, and what other self-employed moms know, is that success and happiness are intertwined. What makes entrepreneurship a thrill is not hitting it out of the park every single day but rather succeeding in general despite all the days when things don’t go as planned. Feeling fulfilled and successful in my career comes not only from how well my company does but also from the way I feel about how my whole life is going, personally and professionally. As a mompreneur, the parts of my life spill into one another every day—that’s the whole point. It’s good. It’s bad. And it’s sticky. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Danielle Botterell and Admiral Road partner Amy Ballon share their mompreneur know-how in Mom. Inc. (Collins)