The New York Times’ “You’re the Boss” blog had a post yesterday titled “Is There a ‘Right’ Time for a Mom to Start a Business?” The blogger interviewed Laura Kelly, the owner of a craft shop in Pennsylvania, which she opened in 2003. According to the interview her kids are just entering college now, so they must have been 8-10 years old at the time she launched the business.
When asked if her business was a success, Kelly answered:
Absolutely. To me, success is defined as living the life you want. This business allowed me to raise my children while growing the business slowly and that was No. 1 to me. So even though I didn’t make money for many years, I didn’t miss a beat with my kids.
The business and life she described really struck me as it sounded so dang familiar, not only to the start-up stories of my business and personal contacts, but also to my own. So many women entrepreneurs I know are taking the approach of starting a business slowly and being careful to grow it only as much as family life will allow. And I love reading articles in mainstream media that support the idea that there’s no shame in being small or earning modest revenues.
As I commented on the blog:
Starting a small side business during the baby and toddler years can be a great solution for women who don’t want to return to a full-time job but 1) want to work at least a little because they enjoy their career, and/or 2) need some income while also raising children. This approach can work especially well for consultants and freelancers with low start-up and overhead costs. As kids start school and eventually become more independent, moms can put more into the business and grow it.
In my experience, the question of the best time to start a business doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with the kids’ ages. Sure, baby and toddler years can be crazy sometimes, but so can taking care of middle schoolers and schlepping them around to all their activities. I think that life craziness just ebbs and flows all the time, and transitioning to self-employment may be unrealistic at some points in our lives and a lot more do-able than others.
My experience does differ a bit as I was self-employed before having my kids. So I can’t speak personally to how difficult it is to transition to self-employment as a new parent. For people who have never been self-employed and always have relied on a regular job for a paycheck, the transition may be more jarring and scary. But with the right planning and mindset to get over the start-up bumps, I think many people will find that self-employment offers an incredible gift of life flexibility. (One of my favorite bloggers, Pam Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation and a blog of the same title, really excels in strategies to help 9-to-5-ers conquer their fears of leaving regular employment.) To me, flexibility is worth its weight in gold, especially as a new mom.
I also think that self-employment was an essential way for me to remain engaged in my career — even if only minimally — which is incredibly helpful right now as I’m slowly ramping back up to speed in anticipation of my youngest starting preschool in the fall. It’s hard enough to kick myself into gear and generate new momentum even though I never actually stopped working. It makes me realize how hard it would be to get back into work if I had really taken a few years off (like “off” off). A lot of women I know who totally left work for a while say they have really struggled with re-entry, and in my current ramp-up stage I can see even more clearly how hard it can be.
The answer to the question in the post’s title was answered last, and I laughed out loud at her answer:
Is there a “right” time for a mom to start a business?
What is right for me may not be right for other moms. What worked well for me was to start slowly when the kids were small. Now that they are leaving for college, I have a full-blown distraction. It is better than being medicated.