Baby steps: Parenting as a founder
Founders sound off on what they've learned about their businesses after having kids.
Written by Rae Witte
Illustrations by Sean Dong
When Lauren Wang was 29-years-old and preparing to launch sustainable menstrual products brand Flex, she looked for a female co-founder who could understand the product and its customers well. But she struggled to find a woman to start the company with.
“A lot of women that I worked with then were getting married,” she remembers. “Many told me privately what they would never say publicly — they were trying to have kids and felt like they wouldn't be able to work at a startup or start a company at the same time.”
She ended up asking a male friend to be her cofounder. They launched Flex, fell in love, got married, and eventually started a family. And Wang continued to run her business.
Wang is among a cohort of founders combating what they say is a popular misconception — that there’s not enough time to be both a good parent and a good founder. Since Wang has become a parent, Flex, which is Y Combinator-backed and has raised $7.7M in funding, has gone from burning cash to profitability. Wang also shares that they’ve signed a partnership deal with Walmart, expanded to Canada, and launched three new products.
Being a mom has also helped Wang in other ways, like helping her make better decisions on what to spend time on — for Wang, those are her relationships with herself, her husband, her children, and her family. “I have somehow found more time to do those things. It's time that I thought that I didn't have before because I was quote, unquote, so dedicated to work,” she says to me, online for a few hours during maternity leave with her second child. “The company is also growing better than ever before.”
“Startup culture has a lot of great things to aspire to, but there are also a lot of things that are not so positive,” says Chase Payne, founder of early-stage fantasy sports startup Champions Round. “The idea that a dependency or a household is something that takes you away from the business is one of these misnomers that's just not true. [A family and a startup] can evolve with you as a person just as much as everything else in your life.”
All of the founders interviewed share that having children helped them move away from some of what they describe as the more negative aspects of entrepreneurship, including the quiet obligation to work around the clock.
Wang had already been drifting in this direction. Within two years, her husband stepped away from daily operations at Flex and took a board seat. “It was too much Flex all the time. We wanted a little bit of separation between our work life and personal life,” she says. “I was way out of balance when it came to work before having a kid. I would have no issue working until like, two o'clock in the morning.”
“With a newborn and a young kid, you become so hyper aware of the passage of weeks and months of time because that’s how you’re measuring their age,” says Sahil Bloom, founder of The Room Where It Happens. “That’s led to ruthless prioritization for me.”
Payne, too, had his first child while running Champions Round, which has raised $2M. Now, he has a strict no-meetings-before-9AM policy — he uses that time to get his kids ready for school. “I have done enough A/B testing around working really late or prepping more,” he says. “Fuck all of that. I need sleep, and we want to do certain things together as a family. I have identified that if I have to rush anything or compromise that morning time to get the kids out the door, then things fall apart.”
Yoga studio chain Y7’s founder Sarah Larson describes having a child almost like a forcing function to slow down and strategize more about where she spent her time. She says her go, go, go lifestyle ran out of gas long before her son came into the picture during the pandemic. For two years, she worked a full-time job in fashion in New York City. As she opened the chain’s first three locations, she’d wake up at 5:30AM, open a studio by 7:00AM, do a check in for the 7:00AM and 8:15AM classes, then head to her full-time job. “I would work my 9-to-5 which, as a New Yorker, was really 9-to-6 or 9-to-7,” she says.
After wrapping up her day, she’d head back to a studio, do the check in for the 7PM and 8:15PM classes, participate in the 8:15PM class, grab take out and make it home by 10:30PM, eat and do it all over again the next day.
“I was getting to a point where I couldn’t do either job well,” Larson says. So she quit her full-time job and put everything into expanding Y7 from the existing three locations. And after she had her son during the pandemic, Larson found that her focus truly began to shift from being all about work. She says becoming a mother has helped her grow more patient.
For example, if something is running a little late, she finds herself asking if she needs it that second and why. “I think in general I’ve found a bit more empathy,” she says. “I've mellowed out a little bit, because sometimes my child throws a fit and throws a toy car at my face.”
Having children has also influenced how Payne manages his own time, particularly what he decides what to prioritize. Before kids, he was still hands on with the company’s work. At times, he felt that he was not delegating enough or knowing where to ask for help.
“With kids, there are these limits that you can't go past that have allowed me to be more thoughtful around approaching where I can have the biggest impact,” he says. “If I'm in the weeds everyday, something's wrong.”
That empathy translates to how founders treat their teams. Sick kids can lead to rescheduled meetings or slightly missed deadlines. Childcare can’t always come through. “Not everybody has the freedom to be so open about having kids at work, and since I am my own boss I do try to normalize that for everyone,” Molly Beck, CEO and founder of Messy.fm says. She has three sons and found out she was pregnant with her first the week she launched Messy.
“I’ve really tried to normalize breastfeeding, and sometimes I nurse on calls with other people,” Beck said. She will have her camera off and typically let the person know it’s off because she’s feeding the baby. “Sometimes, this is how you have to get it done when you’re on the baby’s schedule, and I don't think if I worked for [someone else’s] company, I wouldn’t feel comfortable breastfeeding on a call.”
Daniel Murray-Serter, CEO of brain care company Your Heights doesn’t miss his 6:15PM bathtime with his 13-month-old daughter. Payne’s mornings require his son to be at kindergarten and his daughter at infant daycare by 8:30AM. Wang and her husband prioritize dinner and bathtime with their two kids religiously.
“Someone told me once – and I think this is good advice – it's hard to schedule anything, but it's easy to have a routine,” says Beck. So Beck keeps her schedule flexible, with space to change it up if there’s a need.
For many, becoming a better founder has also extended to the benefits they’ve offered their employees. Murray-Serter, who squeezed his interview in right before Friday evening bath with his child, heavily researched paternity leave — he was the first person at Your Heights to use it. “I learned it's helpful to have dad around for the first couple weeks because there's obvious pain and mums need help,” he said. “But after that, the baby's basically a potato relying on mum so much, and dad is a total waste of space, which by the way, I've now experienced is 100% true.”
Your Heights’ paternity leave policy offers four weeks paid time off that can be taken at any cadence over a six month period. For example, Murray-Serter stayed offline for the first two weeks, then leveraged the remainder of his leave to take Monday or Friday off for the next few weeks.
It’s not always easy to provide these benefits. All of Larson’s employees are benefits eligible, meaning they are eligible for insurance coverage. “That means that my payroll costs are about two and a half times what it actually looks like on paper,” says Larson. “For an $80,000 salary, I'm probably paying closer to $180 to 190,000 with benefits and everything included.”
"The idea that a dependency or a household can take you away from your business is just not true," says Chase Payne, founder of Champions Round
Nick Bodkins, founder of non-alcoholic drink marketplace Boisson, speaks to me from the passenger seat of his car. His wife drives and his daughter is in the back. He compares parenting alongside launching Boisson to finding an extra gear — as he's been raising his daughter, his company has raised $12M in seed funding.
His wife underwent in vitro fertilization (IVF) in order to get pregnant with their daughter. “Mia was born four weeks early, and it was basically a normal hospital stay,” he says. “She didn't go to the ICU or anything. It was a six figure bill at the end for like less than 72 hours in the hospital.”
So he provides high-quality insurance, even if it's expensive. It’s something he’s communicated with investors. “If we fail because I gave my employees great health insurance, we've made a number of other significant errors in our business,” he says.
And for some founders, parenting has convinced them of the need to keep their teams slim. Bloom explains that he’s wanted to become a father as long as he can remember — and that has deeply influenced the type of business he wants to build. “I think it’s important to identify the game you’re playing,” he says. “There are some entrepreneurs who measure success by wanting to change the world and build something revolutionary. But I’m not that way. I don’t have thousands of employees, I’m not looking to raise money from investors. And that has helped me focus my time.”
Recently, Beck began to read The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Leiber. The book highlighted how giving children allowances for chores teaches them that hard work can lead to getting paid.
“If you want to raise entrepreneurial kids, one idea would be to say, ‘This is your allowance,’” says Beck. “For anything beyond that, if you see a problem in our house, you can come to me and tell me how you'd solve it. We'll work out a price’ because entrepreneurs solve problems.”
Her child decided that their dog wasn’t getting enough exercise. The fix he proposed was to walk and run with him more. So they set a price, her son got to hold the leash (a big deal for him), and they fixed the “problem” together.
“Both startups and children are taking something that is a lump of clay and molding it into something that is bigger and better and hopefully will go further than you ever imagined,” says Beck. “In parenthood, that's your child. They come as who they are, but you can help guide them into something more. With your company, it starts with an idea, but then that idea changes and you can help grow it, shape it, and introduce it to the right people."
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