Regular readers know how much I hate the whole “Woe is me, I’m a woman in Silicon Valley” routine. And that’s sort of why I find myself compelled to do something I hate and write a column about being a woman in Silicon Valley.
For many years I put off having children, because my job meant the world to me, and I didn’t believe women could have it all. I had heard from woman-after-woman who said one of two things. The first was that something deep in her personality mysteriously changed once she had kids.
One-time bad ass corporate ball-busters, suddenly wanted to stay home and play paddy cake. That horrified me. Equally as scary were reports that the toll of raising children– the sleepless nights, the school plays, the physical necessities of child birth, the things that fall to mommy and no one else– were such a handicap that no great career strides could be made post-kid.
Posts like this one arguing categorically that you just couldn’t work night and day building a company and have children didn’t help matters. Mostly because as someone without kids I bought it.
It seemed a better theory of why more women weren’t starting companies than most. I’ve never been a believer of the naive and over simplistic theory that men simply refuse to fund female entrepreneurs and that’s why there aren’t more of them. For one thing, it’s not my experience– or the experience of many others I know. Last week, I spoke on a panel about the topic for the Golden Gate Mothers Group. All three of us on the panel had raised funding from major investors. None experienced sexism in the process. I’m not saying it never happens, but it’s simply not the rule.
For another thing, who cares if there is rampant sexism? Entrepreneurship isn’t something someone hands you on a silver platter. The roots of Silicon Valley are full of stories of immigrants and minority groups who experienced bigotry and made it anyway. Why should women be any different?
Instead, I’ve always believed there was an element of choice here and that not as many women were choosing to start companies, then there was the usual Darwinian winnowing out of the field, and at the end of it we had far fewer female entrepreneurs than we’d all like. That reason didn’t seem to be ideas, management chops or ambition. Indeed, there are more women-owned small business than male-owned small businesses in this country. The women just don’t seem to build high-growth, venture backed companies.
It’s not as simple as women aren’t good at tech– recent studies have shown that as many women are going into tech as men.
That left the reason many women didn’t take this career route to a biological one: Kids. So after years of writing books, bootstrapping crazy projects, working four jobs at a time, and traveling to dangerous and far flung parts of the world, I decided that finally I’d done enough with my career that I could get pregnant, and luckily, I did. “Get ready to feel like you are constantly failing,” other working moms told me.
I knew work-life balance would be a challenge, but this was post-TechCrunch’s acquisition and I was secure in my first full-time, highly paid corporate job in, well… ever. And I was lined up for a pretty sweet promotion. If there was a time to do this, it was now.
We all know how that worked out…
Six weeks after giving birth, I boarded a plane to China to run Disrupt Beijing– a conference I had worked on for close on two years. I was surprised by how the physical toll of childbirth was still slowing me down, frustrated that I had to re-work the agenda so that I could leave the stage to pump breast milk every four hours when my co-host got snowed into New York.
But I wasn’t experiencing something nearly everyone said I would: I wasn’t cripplingly, emotionally depressed to leave my baby. I was able to compartmentalize, and focus on accomplishing a goal I’d worked on for two years. My baby was in good hands and as grueling as it was, it didn’t feel as undoable as people had suggested. And that gave me the courage to do something that those same people would tell me was even crazier: Quit my job to devote the rest of my career to building a huge, next generation media company. When I got back home, I grabbed the car seat and took Eli to a dozen or so firms raising money. No one balked and the round was over-subscribed. Then the hard part began.
Six months in, I’m reflecting a lot on the journey so far. And I feel an obligation to say one thing to women out there who like me put off having children or starting a company because they were terrified into thinking they can’t have it all. You can have it all. But there are two important caveats in that: You can’t have it all, all at once. For instance, I can’t travel the world anymore, but that’s ok, I did that for two years. More to the point: You have to decide what “it all” is to you.
I can no longer pick up and fly to Africa on a whim. I can no longer fit into a size four designer dress. I can no longer afford a size four designer dress. I can’t go see a movie pretty much ever. I don’t get to sleep very much. I never get a Saturday to just unplug. Sometimes, when I travel, I have to check a bag, and I’ve long prided myself on never checking a bag no matter how long I was gone or how many continents I was traveling to. Many of my friendships are neglected.
But what I have is a company that I own the majority of that is the culmination of everything I’ve worked for in my career. That company has exceeded expectations in traffic, quality and revenue for the first six months of its existence. I have an incredibly devoted team who have adopted this vision as their own. I have an incredibly talented husband is also doing his dream job. We have a healthy, happy baby. And so far, I feel a lot of things, but constant crippling guilt that I’m not a better mother isn’t one of them. I feel exhausted, proud and lucky instead.
Is having a baby and a new company easy? Of course not. But neither of those would be easy on its own. Don’t listen to people who tell you otherwise, if you want it badly enough, It’s immensely do-able. The thought I have most days: This is not as hard as I thought it’d be.
What’s more, while my case might be rare, I am not alone. Not by a longshot.
Indeed, since I’ve been on this journey, I’ve talked to a handful of entrepreneurs who feel like having young children has actually made them better at building whatever it is they are building.
Tina Sharkey who recently left as CEO of BabyCenter said it made her more focused and effective, because there were natural constraints around her day. She couldn’t take a break to play video games or foosball. The break came at the end of the day when she saw her kids.
Julia Hartz, co-founder of Eventbrite was on that same Golden Gate Mothers Group panel with me last week and backed that up by saying mom entrepreneurs are insanely great at multi-tasking and being efficient because you can’t work 18 hours everyday and get any amount of sleep. Like most moms, I have to squeeze 18 hours a day of work into about 12 hours. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for wasting time, and ultimately that makes me better at what I do.
Tom Serres was a single dad when he was starting Rally, and while bootstrapping the company, he relied on a network of baby sitters. It wasn’t easy, and it’s put his journey in perspective. Now that he has venture funding, a girlfriend who shoulders half the load at home and a more complete team in place, Rally’s ambitious plan for the next few years seems comparatively doable.
While not a mother or a single dad, RebelMouse’s Paul Berry and I also had a conversation about having small children and starting a new company. He too got the “you’re crazy to do this!” speech. He has found that being forced to turn off your focus on the company and move it to the back of your mind to focus on your kids for an hour or so per day, makes him a better entrepreneur. Indeed, it’s lead to many of his breakthrough a-ha! moments.
It’s similar to how breakthroughs come when you are running or taking a shower. When you aren’t laser focused on a problem, typically the answers come. It’s not too different than Matt Mullenweg’s explanation at PandoMonthly of why he is a more effective entrepreneur living in New York City, where other interests like art and jazz give him a break.
Six months in, there’s another clear way my being a mother to a newborn has helped make PandoDaily stronger: I can not be a control freak. I can not do everything in the company. I have to pick and chose what is most important for me to focus on, and delegate the rest. I have been forced to prioritize building a team, and invest large portions of my time mentoring that team so I can rely on them to be as important to PandoDaily’s editorial voice as I am.
Six months in, and I don’t break the majority of the news on our site. PandoDaily is its own thing and much less my blog, than TechCrunch was Michael Arrington’s blog, GigaOm was Om’s blog or All Things D was Kara’s blog at this point in those histories. That gives us a better shot of building something for the long term, than we might have if I was writing six stories a day. One person cannot single-handedly carry a news organization forever. I’m not only spending time with my baby; I’m preventing my own blogger burn out.
What’s more: This will get worse before it gets better. I don’t plan on Eli being an only child, and I plan on doing this job for the rest of my career. So in the back of my mind is shoring up the team to a point where I can take six weeks off to give birth and recover. In addition to a practical reality, it’s a healthy thought exercise on what would happen if I couldn’t work for a month that affects how I hire and run the company day-to-day. That’s important because our investors didn’t just invest in me, they invested in a company that needs to be something more.
PandoDaily is based out of my house, and while many startups have a dog crawling around, we have a baby crawling around. Indeed, I try to take Eli with me on most of my trips. (You probably saw him in the background of the lifestream of our interview with Elon Musk.) I try to work him into my life as much as possible. I can’t speak for my employees who occasionally listen to tantrums while they grill sources for news and all got a different version of the same cold a few weeks ago. But for me, little 30-second hug breaks throughout the day or glancing over to see Eli standing without holding on for the first time make me feel like I’m not missing out.
This is not to say there aren’t very real issues that come up. There were several times in the early days of PandoDaily that I was late on a story, because I was writing it one-handed while breastfeeding. That’s not easy. I meant to write this post last weekend as a way of organizing my thoughts before my Golden Gate Mom’s Club event. Eli decided to cry most of the day and fight the nap, while my husband was out of town and I had no back up. Getting back into shape has proven a challenge it wouldn’t be if I had a more cushy job.
And there’s a very real financial issue that is a problem for many women. We don’t have much in the way of savings, and unlike Tom Serres, I could not have bootstrapped this company. We have no family in San Francisco, and my husband works out of state half of the month. Because my job doesn’t conform to daycare hours, I had to make enough to afford 70-hours a week of child care, and I wanted to feel good about the person I hired.
While I took a huge pay cut to start PandoDaily, I still make the upper-reaches of what a startup CEO should make. That’s a very real burden on our burn rate. And still, the bulk of my take-home pay goes to my amazing nanny. Because I have many more years of slogging away before I’d feel OK giving myself a raise, this means we live on a very tight budget in an expensive city. But that’s all very worth it.
Do I have it all? Hardly. Most days I’m lucky to shower. I can only hope that one day scientists discover that baby vomit is a great hair conditioner. But I have it a hell of a lot easier than a single mother working three jobs and feeding her kids on foodstamps. I have it a hell of a lot easier than many working women I’ve met in emerging markets. And I have it a hell of a lot better than if I’d stayed in my old, safe, highly paid corporate job.
Here’s the reality: Even if I didn’t want to work, if I want to live in an expensive city like San Francisco, I have to. And the job that I’m good at doesn’t really do nine-to-five hours. I love my baby and if I’m going to spend 70-80 hours a week away from him, I’d much rather be doing it to build something I believe in that I think the world needs than just doing a job.
Sometimes in our zeal to be taken seriously as entrepreneurs who happen to be women, there’s a sense that we have to pretend we aren’t women, that we don’t have to chose and that the tension between biology and business ambition simply doesn’t exist. (Ben Horowitz talked about this a bit at last month’s PandoMonthly.) In the vacuum of women not wanting to talk about how they are doing it, we get depressing and fear-based articles like this one in the Atlantic equating one woman’s experience with a manifesto that all women everywhere simply couldn’t have both. That’s like one failed entrepreneur crying that Silicon Valley as a whole doesn’t work. Not everything works out in life or business, whether you have a baby or not. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
You may not be able to have it all, but if you want it badly enough you can certainly have two things: A healthy, growing company and a healthy, growing family. And don’t let link-bait articles and blog posts tell you otherwise. If you believe it; do it. The rest will work itself out.