Every so often, Cara Rosenbloom goes to work in her pyjamas—and her boss doesn’t mind. That’s because Rosenbloom owns her own company, her office is just down the hall from her bedroom, and the only boss in her life is her 22-month-old daughter, Kasey. A registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition communications, Rosenbloom spent almost seven years in the trenches of corporate Canada, and although she enjoyed her jobs, she began to consider self-employment during her pregnancy in 2006. Before her year-long maternity leave was up, she had launched Words to Eat By, a one-woman nutrition communications company based in her Toronto home.
She isn’t alone. There are nearly a million self-employed women in Canada, and many are mothers who opted to drop out of the career rat race. It’s easy to see why “mom entrepreneurship” is so popular—what mom wouldn’t want to choose her own work hours and spend more time with her kids while pursuing her passion and potentially building a nest egg for her family?
It doesn’t always work out that way, though. Starting a business requires long hours, and that can seriously tax your confidence, your bank balance—even your relationships. And that’s only if your company survives. The cold reality is that fewer than half of small businesses live to celebrate their third anniversary. Yes, entrepreneurship has rewards, but it’s also risky business. Is it for you? Answer these questions to find out.
Are you persistent, thick-skinned and decisive?
Although more than one personality type can succeed in business, certain qualities will help you weather the challenges entrepreneurship is sure to bring. Dogged perseverance is one, says Kristi Harris, inventor of Ice Armor, an all-in-one protective hockey suit for kids. “I could easily have given up when the major hockey-equipment manufacturers snubbed me,” she says. “But that just fuelled my fire.” Harris dreamed up the idea as she prepared her son, then five, for a game. “It was after a crazy scene in the locker room,” she recalls. “The parents and even the kids were frustrated by all the equipment. I asked myself, why can’t the equipment be all in one piece?”
If you find it hard to make important decisions, and stick with them, entrepreneurship might not be right for you. “Entrepreneurs have to make decisions on a dime, and stand behind them,” says Victoria Sopik, president and co-founder of Kids & Company Ltd., a national chain of daycares she found time to launch in 2001 while also managing her household of eight children. “When faced with a problem, do you require collaborative answers? Because there’s no time to ask all your friends and your husband what they think,” Sopik says. “Just like being a parent, you have to be responsible for the consequences of your actions.”
Are you willing to balance passion with practicality?
You have to love what you do, of course. But you may be more successful if you do what you already know.
“Be very careful about changing sectors,” warns Barbara Orser, Deloitte Professor in the Management of Growth Enterprises at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. Following your passion is wonderful in theory, but if you’re relying on your new company to support your family, it may be more practical to use the knowledge and skills you’ve built over the years as an employee. If you’re lucky, you enjoy your current line of work and can parlay that passion into your business, as Rosenbloom did.
Have you done your homework?
You have a fantastic product or service, and your market research suggests that it will sell. That’s a good start. But companies live or die by their owners’ business savvy, not just the quality of their products, says Orser. Do you know what you offer that your competitors don’t? Does your product allow you to make a good margin—that is, the difference between what you pay to make the product and what you can sell it for? Have you learned about all the sources of financing available to small-business owners? If you can’t answer these questions, you may not be quite ready to launch a company.
Can you line up top-notch child care?
Running a company requires focus and concentration—an almost impossible feat with a baby on your lap. “I believe investing in quality daycare results in a much higher likelihood of a business being sustained,” says Orser, who has seen many mom entrepreneurs quickly burn out after trying to take care of their kids full-time while simultaneously hustling business. It can work for a while, but Orser warns against it for the long term. “Working during naps is not sustainable,” she says. For one thing, naps aren’t long or frequent enough to get much work done. And it can be hard to schedule phone conversations when you don’t know exactly what time your little one will be asleep.
Are you prepared to live (even more) frugally for a while?
As a business owner, you get to keep all your company’s profits. Unfortunately, there may not be any for a while. The average Canadian self-employed mom makes less than she did as a paid employee, especially when you take into account the loss of health benefits, pension and maternity pay for babies she has after striking out on her own. And if you ever choose to return to your nine-to-five job, you may not make as much as if you had never left.
Despite being far more successful than the average inventor, it still took Harris five years just to make back the money she spent developing Ice Armor. Like most entrepreneurs, Harris dug into her family’s savings, spending thousands to produce the product prototype and apply for a patent. Although she managed to secure a licensing deal with a European hockey-equipment manufacturer in 2005 that pays her a royalty for every Ice Armor sold, the business has yet to make her rich. “I’m hoping this is going to pay off financially down the road,” Harris says. “Right now, it’s just a little extra that wasn’t there before.”
Can you accept your work and personal life blending together?
The flexibility that comes with entrepreneurship is one of its biggest draws. Tamar Wagman, a mom of two and co-founder of Sweetpea Baby Food, is able to do daytime programs with her one-year-old daughter—impossible had she continued with her previous career as an event planner.
On the flip side, however, an entrepreneur’s work never goes away. You may find you have to work evenings, weekends and holidays. “It’s not nine-to-five,” says Wagman, who started Sweetpea with her childhood friend Eryn Green. “Issues come up on off-hours that need to be dealt with, and that can be a negative.” And planning a vacation, Rosenbloom adds, is next to impossible.
Sopik has made a point of not feeling guilty when her business takes a lot of her time. “I never apologize if I’m at a hockey game and I have to step away to take a business call,” she says. “We work so we can live. I’d love to be watching the game, but at least I’m there.” In fact, Sopik believes her long hours and bouts of stress have a positive effect on her children. “It’s really great for kids to see the challenges of the business from a young age because it helps them realize what they choose to do isn’t necessarily going to be wonderful and easy.”
Still, despite the challenges, entrepreneurship can be gratifying in surprising ways, as Harris discovered recently when her eight-year-old son was asked to write a biography of someone important for his class. “He did me, his mom—an inventor,” she beams. “In the eyes of my kids, I’m pretty cool.”
Surviving the first year
Launching a business while raising a family could be the hardest thing you ever do. Here are some ways to help weather the start-up storm.
Network, network, network Seek advice from industry peers and fellow entrepreneurs. Simply call or email business owners you find online or learn about by word of mouth, and you’ll be surprised how many are willing to give their time, and talk about their business. Also consider attending business networking groups for women; you’ll find them listed in local business event calendars online and in the newspaper. Besides support and advice, you may drum up a few new customers!
Stay real Launching a business is like renovating a home: It almost always takes longer and costs more than you predicted. Keep your expectations modest so you can be surprised by your modest success.
Spend smart Save whenever you can—but splurge where it counts. Instead of shelling out for an advertising campaign, the co-founders of Sweetpea Baby Food came up with a clever initiative where new moms are paid in baby food to promote Sweetpea in communities across the country. On the other hand, the pair smartly spent thousands to get help with things that are very difficult to do right and too important to get wrong — applying for federal government tax credits and creating their products’ labels, which must follow strict rules.
Price your product right The fastest way to go out of business is to set your prices too low. Charge enough to sustain your business from day one or you risk having to increase your prices later—something customers won’t appreciate.
Try this! Two-minute lesson in market research
You’re psyched about your product idea, and your friends and family are too. Great! But you really need objective opinions and information to be sure your product is unique and will sell. Start by reading published reports about your industry, such as those on Industry Canada’s website. Then contact your potential customers. For example, before launching Sweetpea Baby Food, the company’s co-founders created an electronic survey, which they sent to friends and members of focus groups, then allowed to go viral on the web. The responses helped them gauge parents’ willingness to buy frozen organic baby food and how much they’d be willing to spend on it. They also met with grocery store managers to ask whether the product existed in Canada and if customers were likely to buy it.