The thought of returning to work after maternity leave can be off-putting, even downright depressing. It's hard to imagine packing up for a day in the office away from baby's wiggly toes. But for many women, being a stay-at-home mom is simply not an option. While businesses are becoming more family-friendly, not all offer part-time or flex-time schedules. Women who do negotiate the coveted spots may find themselves on the "Mommy Track", relegated to stagnant, low-paying positions, says Professor Joan Williams, director of the program on Gender, Work and Family at American University in Washington, D.C. and author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. If you’re unable to strike a compromise, maybe it's time to consider going it alone. According to Small Business Administration (SBA) statistics, female-owned firms increased at two times the rate of all firms last year, for a total of 6.2 million female-owned businesses. Take advantage of maternity leave to lay the groundwork of your entrepreneurial future, beginning with these 10 steps:
1. Leverage Your Experience As a new mom, you can expect many days when you will feel tired. Choose a business based on a job you can practically do in your sleep. One that is second nature provides a sense of comfort on new ground, and puts you ahead of the competition. After 20 years in public relations, Noreen Heron Zautcke was accustomed to high-stress and a fast pace. "I knew what I was doing would help me down the road," says Zautcke, founder of Noreen Heron and Associates. When her son was born, becoming an independent was a natural next step.
2. Build on Existing Relationships Staying within an industry provides more than familiar work: It provides a network of meaningful business contacts. "If you can parlay the company you’re working for with some sort of workload, it’s a real security blanket," says Zautcke, whose former employer became a good source of regular business. Look beyond your department to the larger organization and business affiliations for client potential. A good referral might be your shoe-in.
3. Pick a Passion What little energy new mothers do have tends to be hyper-focused on baby. That leaves tasks that are pure drudgery trailing on the priority list. While your baby’s needs will always come first, find a business venture you’re excited about to ensure continued enthusiasm. In her second pregnancy after four years of infertility and miscarriages, Fern Reiss was inspired to write The Infertility Diet: Get Pregnant and Prevent Miscarriage. What followed was the birth of her publishing house, Peanut Butter and Jelly Press. "Part of it might have been the hormone frenzy," Reiss admits, "but if you’re passionate about staying home with the kids and working at something you enjoy, chances are good that you will be successful."
4. Find a Sounding Board As much as we hate to admit it, hormones on high during pregnancy — and resetting for a good year thereafter — can affect good judgment. Tone down passions with a dose of reality from a trusted friend or relative. Theresa Lake, founder of the gift-basket company Wrapped In Love.com, bounced ideas off her spouse. "I was one of those people lying awake at night, brainstorming." She considered many other business concepts before deciding on an Internet-based gift-basket company. Prudent planning and a bit of luck placed her executive gifting line in the top 10 most popular on Yahoo! for nine months.
5. Look to a Mentor Jumpstart your business by building on the experience of seasoned professionals as mentors, says Melinda Powelson, founder and President of the Internet strategy and development firm, o2 Group. She called upon her father, who had a 25-year-old business, to help work through gaps in her business plan. An esteemed business associate or entrepreneurial relative might fit the mentor bill, as would someone from the SBA’s Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a group of retired businesspeople whose experience can save fledgling owners many mistakes. Or look to networks of working mothers, like Moms, Incorporated, says Powelson. "There are a lot of other people who are in the same boat, trying hard to raise a child and run a successful business," she points out.
6. Accept Help Most pregnant women learn early on to accept help whenever it’s offered. When starting a business, those helping hands are invaluable. "I asked my family and husband for a lot of support," says Zautcke. "I would never have traditionally asked them to help." She suggests reaching out to as many resources as you have, whether it’s your mom, your sister or a trusted friend. "I knew I had to do as much as I could before the baby came," says Zautcke. She advises making arrangements, in particular, for the first few weeks after delivery so clients are taken care of — so you take care of yourself and baby. The more planning is done in advance, she says, the more comfortable you will feel letting others help with the business while you get situated to life with baby.
7. Find a Partner Motivation, whether for an exercise or business plan, is more easily maintained when you’ve committed to a friend. Jennifer Schenk found an ideal partner in her mom. The two founded Jennilee’s for Babies and Children, where they design custom bedding and decor for juvenile rooms. "We think so much alike, and are so much alike, and trust each other completely," says Schenk. She says having a partner is key to making a business a reality — versus "pie in the sky". Schenk doesn’t think twice about coming in late if the baby has been sick or if she has had a sleepless night. She says having a partner with shared goals makes that possible.
8. Brace for Financial Sacrifices A new baby impacts the family budget with expenses ranging from diapers to costly baby gear. That, combined with business start-up costs, warrants serious re-evaluation of the family finances. It’s good practice to sock away savings and cut back on extras as soon as you think you might start a business. Schenk advises looking at all your financial options before taking out a business loan. In addition, she suggests, "Take the time to file the necessary paperwork to protect your family and home from liability." In short, be prepared to make financial sacrifices.
9. Look to the Long-term Reiss captures her company strategy in a business plan that extends out three years. She has learned that when a baby is in the infant stage, it’s easy enough to work as baby sleeps. But it’s harder to anticipate the changing needs of the baby and business going forward, says Reiss. "I re-do the whole thing every year," she admits. She says having a sound business plan in place is crucial to staying focused on the company direction.
10. Roll Up Your Sleeves A successful business takes a real commitment and a lot of hard work during a time in your life that can be overwhelming on its own. Powelson sees parallels between the challenges of starting a business and motherhood. For instance, she says, "Getting your first client is a lot like breastfeeding: It’s not as easy as you thought it would be." Lake recalls many a time when she’s been emailing customers, nursing her baby and playing Candyland with her older child. She says many moms underestimate the effort and time involved in a home business. Given the alternatives, Lake says, it’s a small sacrifice for the chance to watch her business and her baby grow.