What Motherhood Taught Me About Running a Business

What Motherhood Taught Me
Entrepreneurship and motherhood don’t seem to have much in common. Until you start counting all the skills you’ve gained from years of multitasking, mediating fights, organizing homework and washing thousands of loads of laundry. After 22 years of motherhood, I can say that I’ve learned a lot about kids. And about how to run a business. Because the two endeavors? Aren’t so different after all.

I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. At age six, I painted rocks with poster paint and dragged my little sister (who was younger and cuter than me) around the neighborhood to sell them for 50 cents apiece. In high school, I ran my own dance studio out of my parents’ basement. Then I took a long break from entrepreneurship to raise kids, get an English degree and find a real grown up job as a writer for Signs.com.

But ultimately, I couldn’t stay away from the lure of small business ownership forever, and last year I started a small online company with my husband. At first, I worried that neither of us had any business experience. But then I realized that I had spent the last twenty years gaining all kinds of mad business skills… by being a mom.

You should always have an extra clean shirt handy.

Blouse2There’s a time in every mom’s life when grooming and personal hygiene fall by the wayside due to lack of sleep. It’s OK—we all lapse into sweatpants mode at some point. But somehow, in the midst of suffering from sheer exhaustion, at some point you’ll find yourself getting spiffed up for a luncheon with your thin, rich, childless friends. You’ll search through your closet to find the one halfway decent blouse that still (kind of) fits, shove your pudgy self into it and rush to change the baby’s diaper before the sitter arrives. As you pick baby up off the changing table and lift him to your shoulder, he’ll puke. All over you. And all over your one decent blouse.

Now what? If you don’t have another blouse, hopefully you have a cute dress that will suffice in a pinch. Because changing back into those sweatpants isn’t an option.

When you’re running a business, you’ve got to have a backup ready for when things go wrong. And they will go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. You’ll get a huge custom order ready to ship, then drop the box on your way to the car, shattering every single item. Your website will crash and you’ll lose an entire day’s worth of profits. Your kiln will break three days before Black Friday and need a $500 repair. When you’re running a business, you need a backup plan.

It’s possible, even preferable to do three things at once.

Preparing lunchWhen my kids were in grade school, I became a wiz at preparing peanut butter sandwiches (with crusts removed) for lunchboxes while combing and attempting to curl my daughter’s hair and simultaneously quizzing my son on his spelling words. I was on a deadline (the bus waits for no man—or second grader), and it all had to get done. So it did.

Running a business often requires multitasking, too. I’ve talked to customers on the phone while looking up their tracking information online and helping my husband search all over the house to find the packing tape, which has mysteriously disappeared—again— from the shipping table. Multitasking is a skill for which there is no comparison. I’m not aware of any business school classes that teach it, but you can learn it for free by becoming a mom.

You’ll learn as you go.

BabyWhen I was expecting my first child, I read every baby book in print. I obsessed about which diapers to buy, which baby food was sufficiently organic and which developmentally-approved mobile would guarantee a 50 point increase in IQ. Then he was born. And they handed him to me, all wrapped in his little swaddling blanket with his cute little hat. And he started to cry. And I realized that I had absolutely no idea what to do with him.

A business is much the same way. You can read a dozen business blogs, watch TED talks with marketing gurus and SEO kings, even get an MBA at a fancy private school. You might think you’re sooo ready to take on the business world. But when you open your door and the first customer walks in, you’re going to freeze. You’ll have absolutely no idea what to do with him.

But somehow, instinct kicks in. And you figure out that if you don’t magically know the answer, you can use the trial-and-error method to get it right eventually. This works with babies (at least it did with mine—they’re all still alive and healthy). And it works with businesses, too. Is it a good idea to do lots of research beforehand? Absolutely. But if you don’t know exactly what to do every moment of every day, it’s OK. You’ll figure it out. Hopefully before you go out of business.

You’re in this for the long haul.

When my children were young, I didn’t really think about them growing up. Or about how long that would take. Until one late evening, when my oldest son was about nine years old and we were sitting at the kitchen table, working on a Native American Diorama project. And reality came crashing down.

drinksEarlier, I had supervised bath time, read with the child, given him milk and sent him to bed. An hour later, he appeared in the family room. “Mom, I forgot that I have this Native American Diorama project due tomorrow. Do we have an extra shoe box? And some white handkerchiefs and wooden skewers to make a teepee? And some craft glue and construction paper and moss to make realistic looking prairie grass?” I thought to myself: Of course we do (are you kidding me?) And it’s only 10:30 pm, so I’m sure there are plenty of stores open so that we can go buy handkerchiefs, skewers, moss and a pair of shoes we don’t even need just so we can get a box for a stupid diorama. I think I also thought to myself: Could I fake like I am going to the store, but really drive that minivan all the way to Vegas where I could order drinks with umbrellas and sit by the pool and avoid dioramas all together? Then I calmly replied, “Son, when did your teacher give you this assignment?” He looked at the floor and mumbled, “Oh, a couple weeks ago. I have a note. In the bottom of my backpack.”

So an hour later, after scrounging up all the materials needed to teach my son how to make a faux teepee in a shoebox so that he can get a feel for what it was really like to be a Native American and live on the prairie, we were sitting at the kitchen table, bleary-eyed but determined to get the assignment done. I remember looking over at the child, who was earnestly attempting to glue wooden skewers together to form a teepee frame, and thinking: I still have 9 years of this. Nine long years of staying up until 2 a.m. to build a Native American diorama, and then getting up at 6 a.m. to shower so I can look presentable enough to drive the kid to school and walk him to class because everyone knows you can’t get on a school bus with a fragile diorama. Nine more years of dioramas and science fair projects and 5-page papers about the Civil War.

Well, I got through it. The forgetful child is now 22, and I managed to raise him (and his siblings) without running away to Vegas in the middle of the night. I was in it for the long haul, no matter what. And you know what? Aside from those half dozen other dioramas, most of raising children was actually pretty fun. Better even than umbrella drinks by the pool in Vegas.

You have to approach your business with the same dedication you bring to the Native American diorama. Some nights it feels like you’ll never get to the point with your business where you can just relax a little. You feel as though you’ll never have enough sleep, enough knowledge, enough energy. The thing is, you can’t run away to Vegas in the middle of the night. When you start a business, you’re in it. For the long haul. But you’ll manage to have some fun along the way. And you might just be surprised how fast 9 years goes by.