Parenthood: It’s a Feature, Not a Bug

You can’t be a parent and an entrepreneur — right?

In the tech community, there’s a stereotype — unfairly magnified by the media — that the ideal entrepreneur is young, unattached, and capable of working 20-hour days for months or years on end without letting anything get in the way of their product.

It’s true that creating and running a company requires unrelenting devotion and long, difficult hours of work, but our idea of who is capable of doing that work is perhaps a bit detached from reality. And I’m chiefly talking about the idea that entrepreneurs can’t have any distractions — from eating (hello, Soylent) to spouses to children — in order to be successful. In fact, I’ll argue that those very constraints can actually create motivation and success, rather than hinder it.

And as proof, I submit an example from my own life.

In late 2012, my husband and I found out we were expecting. After the initial excitement, reality quickly set in about all of the related expenses. We were both professionals with full-time, salaried, above-entry-level jobs in our fields — something uncommon for 20-somethings at the time in a still-recovery economy — but we were nowhere near the level of financial stability of most parents in our area, who are typically in their 30s or 40s and have had a decade or more to sock away their salaries, buy a three bedroom house, and pay down their debts.

Instead, we were saddled with student loans and still lived in an apartment — and it wasn’t even a two-bedroom apartment. And that was our financial situation before we even faced the sticker shock of daycare, which ranged from $1,600-$2,200 a month in Washington, DC. Coming up with an extra $24,000 a year seemed nearly impossible. It was like we would basically need a third salary in order to make ends meet.

We had nine months to figure it out.

The sudden financial pressure and responsibility forced us to rack our brains for all of the possible ways we could bring in more money, aside from killing it at work and doing our best to position ourselves for raises and promotions.

Suddenly, ideas that we’d casually tossed around but delayed building were analyzed for whether they were viable business ideas that could bring in the extra money we needed for our new family. My husband is a developer and I’m a product person, so it seems natural in retrospect that we’d want to pursue ideas together as a team — but we didn’t really have that push, that necessity, beforehand.

My husband had launched a mobile app in his home country of Denmark the previous year with reasonable success — it had been featured in national newspapers and reached #1 on the country’s iTunes charts for a period of time — and we’d sort-of talked about whether we should try to launch it in the US as well. Now, with the future staring us square in the face, we decided this was our best hope for additional income and set about re-designing the app for the US market, sourcing the underlying data, and putting together a promotional plan.

We ended up launching the app in October 2013 — two months after our daughter was born. The app’s purpose was to centralize opening hours for grocery stores (a problem, I’ll note, that Google has since solved), alleviating some of the stress of making a late-night or early-morning scramble to find a grocery store to, say, buy milk. It used your location to display nearby stores on a map so you could quickly pinpoint the closest store that was currently open. And this, as it turns out, was where the bigger opportunity was.

All of these stores and opening hours — many of them national chains that we pulled in despite ostensibly focusing on the DC area — created a huge database of addresses that we needed to geocode in order to display them on the map. We could cache them, but the major geocoding providers had absurdly strict rules on how you used their data and had fairly low limits on how many addresses you could geocode for free, with no pay-as-you-go options after that — usually 2,500 per day, which seems like a lot until you have a database of 100,000+ grocery stores. Of course, there were enterprise plans, but we weren’t in the position to shell out $20,000 a year for this.

So, concurrent with our work on the app, we started building out a solution to our geocoding problem. And we realized that there were probably a lot of other developers stuck in the same position, so we decided to build a geocoder-as-a-service as well. Geocodio launched in January 2014, and ended up far surpassing the revenue of the mobile app that led to its creation. It’s now our primary side project and is effectively a third job that we share. It consumes our nights after our daughter goes to bed, weekend nap times, the few date nights we share, and honestly, most of our dinner conversations. (With all of this business talk in our house, I wouldn’t be surprised if our daughter grows up to love business and becomes an entrepreneur herself— or completely rebels and becomes an artist.)

You could argue that if we didn’t have a child, we might be able to grow our revenue faster, spend more time developing new features, or have been able to launch sooner.

But I don’t think that’s true.

In addition to giving us the motivation and lighting the proverbial fire under our asses to build and launch, having a family also gave us a wonderful set of constraints. Constraints are actually becoming a somewhat fashionable topic these days, if not romanticized. Earlier this year, a hybrid business/coffee table book that was lauded by Seth Godin, A Beautiful Constraint, celebrated the concept:

“When ambition is exponentially greater than resources, that’s when real innovation happens.”

And here were our own Beautiful Constraints, though they certainly didn’t seem like it as we were struggling through them:

  • We needed to monetize from day one — there was no time for the leisurely building of a pre-revenue user base, which meant we needed to have a clear vision for how our concept could be a viable business.
  • We only had, and have, a limited amount of time per day to work on it, which forces us to be as efficient and productive as possible during the time we do have. As the saying goes, work expands to fill the time allotted, and if you don’t have a a set of inflexible, non-negotiable external constraints placed on you—like the need to leave work at 5 to make it to daycare or preschool pickup, or knowing you only have between 7:30 and 11pm to work on it each night— work can, and will, expand to fill the time allotted…which can, honestly, be forever in some cases, and never get done.

This isn’t to say that people without children have unstructured, free-wheeling lives, are incapable of completing projects, or don’t care about revenue. That would be unfair.

Rather, the point is that we so often assume that parenthood is only a negative for one’s professional life, and especially a negative for the productivity of entrepreneurs. Parents are often maligned in the business world and seen as less productive and less dedicated than non-parents. But it can actually be a great motivator and push people to pursue opportunities with a new vigor.

Fellow side-project enthusiast and father Justin Jackson wrote about this last year in a widely-circulated blog post responding to people who asked him where on Earth he found the time to have side projects, especially as a parent. His reply:

The short answer is: I work on side-projects whenever I have a spare moment. I sacrifice other things (watching TV, reading the newspaper, playing video games) so that I can do creative work.

I opened up the topic to the entrepreneurs of #femalefounders, and their experiences reinforced this: constraints, especially parenthood, can be an asset for an entrepreneur. One founder started her business when her son was just a few months old and has always found it to give her extra drive. Another founder is a disabled single mother of color who created her own business because so many doors were closed to her due to her background. Her daughter is now 15 and has been a developer in training since the age of 5— an in-house junior developer to help with the family business.

Yet for some reason, the role of parenthood as a motivator in our professional lives is something we rarely discuss publicly. Saying that parenthood is “inspirational” sounds like something out of a terrible Lifetime movie, and we — especially women — have an ingrained fear that people will take us less seriously as entrepreneurs (or employees) if we reveal the fact that we’re parents. We try to keep our worlds separate, without considering whether connecting the two is beneficial.

We rarely stop to think that parenthood might actually be a feature, and not a bug.