Can You Have a Business and a Baby?
Callie Enlow — In the Balance
Everything I’ve heard about startup life sounds a lot like new motherhood: the lack of sleep, the financial sacrifices, the shrinking social life, the all-consuming desire to see your pride and joy survive and thrive.
Given that time is a limited resource, it would stand to reason that you absolutely couldn’t do both, right? If your business were your “baby,” surely it would be incredibly difficult to also have an actual baby. While dads somehow magically seem to make this work, it’s much more rare to see moms on those demo day stages. It must just be impossible, I thought.
Then I read about Motherly, a weekly online newsletter for expecting and new mothers that explores four core aspects of a millennial mom’s life: parenting, working, romantic relationships, and self-care. Motherly was founded in 2015 by two women who have, between them, five kids under 5. Though both founders anticipated a more family-focused life while their children were small, when the Motherly idea struck, they pursued their startup dream full-throttle.
After having her first two children, Motherly founder Elizabeth Tenety, a longtime journalist and Washington Post editor, became increasingly frustrated with popular online resources for new mothers. Across the spectrum of pregnancy and parenting sites from The Bump to Scary Mommy, Tenety had a hard time finding articles and resources that spoke to her as a college-educated millennial working mom. In particular, she was looking for expert-vetted recommendations over sketchy message board claims, a community that thrived on mutual support rather than dated, overhyped mommy wars discussions, and a recognition that mothers had more going on in their lives than just their young children. Moreover, what the existing sites lacked in content, they did not make up for in seamless, user-friendly, mobile-first design. “Our generation of supportive, thoughtful, inspiring mamas weren't being represented in the existing parenting media,” Tenety wrote in an email.
In early 2015, Tenety began forming the idea for Motherly and reached out to Jill Koziol, an acquaintance who had recently invented SwingEase—a contraption that helps babies and young kids fit into playground swings. Koziol shared her experience as an entrepreneur with a mom-centered customer base.
“I gave her a bunch of advice in that initial conversation and hung up the phone, and could not shake this concept and this idea,” said Koziol, then mother to a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. “So I called her back two days later and said, ‘Do you want a co-founder? Let's do this!’”
Six weeks later, on Mother’s Day, they launched Motherly as a blog and began experimenting with their tone (which Koziol describes as “your girlfriend who talked to all the experts so you don’t have to”) and distinctive visual style (gauzy photos overlaid with Pinterest-worthy quotes, and Instagram photos from moms in the Motherly demographic).
Shortly after launching, the duo was accepted into Matter, an accelerator for digital media entrepreneurs. “The accelerator experience, to be frank, was hard as a mom, doing this with young children specifically,” said Koziol. “We were the first mom-founded company to go through Matter, and I think we had to break down some walls.” To be a productive member of the 20-week-long accelerator class, you need to put in time on weekend retreats, an initial “bootcamp,” monthly design sprints, and demo days that require travel. Your off hours are generally spent making sure nothing falls through the cracks with your burgeoning business. In a class that included college-age kids, “we were the only ones that had the additional dimension of family life, and young children that were demanding also,” said Koziol. “That was incredibly hard for us.”
Koziol believes the experience, while tough, was crucial for the young company. She proudly notes that Matter has since accepted more parent-led ventures and was receptive to feedback about how it could mitigate the accelerator’s impact on young families.
If only what came next was a clamor of venture capital for the fledgling site. Instead, Koziol booked dozens of fruitless meetings.
“It was a lot of white men, and a lot of old white men—because these are VCs,” said Koziol. “Every single one of them, the first feedback we’d hear is, ‘doesn't this already exist?’” The way Koziol sees it, the venture capitalists thought that because a handful of sites geared toward moms were already out there, the needs of the 85 million American mothers of children under 18 were already being met. “The fact that we were targeting moms just wasn’t sexy for them,” said Koziol.
Nevertheless, with the funding from Matter and some angel investors, Motherly grew its reach to more than 1 million unique visitors per month and approximately 80,000 newsletter subscribers. The weekly email is customized to subscribers based on their due date or child’s birthday, whether they’re breastfeeding, if they work outside the home, and other factors. For instance, as the working mom of a toddler, my most recent “bundle” of articles delivered to my inbox included a shame researcher’s tips on how to deal with mom guilt and a pediatrician’s recommendations on getting through the picky-eating phase. While the tone is still friendly and informal, Motherly is a serious evolution in quality over the mommy blogs and message boards of yore.
The site’s latest innovation is video classes with a new slate going live this spring covering topics from the sundry (baby photography, decluttering) to the essential (birth preparation).
That growth hasn’t come easily. “Truth time: This is hard,” admitted Koziol. “Motherly needed to be started by a millennial mom who understood and personally felt the deep needs that this woman has and how her needs were not being met by the existing platforms that were there. However, there is a reason that this was not started previously and it’s because it’s hard. We are both a little crazy for doing it when we had such young children.”
Yet, starting their own company has also allowed both women a level of flexibility that hardly leaves them chained to a desk. They begin work early and are able to spend part of the afternoon and evening with their children. After the kids’ bedtimes, they’re back online for a couple of hours.
Both Tenety and Koziol have husbands who work full time and share household and childrearing duties. Koziol actually finds her longest stretch of uninterrupted work comes during the weekend, while her husband has some bonding time with their daughters. The women are also happy to credit paid help like housekeepers and baby sitters in keeping their lives manageable.
Remarkably, after her daughter was born in July, six months after Motherly’s official platform launch, Tenety was able to take six weeks of maternity leave and gradually ramped back up to full time after that. “Newborns sleep a lot, so while work can be more interrupted, it can definitely get done,” she wrote. “Oh, and babywearing is great to get emails out while snuggling with your babe.”
While Koziol and Tenety are currently the only full-time employees at Motherly, they have several part-time contractors who work remotely, about half of whom have recently had children or are pregnant. “There’s something about staring at cute pictures of babies all day that seems to make it happen,” Koziol joked. So far, Motherly has been able to work with these contractors individually to find ways to keep their pay consistent while the new moms take time off to bond with their babies.
“We definitely create positions that will allow women to work from home and to do it in a flexible way that will work for them and their families,” Koziol said. Tenety echoed that, writing, “We’re all about concrete ways to make new mothers’ lives better.”
While sending new moms articles and videos addressing their biggest concerns and creating a family-friendly work environment are certainly concrete, the Motherly founders give women something a little more ephemeral too: hope. Because, to me at least, Koziol and Tenety prove that it’s possible for women to nurture a young company and young children at the same time.
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