Your So-Called Life

The overachieving entrepreneur's guide to making time for a real life.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the March 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Many motives jump-start entrepreneurs, but romance is rarely one of them. For Gary Schaffer, however, love was the major reason he started On Target Mapping seven years ago in Pittsburgh. Because he was dating a woman who lived in France at the time, Schaffer explains, "I needed to get myself in a position that would give me the flexibility to visit her."

Schaffer, 33, eventually married the woman, who moved to the United States. But family ties still play a role in the business plan of the 25-employee firm, which earns several million dollars each year by providing telecommunications, risk assessment, routing and scheduling data, and software solutions to telecommunications service providers, government agencies and other businesses. The company was recently acquired by MapInfo Corp., a worldwide provider of business mapping solutions and spatial information management systems based in Troy, New York. Of his early days, Schaffer says, "My personal decisions pushed my business decisions."

A more common scenario, however, involves juggling personal and business commitments. Although achieving balance is essential for the survival of both the business and the entrepreneur's family, business owners find it's often like walking a tightrope while being buffeted by the inevitable winds of financial, managerial and personal stress.

"Entrepreneurship is a perspective on life, a way you approach not only your business but your personal life as well," observes Dan Pierce, an instructor for the entrepreneurship program at Northern Illinois University and a marketing instructor at the school's DeKalb campus. "It comes down to a judgment of where your priorities are and where you are in your life."

For example, entrepreneurs with no spouse or young children may feel little pressure to get home "on time" or spend weekends with the Scouts or attending ballet recitals. But while entrepreneurs with family obligations may feel no less driven to spend 60 hours or more each week at the office, they're often haunted by guilt over missed vacations, baseball games and other events. As a business owner, however, you must decide how to make balance a reality--lest the company swallow all your time and energy.

In 1978, when Virginia Hilbert founded Professional Technical Development Inc. in her kitchen as a part-time enterprise, she had four children living at home. Today, the East Lansing, Michigan, entrepreneur acknowledges her company would have grown faster had she not devoted so much time to her children's activities, which included music lessons and tennis matches. "I went to all the kids' affairs," Hilbert explains. "My philosophy is that family comes first."

Although the company's growth was delayed until Hilbert's family grew up and her obligations decreased, it wasn't halted. The $5 million-plus company, which provides computer training to large corporations and state of Michigan employees, has moved out of Hilbert's home and has 90 employees.

Hilbert's experience is not unusual. A 1997 national survey by KeyCorp of Cleveland, a bank-based financial services company, discovered small-business owners were twice as likely as executives at Fortune 1000 companies to create a business culture that blends work and family. In fact, 92 percent of the respondents said "encouraging a healthy balance between work and family" is part of their corporate culture.

Achieving this goal isn't always easy, however. Only 17 percent of male and 37 percent of female business owners gave themselves an "A" grade in striking the right balance.

"Small-business owners realize that promoting a healthy balance between their work and home lives is good for themselves, their employees and their businesses," says Sandy Maltby, vice-chair of KeyBank National Association and head of its small-business division. The challenge is determining a comfortable balance and striving to sustain it.

Eric Freedman teaches journalism at Michigan State University and writes on business, public affairs and legal issues. His latest book is What to Study: 101 Fields in a Flash (with Edward Hoffman), published by Kaplan/Simon & Schuster.

Got A Plan?

Planning is the first step to striking a healthy balance. It's essential to make time for social and family events--don't just plug them in when you have a gap in your business schedule.

Ian Parr, founder of Construction Cost Systems Inc. in Lombard, Illinois, coached his children's soccer teams two nights each week for seven years. Although his kids are now older, Parr, 50, still sets aside time for travel and other personal activities while running his 45-employee company, which provides time and cost controls and related services for construction projects, and its affiliate CCS/Owner Services, which provides project management and owner's representation services. "[My principles and I] delegate, we trust each other, and I don't believe the place will fall apart if I'm gone," says Parr. "It's a question of balancing priorities and not being awed by [the challenge]. It's too easy to look away from the quality of life."

While carrying out your plans isn't always easy, it can be done. Larry Meyer, CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association, cites one entrepreneur who co-owned several sporting goods stores: "When he [and his wife] had a baby, he took a month off--even though it was during Christmas [the busy season]. He'd planned it with his business partner."

Want to loosen your business's lock on your time? Start by making a commitment to one or two regularly scheduled activities, especially on weekdays. Join a bowling league or take ballroom dancing classes. Regularly accompany your child to swimming or gymnastics lessons. Volunteer for a few hours in your child's day-care center or elementary school once a week.

The second step is to schedule--and keep track of--periodic events, including parent-teacher conferences, field trips needing parental escorts, soccer games and music recitals. You may miss a few, but it's easier to avert business conflicts if these family events are written into your schedule early on. If you have school-age children, at least plan to occasionally take time off during school holidays.

Third, use a pen--not a pencil--to record significant dates, especially anniversaries and family birthdays. Take your spouse to lunch. Make sure you're home for your child's birthday party.

At the same time, flexibility on a daily basis is important. Keep in mind that crises will arise and your business will occasionally demand your presence outside regular working hours. As Parr observes, "Business life may require [that I attend] a board meeting at night or read at home. I don't try to fight that anymore."

Flexibility works in both directions, however. "If a friend calls me at the office, I talk to him," Parr says. "If I take a five-day business trip, when I come back, my bills have to be paid, the laundry's got to be done; if I have to take an hour off to do that, I do it. I don't feel guilty." A flexible mind-set makes it easier to deal with the inevitable: children who get sick and must stay home from school, cars that break down, and baby-sitters who don't show up, all of which may force you to rearrange your work hours.

Fitting In Family

Making time for family outside of business hours isn't the only way to encourage balance. "Some entrepreneurs are including their families in their businesses more and more," notes Dan Pierce at Northern Illinois University. "Schedules are getting more flexible, and technology is allowing people to work from home and interact with their families during the day."

When Hilbert founded her company, she "hired" her husband as a part-time evening instructor, while her 8-year-old helped with bulk mailings. Over the years, Hilbert's children have held a variety of positions in the company. Hilbert's daughter did secretarial work for her while in college, and her son handled marketing while in law school. Today, two of her four children work in the business--one daughter is the human resources director and one son is the director of marketing. "We're a very close family," says Hilbert.

Two years after establishing his firm, Parr married, creating a blended family with three children. When the children were young, Parr's wife worked at the business from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., then went home to be with the kids after school. The children grew up and the couple later divorced, but Parr's ex-wife remains with the firm as its marketing director.

Whether your family members work in the business or not, it's important to keep them informed of what's happening with the company. Discussions with your family are important in both good business times and tough ones, according to Dr. Edward Hoffman, a New York City clinical psychologist who researches and writes about organizational behavior. One typical good-news situation that cries out for family discussion comes when the company faces sudden growth and must hire more staff or move to a larger, more expensive facility. "Expansion always carries risks and stress."

Hoffman emphasizes that it's particularly important to decide how much information to disclose and when to disclose it if your spouse or significant other isn't involved in the operation. For example, if your spouse isn't interested in the details of management and finances, the two of you should still talk about the general status of the business, but you may not want to discuss all the nuts and bolts. "Some compartmentalizing may be necessary," Hoffman says, "but there's a point when it becomes self-defeating to put the burden on your family."

Working It Out

Once you experience the benefits of balancing your family and business lives, chances are, you'll want your employees to enjoy the same flexibility. On the plus side, the less formal environment of a small company is the ideal setting for a flexible employee policy. On the other hand, small businesses are more likely than large companies to depend on a core of "indispensable" employees. How do you balance your company's needs with those of your employees? Options include flex-time schedules, job-sharing and compressed work weeks. The key to making all these strategies work is a willingness to understand the needs of your staff.

Schaffer's company has often worked with employees to accommodate individual needs. For example, the company's marketing manager works a 32-hour week, with Fridays off to spend with her children.

"There's no question that there are short-term pains for the organization," says Schaffer. "On the other hand, the thing we [valued] most is loyalty, particularly in this tight labor market. When we started out, we didn't think too much about these issues. As we grew, it became clear that the way the company would be successful was to align itself and its actions with its employees. It's a two-way street: The company needs to be loyal to the employees, and the employees need to be loyal to the company."

In establishing your company's personnel policies, whether they're set out in a formal employee manual or created on a case-by-case basis, it's important not to be arbitrary in accommodating your employees. Doing so will lead to poor morale over perceived unfairness; worse, it could open your company to lawsuits.

Don't treat business and family as two separate worlds, for yourself or your employees. Instead, recognize that your commitments to these two spheres should enrich one another. After all, the stakes are high in both, and effective strategies that balance home and work can give you the best of both worlds.

Contact Sources

Construction Cost Systems Inc., (800) 443-8607,

MapInfo Corp., (800) 700-6277,

Michigan Retailers Association, (800) 366-3699,

Professional Technical Development Inc., (517) 333-9363,

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