Mother First, Entrepreneur Second
Motherhood comes in all sizes and shapes, ages and stages. I decided to talk with some other mom entrepreneurs to get their input for this column. I hope to interview a series of several successful entrepreneur mothers with different experiences to enrich us all.
I'm starting with Kathy Benson, founder and CEO of Office Remedies Inc., a market research firm in Herndon, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. I became acquainted with Benson about seven years ago through a mutual contact, who had been Benson's nanny long ago. We soon discovered that we are the same age, which led to a rich connection.
Benson, 48, is now in the "empty nest" stage and has given me the long-term perspective on being a mom entrepreneur--the things she did right and the things she would have done differently.
Maintain Work-Life Balance
"Make sure you have balance," Benson says. "Do whatever it takes to make that balance. Take time out to enjoy your family."
Benson started Office Remedies in February 1988. She was only 26, and her son, Travis, was just 4 months old. She worked full-time from home for eight years before moving to her current office space in Herndon, just three miles from her home.
"Being a new mom, I wanted to find something I could do from home," Benson says. Office Remedies started as a data-entry company, with Benson doing the data entry. As customers asked for more, she added additional services.
"I would never have been able to run a business without some type of child-care assistance, and that is the first piece of advice I would give women who want to start their own business," she says. Benson managed to work from home those first eight years by using a combination of home-based day care and nannies.
Benson grew the company mostly with women like her who were staying home to raise their children. Initially, Benson did all the data entry. When her partner, Sue Lynd, came on board, she did some data entry. Then Benson approached her sister-in-law for help.
"We tended to concentrate in neighborhoods," Benson says. "I think half the people in my sister-in-law's neighborhood were working for us at one time!" The people working at Office Remedies could always bring their children to the office when they dropped off or picked up work, since many of the women are home-based.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Make no mistake. While Office Remedies had humble beginnings, it is a force to be reckoned with. Because of its family-friendly culture, Office Remedies was recognized in 2008 by Working Mother magazine as one of the 25 best woman-owned businesses in the country. Additionally, Benson has received numerous awards, including SmartCEO's Brava Award. In 2009, Inc. magazine included Office Remedies as No. 1,341 on its list of 5,000 fastest-growing private companies nationwide.
Benson grew her business and raised her children at the same time. She has just reached the empty nest stage. Her son, Travis, age 22, and her daughter, McCaul, 19, are both in college.
"My daughter left in August," says Benson. "The company has been extremely busy, and I haven't had time to feel the empty nest yet.
"I always put my kids first, sometimes at the expense of business growth." she says. "As the kids grew older, I could put more time into my business, and my business grew." Today, Benson has 70 employees who conduct large-scale studies, analyze the results and report on the data. The company works with clients such as The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of State, along with many associations in the Washington, DC, metro area.
Once Benson started working at an office, she sometimes brought the children with her when they were sick or their baby sitter was unavailable. Travis and McCaul laugh and make jokes about spending their childhood on the "pink leather couches in Mommy's office," she says. They would watch movies and help with small jobs in the office when they were a little older.
"The pink leather couches are gone," Benson says. "Because of the company's growth, we had to convert the reception area into offices." But the memories remain.
What She Did Right
- During her child-rearing years, Benson only took on the workload she could handle. Her first goal was to be a good mother. As the children got older, she adjusted her life and her business schedule.
- Through the years, Benson, her husband, Shawn, and children ate dinner as a family as many nights as possible. "That way I got a lot of information on dates and friends and activities," Benson says. "Of course, I love to cook. So it wasn't a burden for me."
- Benson made sure to attend all her children's school activities and sporting events, including basketball, football and soccer She says she considered herself the "carpool queen." Because she knew that she couldn't drive the kids to all of their events, she set up carpools and would drive one or two times a week for each child, depending on how many other families were in the carpool. "Drive time was valuable time to spend with my kids and their friends," she says.
- Each year, Benson, her husband and the children took a family vacation. The company was always able to function because she has a business partner and they have always covered and supported one another so each could take time away from the office. The Bensons still go on that family vacation every year and have always included their extended family, now a group of 20.
"Every year, we'd ask the kids what they want to do for vacation," Benson says. "They chose the family vacation, always in the Outer Banks." They have stayed close.
What She Would Have Done Differently
- "I didn't take out enough time for myself--like girls' weekends off," Benson says. "In hindsight, I would have kept my sanity more in check if I had given myself some personal time."
- Benson also admits she should have reached out sooner to get more help at the office. She hired a bookkeeper about seven years into the business so she wouldn't have to stay up until 2 a.m. writing checks. Now she outsources her human resources services and her information technology.
- "I would sometimes bring my children into work with me or take them with me to deliver projects to some clients," Benson says. "That was good and bad. For a while, they really despised my business. They tried to stay away as often as they could. Now, the tables are turned and my son is showing an interest in the business." In fact, Travis graduates this month and may work for his mother for several months. Benson is proud she can offer Travis the opportunity to come to work in the company that started when he was born.
"I would not change anything about how I balanced my kids and my business," Benson says. "You can always grow a business, make mistakes and fix them, but you only have one chance to grow your children."