Startup Supermoms

Being a mother is hard. Being a startup founder is also hard.

What happens if you are a startup founder who is also a mother? Is that doubly hard? Does it change depending on where your company is? Does it get easier? Okay, we know the answer to that one: No, it doesn’t.

In honour of Mother’s Day this month, we spoke to two startup founders, also mothers, who are at different stages of their startup journey. Based in Malaysia, Goh Ai Ching is the mother of a lovely girl and the founder and CEO of Piktochart, a web-based design tool that helps non-designers create visual graphics for the web. At the other end of the world nestled in Los Angeles, California is Amy Wan, mother of a baby boy and founder of Sagewise, a startup that leverages blockchain to create safer financial technology.

Startups and Motherhood: Are they similar?

After all, they are both long-term investments. Many have described that launching a startup is like giving birth. But both Amy and Ai Ching never thought to associate one with the other.

“They are similar because they are always growing, always evolving, always changing,” muses Amy. Ai Ching weighs in, “You pour everything you have to make it grow and you want it to go out into the world and spread a little bit more of goodness. There's a lot of tears, sweat and nobody will ever see or understand the hard work or sacrifice that go into growing both.”

Prior to having kids, I always thought raising capital was SO hard. But it’s not hard. You know what’s hard, having a newborn! You think it’s bad when a hundred venture capitalists reject you. No, it’s bad when your newborn rejects you!
— Amy Wan

Amy was pregnant when she was raising capital for her seed round. She closed two months after giving birth. She recalls, “Being pregnant gave me courage because I had nothing to lose. I was a solo, non-technical, pregnant, minority female; I didn’t know how much more ‘un-investable’ I could get. In my previous startup, I had a very reasonable business model and I was very grounded as to what I thought I could achieve. When I had this idea [for what is now Sagewise], I tried to convince other people to do it! But it is such a moonshot concept that others were reluctant to do it--so I thought I might as well go for it.”

Startups and Motherhood: Lessons from each space

Ai Ching points out the importance of boundaries in parenting and professional relationships, “As a mother, I've learned that discipline is necessary. We draw the boundaries and tell her what is right and wrong. But if there is too much "positive talk" and rewarding, the child may think there are no boundaries, even in life. If there is only berating, the child will grow to resent the parents. It's important there is a balance of both. It's no different when dealing with adult and work relationships.”

She explains how running a startup has tempered expectations, “Startup life has taught me to put my best foot forward every single time but not to be disappointed if the outcome is not what I want it to be. Likewise, I have learnt that I cannot expect my daughter to fall in line with who I think she should be.”

Startups and Motherhood: Is this the best time?

There is no doubt that globalization and the internet have made it easier to be a startup founder and a parent. Ai Ching noted how remote work and distributed teams have become more socially accepted.

Mothers can now choose how much time they want to dedicate to the business and family and actually make it happen.
— Goh Ai Ching

Amy is careful to state that this doesn’t mean that every woman should go running to launch a startup. She agreed with Ai Ching that for those who are inclined, it is one of the best times.

The women’s movement is strong. We have the internet, social media, co-working spaces and communities. It is easier to work remotely and lots of startups that help start startups. If you want to start a venture, it has never been easier.
— Amy Wan

At the same time, Amy highlights her own recent experience as an example of the struggle of being both founder and mother, “As an early stage startup founder, I didn’t have the luxury of maternity leave. I had my baby on a Sunday morning and I was back on conference calls on Thursday. There were certain things I had to do for the survival of the company. It probably took several years off my life and I don’t feel like I was able to enjoy my time with my newborn as much as I’d have liked. I did what I had to do, but I would not recommend it. My situation was particularly crazy because not only did I have a baby, I was raising a seed round, we were moving houses, and we had to remodel the new house. A more ideal situation would be to get the company to have good product-market fit, strong revenue, and good leadership  so that I would be able to step back for maternity leave--but we were so early stage that that was would have been detrimental to the company.”

She adds, “There are all these preconceptions about being pregnant. Men who are fathers remember how pregnancy was for their wives and they draw conclusions about your experience based on theirs. But each person knows their own potential and limitations. It’s not for anyone else to judge a woman based on a condition like pregnancy. Only she can decide what she wants to undertake and whether she is capable of it.”

Startups and Motherhood: The support network

As a founder, the company’s survival is in your hands and as a parent, you don’t want to miss out on all the important moments of your child growing up. Constantly choosing between the two is not realistic. So how can a startup founder and mother be both roles?

Amy and Ai Ching are quick to point out the immense importance of having a support network, which could also be family and friends. Ai Ching defines a support network as those who can understand and help take care of the child when needed. Typically, this role is filled by the immediate in-laws, family members, and friends. They are both also realistic and candid about needing external help. Amy had a confinement nanny (zuo yue zi) in the first month after birth and then an au pair. Ai Ching relies on a babysitter who accompanies them so she can see her daughter whenever she wants. Amy calls them “the backup to the backup.”

Both agree on the importance of having a network of mothers, whether in-person or online. “Having friends who are working mothers is good for the soul, really. When we meet up, we realize that the problems we go through are similar, just in a different flavor and we learn from one another how to overcome it,” says Ai Ching. “Creating the emotional networks is important because things happen,” says Amy, “I am in many ‘mommy ‘Facebook groups but it probably took me almost a year to find the right group for me; to find a tribe of other like-minded mothers.”

Running your own company has its perks. Ai Ching counts herself fortunate that she could have a nursery in her office for her daughter. Amy also counts her blessings as her co-founder is also a parent. “He understood that I didn’t want to immediately travel after my pregnancy and took over my speaking engagements. In fact, he is the other mum at work. We talk about parenting all the time, which is very helpful emotionally.”

What about the spouse? Amy cheekily states, “Obviously, I would love for him to do more!” but goes on more seriously, “I knew this but it really hit home recently that whom you marry can be one of the most important decisions in your life. He believes in me and is super supportive of what am I doing. That alone means a lot. I can travel for a conference because he is willing to give up a bit of his sleep to look after the baby. A lot of it comes down to communication. I see in many other couples that this is not the case.”

Startup and Motherhood: It can be done

And the way to do it?

“Deliberately make time for them. I don't think there's any other way!” smiles Ai Ching. She is emphatic about the need to carve out family time. “My husband is from Italy and we travel back twice a year. Yes, we are often still working. Each time, we could have decided not to go because there are lots of things going on. But we choose to go because there is no other way to make time for family otherwise.”