In 2019, I scored my dream job as an executive at the SoftBank-backed OYO Hotels. At the time, I had three young boys and was living in Chicago. Like many working moms, balancing home and work demands (even pre-pandemic) was a challenge.
Still, when I got that job, it was an exhilarating opportunity to build a team and business. In fact, I had planned a long-term career there.
Then Covid-19 hit. The pandemic decimated the hospitality industry, and within one year, my dream job ended. I had never been furloughed and then let go before. It was a shock.
We lost our childcare around the same time, so I found myself at home juggling housework and online schooling for my kids, who were 3, 4 and 6 years old. I feverishly looked and applied for a new job over the next six months, but had nothing to show for it.
There were many moments, including when I was knee-deep in laundry and struggling to pull up a kindergarten class on the iPad, that I wondered what had become of my former life. I felt like I had lost my professional identity.
It was during this really difficult time that I had an idea for a children’s supplement. I found that my kids’ food and drink options were loaded with sugar and generally void of nutrition, yet I didn’t have the time to make all of our food from scratch. As a beverage and consumer products industry veteran, I thought who better to develop something in this space. I decided to take the leap and start my own company.
In the middle of all this, I found out I was pregnant! While I’ve always been a working mom, I didn’t think I could stretch my time and attention any thinner. I wondered if four kids and a new company wasn’t biting off more than I could chew.
In December 2020, I gave myself nine months to get the business, Vitaminis, off the ground before my newborn arrived. I got to work on a formula, a brand and a website. I produced the first products in June. By July I started selling online, in August I started selling on Amazon, and in September my daughter was born!
While the process sounds smooth, it most certainly was not. The daily challenges had me questioning the whole venture at times. Packaging materials were delayed for weeks due to shipping shortages, which threw off production timing. Products were misplaced in transit for six weeks, and there were countless other hiccups along the way. That, and the growing fatigue of being heavily pregnant at almost 40 years old, was beyond stressful and taxing. But I don’t regret taking the plunge.
Since the brand’s launch and giving birth to my fourth child, I find it helps to take things one step at a time. I try to slow down and acknowledge how much all of us have been through and accomplished despite the unique obstacles of the last two years.
For those seeking a leap into entrepreneurship, here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
Start Small. Start with small steps and small investments to see what's working before investing in anything larger or more permanent. Set a total budget for what you have to invest in the business, and stay close to this on a weekly or even daily basis. Also, while you will certainly lose money initially setting up your business and getting it off the ground, ensure that the main product or service you are selling is profitable or will be profitable in the long term. This will ensure that all other structural investments you are making make sense.
Stay grounded. I’ve turned to daily devotions, meditation and deep breathing to keep me centered. When I get a quiet moment (driving or in the shower), I think about my business priorities in 6-month increments. This keeps me from getting distracted by opportunities or suggestions that aren’t that important in the near term.
Stay focused. I keep a working list of company goals on a whiteboard in my office, where I can see it on a daily basis and update. There are endless things to work on, lots of distracting possibilities and a limitless list of changes to reach perfection. Don’t let the to-dos or the pursuit of perfection stop you from making progress. I like to follow the “80/20 rule” – 80 percent of the value is driven by 20 percent of the activities. Focus on that 20 percent every day and you will make progress!
Play for the long game. Remember that starting and growing a business is a long-term endeavor. It took me almost a year to move from my original inspiration to something that could be sold. This is helpful perspective to have when deciding to embark on a new venture, but also good to remember when it seems like things aren’t moving as quickly as you want.
Don’t overanalyze. For moms especially, it can be easy to assume that you will sacrifice your career or neglect your kids by making a big professional decision, but the reality is that life is long. Prioritize work when you need to and prioritize your kids when they need you most. Realize that you can’t do it all – and that’s perfectly OK!
Be present. Whether I’m working or spending time with my kids, I try to fully be in the moment. That means unplugging from work when I’m with my kids and setting aside my phone. When working, I create a quiet workspace where I can focus without interruption. I find that trying to multitask short-changes each side and can be very frustrating for everyone.
Take time for self-care. Exercise, including running and yoga, are therapeutic to me. I can let my mind wander, reduce stress and sleep better, all while feeling like I’m accomplishing something. At first, I felt guilty taking this time for myself, but I’ve come to learn that self-care helps me be a better mother and professional. Plus, I’ve had some great insights to business problems I’ve faced while working out!
Chicago native Leslie Danford is a mother of four. She is the CEO and founder of Vitaminis, a children’s immunity support drink. Prior to that, Leslie worked in executive management in adult beverages and as a management consultant. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago. Follow her on Instagram at @VitaminisBrand.