How do I start a business when I’ve got a bundle of kids around here?

In the post earlier this week on The Nesting Place, a few comments raised the question of how to start a business when you don’t have the cash for childcare. You hope the business will eventually bring in enough to pay for childcare, a great house, trips to Tahiti, retirement, innovative philanthropic work, etc., but it probably won’t right away. It is the rare person who manages to start a business and sell it to Amazon for $200 million like a year later.

Anyway, it turns out that many entrepreneurs who happen to have kids aren’t paying for full-time childcare. A Manta survey of women small business owners, done for Mother’s Day, found that 66 percent did not have nannies or babysitters supporting them on a daily basis. In some cases, that’s because their kids are 17 years old. In others, it’s likely because the kids are in school most of the day. I’m certainly seeing Mosaic logs from women who do most of their core work between the 7:30 bus pick up and the 3:00 drop-off. Add in a few after school activities and night/weekend work and you can hit 45 hours/week.

But while that 66 percent figure could be encouraging, here’s something you need to know: building a business takes time. It takes hours. Here’s something else you should know: With some modern businesses, being seen as a mom just running a blog is as much marketing as anything else. People have teams of employees. And if our entrepreneur has young kids, it’s likely that one of those employees is watching the kids some chunk of the time so mom can work.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with paying people to watch your kids so you can engage in economically productive activities. As a WFH type, I certainly think there are upsides of having the kids in the same place as you. I got to celebrate a potty success the other day, and I get hugs after school and all that. But I don’t view myself as in a fundamentally different category than someone working a corporate job, and I wish everyone would be honest about their childcare arrangements. I have coverage from 8-5:15 M-F. I usually have coverage at least one evening a week too. That is what my life and my professional goals require.

So what if you don’t have regular childcare coverage? What if you have been home with your kids, and need or want to start a business, both for your professional fulfillment and to shoulder your share of supporting the family financially?

People write to me about the chicken-and-egg problem. Childcare delivers time. You need time to grow your business. Growing your business will generate cash. However, childcare requires cash right now. How can you grow your business when you don’t have start-up capital, and so childcare seems unaffordable?
Instead of looking to online entrepreneurs who are being coy about their own childcare arrangements, and feeling inferior because you think they’re building a business “without” childcare, it’s more helpful to ask a few questions: First, what’s triggering the urge to start the business? If it’s because the former primary breadwinner is now out of work, that’s at least partially solved your problem. Parents can split the 8-6 workday, each taking 5 hours apiece with the kids, and each devoting 5 hours per day to their professional development. That still leaves time for family breakfast and dinner, while everyone’s getting at least 25 hours a week for job searching or business building (to say nothing of night and weekend time that’s also available).

Second, is childcare really unaffordable? A key thing here is that many people don’t like the idea of paying for childcare because they don’t like the idea of childcare in the first place. So it’s always seen as optional. And yet in our Nesting Place story, this family took on debt so the husband could buy into a franchise and get the equipment necessary for it. Investing in his business was fine. That could be a family goal. So I’d say investing in mom’s business can be a family goal too. Even committing to paying for just a few months of childcare can give you the runway to launch, while putting a cap on cash outflow. Not all businesses will generate cash in 6 months, but you can structure your business to make that a top priority.

But let’s say you are committed to no debt. I have seen women manage to start certain sorts of businesses during after work hours. If you don’t have clients who expect to see your face during the work day, and who won’t call and expect quiet at 2 p.m., it can work. The usual approach is that your partner works a regular job, and commits to coming home by 5:30 or 6. You could have family dinner together if you like, and then he covers the evening shift several day a week while you work. Working from 6:30-10:30, or 6:30-11:30 if you can swing it will give you quite a few hours, especially if you then add in weekend work when your partner can cover too. There is one woman in the Mosaic project who’s doing the bulk of her work between 7:30-11:30 at night, and on weekends. It cuts into sleep, and she’s only planning on doing this for a little bit longer until the youngest is in school, but it is an option.

Another option is to combine the above with a few hours of paid care during typical working hours. You might be able to find a part-time sitter to come from 9 a.m. -1 p.m. 2-3 days per week. That would let you meet with clients, do phone calls, etc. while doing other work from 6-10 at night a few days per week. Paying for 8 hours of care is less expensive than paying for 40 hours of care, though this can introduce its own problems. Sometimes people don’t treat 8 hour/week jobs with the seriousness they’d treat 40/hour week jobs. If you’re supposed to meet a client and your sitter calls to cancel, this will make it just as difficult to grow your business as if you didn’t have childcare in the first place. But it’s a possibility too. I’ve heard of homeschooling families hiring mother’s helpers from other homeschooling families in their neighborhoods as a way to get some childcare and help those teens earn some cash. College students can work, or neighborhood retirees, or another mom in the area.  

This last concept of tapping community is worth exploring for non-paid care too. Is there another family nearby that you know and trust and that is in a similar situation? Maybe you trade off care — each family takes 2 days per week, and this creates time to work without cash outflow (technically this is a barter that you are supposed to report as income, but I’m guessing this is one of the most flouted IRS rules out there). Could you start a co-op? Maybe you have a neighbor who’s usually around and doesn’t mind having the kids dropped off last minute if you do need to meet a client. This sort of back up can lessen the pain associated with part-time sitting.  

Finally, one last option is just to be patient. You can think of your business as being in the “incubation” stage for a few years, depending on the age of your youngest kid (as long as you don’t keep having babies — but that’s a different matter). You experiment with things and think about it a lot, and figure out your target market, and learn all about the market, knowing that you intend to hit the ground running as soon as the kids are old enough to be in school, or entertain themselves, or whatever you intend to do with them.

Do you run a business without regular childcare? How do you make that work?

19 thoughts on “How do I start a business when I’ve got a bundle of kids around here?

  1. I think I wrote you at some point about the chicken and the egg problem and I posted some of the difficulties in the other thread about The Nesting Place. I was able to keep 2 artisan businesses running with minimal childcare (3 hours every other week aside from my husband taking over when he was not at work), but found that I hit a ceiling where if I wanted to do things to really expand my business, I needed to have focused, dedicated time for it.

    I probably could have sacrificed more sleep or spent less time online (another chicken and egg as I get lots of sales from social media, but it’s also a time suck).

    Where we live, part-time, regular child care at home is very hard to find. Full time care is what people want, it’s very expensive and people are willing to pay for it. So there aren’t many people looking for, say, 10 hours a week of childcare work, which might have been enough for me.

    But I don’t have an entrepreneurial mindset – I actually liked my corporate job, so I didn’t start companies to “escape” that kind of work. I actually found it EXTREMELY stressful to have my businesses as my sole source of income and have it be so variable month to month. In my heart I am not a salesperson 🙂 I just want to fast forward to that part where the income is stable. And I realized I could do that by going back very part-time as a software project management consultant – it’s more efficient that way than always feeling the pinch and needing to “hustle” in the slow months. So I guess I’m kind of a failure story in that sense 🙂

    1. @ARC – not a failure. It’s all a process of discovery. And yes, you are professionally in a line of work that can pay the bills with less than full time hours, and that will give you space for the creative aspects of your work.

  2. We’ve had a lot of success with mothers helpers. Someone to play with the kids at home while one of us is home. We normally used college students, but high school students also do the job well, and tend to be very cheap. (We paid min wage for a friend’s teen during a recent vacation crunch, but he asked for less.).

  3. I thought some more about this last night, and I am not sure I agree with the commenter who thought my situation was so completely different from someone starting a business after being a SAHM. The main difference I see is that I’ve already decided I’m OK with using essentially fulltime child care and am structuring my new work/life arrangement around that. I could equally as well quit my job and decided to pull my kids out of care, and then I’d be in the same situation as someone who’d been a SAHM before starting her business (except I probably have more savings). So I will offer one more suggestion to add to yours: you could think of this as a lack of capital problem, and look for part time paid work or contract opportunities to raise capital while you bootstrap your business along. I’m incorporating and structuring my business such that money I make consulting will go into the same business I am setting up for other projects. I will pay myself a salary out of that money, and can use the rest to grow other business ideas, or just save it to give myself runway without contracting work at some point. So another option would be to look carefully at the skills you have, and think if you have any you can contract out at some number of hours per week, to raise capital- even if contracting those skills out is not part of your long term business plan.

    1. @Cloud – there are similarities, true. But a key difference is that you have a PhD in a STEM field, a decade-plus of work history, and the career capital that comes from that (hence your ability to land a contracting gig fairly quickly). I am guessing our hypothetical would-be entrepreneur who has been home with her kids for some time doesn’t have that. To me, that’s more cautionary tale than anything else. We should all be concerned about our career capital, and what we can do to maintain it. Unless someone has decided that she is 100% retired, she might want to re-enter the working world at some point. And that means playing, at least partially, by its rules.

      1. The PhD and experience let me command a high charge rate- but you could do something similar with skills in other areas and much less experience. You’d just get a lower charge rate. There is a huge amount of useful space between the rate I can charge and nothing! I think a lot of women tend to sell their skills short and assume they have no skills they can market. But if someone is thinking of starting her own business, she presumably has some skill she thinks she can use to make money. I’m saying: she could take those skills and sell them to someone else part time to create a stream of capital to give herself space to grow her own business.

    2. Well, yes, if you changed your situation to be more like an unemployed SAHM, it would be more similar. The question has always been one of capital – and, as Laura pointed out, experience – how to get the money to pay for the childcare while you work that part time job and bootstrap your business along before you’ve made any income doing those things.
      As Laura says, this could be a cautionary tale, but there are so many women succeeding at a roundabout transition without, seemingly, such securities in place that I am extremely curious to hear their stories.

  4. This was informative, but also raised some other questions, such as: when do you take time with your spouse if you’re working in the evenings from after dinner until bedtime?

    Currently, after we put the kids down is time every day for my husband and I to catch up, unwind and reconnect. There have been times when I have been doing side work in the evenings and it has cut into this time and caused stress in our marriage. Not serious problems, but we just miss each other.
    Do women with this type of schedule just try to make the weekends count more?
    Also: we homeschool, which kind of takes away the “wait until your youngest is in school” option. Again, I know that there are ways of making this work (an example was even given in the article), I would love to hear more about them.

    1. My husband works first shift 7-3. I teach piano 3:30-6pm. After dinner I work on my college courses until bedtime. I guess for us, we understand it is just a season. It is not a permanent schedule. We are currently homeschooling 2 of our children, but are putting them in school in the fall. I will also be putting the youngest in preschool a couple of days a week. That way my school work can be done during the day (for the most part) and my evenings will be open again. I guess right now I look at is at my husband is “forced” to spend time with the kids in the evenings because I am busy. It seems like we still see each other plenty. Still, it is only for a time, and I think that is the point. If I were spending my evening hours building up a side business, it would be with the intention that eventually it would be my main job and could be done during the hours my kids were in school (I understand homeschooling does throw a wrench in that!). If there wasn’t an end in sight, it would be a lot harder to sacrifice that time with the spouse!

    2. @sarah – the other Laura has some good comments here. One reason the woman in my project started working at 7:30 instead of, say, 6:30 is to have some family time. She also catches up with her husband after 11:30 — she doesn’t really seem to sleep that much! They do one date night a week, so she doesn’t work that night, and one “admin” night where they discuss household details. So 2 out of 7 nights focused on each other isn’t bad at all. And as Laura says, it’s partly about viewing this season as temporary. The goal is to get the business going so you have enough to pay for some during the day childcare. If you’re homeschooling then this is especially important — you have some hours of someone else there looking after the kids, or running interference on some aspects of homeschooling (checking work, for instance). Modern Mrs. Darcy has written about having help on the homeschooling front, which creates calmer homeschooling, and space to work.

  5. When I wanted to start a WAHM business (freelance writer/blogger/author as so many of us are) we invested in part-time daycare when I was three months into it and there was some promise of income.
    Year 1: maybe earned 10% of what I spent on childcare.
    Year 2: earned all of childcare costs.
    Year 3: chidcare costs equaled 80% of my income
    Year 4: childcare costs equaled 25% of my income.
    I find I can only do the work at night once kids are in bed routine for 1-2 months before I hit burn out. In the fall I landed a big project with a tight deadline and worked a lot. I was very unproductive once the deadline was met and had to take a few down weeks to recover.
    Enjoyed this post and all the comments. Lots of strategies here, some that I have used and some that I am sure I will use down the road.

    1. @Rachel- good for you! Congrats on the success of your business. Sorry it took so long for your comment to post. I have to approve comments from new posters and I haven’t been here today.

      Yes, I work at night a lot too, but I can’t imagine trying to squeeze everything in there. Especially after a hard day of caring for small kids.

    2. This is really encouraging to see, wrt to how getting childcare helped you grow over time. Being so risk averse, I need a lot of data points to see that it might, in fact, ACTUALLY work 😉

  6. Also, I used the childcare swap with a friend to finish my first self-published book two and a half years ago. 40 hours watching my friends twins was worth it to have a book that’s now sold a few thousand copies between Amazon, Createspace and my website.

  7. I homeschool and work from home. I would say the key to my success is the fact that my children learned from the beginning to entertain themselves. They are not dependent on my playing with them all day long. When I was a kid (before I was old enough to go to school), my mom was home with me, but she would be busy in the garden or canning or sewing or whatever and I spent many joyful hours outside. Sometimes I played by myself, sometimes I played with the neighbor girl. But while I often watched my mother work, her day did not revolve around entertaining me.

    With my children, I do the same. My oldest has always been a bookworm and a dreamer. Once the others came along, they all had each other as playmates. They play with the neighbor kids on weekends when they’re around. During the week, my children do not watch television or play on the computer (I cannot stand having to listen to either in the background). I do spend time with them doing school, taking them to the library, swimming lessons, and other activities. But when we are home, if I am not doing school with them, they are entertaining themselves. Our house has a finished basement and we live in town on a large fenced lot, so if they are not outside playing, they are in the basement (where all their toys belong). I can hear what is going on and intervene when necessary, but they are not underfoot. They also wash the dishes, clean the house and fold their own laundry, so I spend less time on those tasks.

    This kind of schedule allows me an hour or two in the morning and again in the afternoon to get some work done. I run my errands during the week when the stores are empty so I’m not fighting the crowds on Saturday morning. Instead, Saturday morning (when my husband is home, though he can be as much of an interruption as the children) is when I finish my work for the week and work on any projects that require intense focus. By noon on Saturday, I am done for the week and can enjoy the rest of my weekend.

    As for homeschooling, we school year-round with no formal summer break. We do formal school three days a week with extracurricular activities (choir, nature hikes, etc.) on our [fourth] town day. Our curriculum is divided into 36 weeks and we do 3 “weeks” worth of work every month. By spreading things out like that, I can take my breaks when I need them (e.g. when I have a book or magazine deadline).

    I could work more but choose not to. I also have a major volunteer role. Between my work and volunteering, I have a network and could assemble a nice resume rather quickly if I needed to go out and find a formal job. It is very nice having a husband with a stable job, but having a backup plan brings peace of mind, too. It also allows me opportunity to do things I’m good at and not just be a nanny herding children all day.

    1. I should add that my children are currently 10, 7 and 4. The oldest has been homeschooled 5 years, the next one started last fall, and the youngest already knows everything, LOL.

    2. @Tana – thanks for all this (and sorry about the delay in posting your comment). Yes, kids can fend for themselves a lot too. Especially 4-year-olds who already know everything! Mine is in quite a state himself these days!

  8. One reason it took me a while to figure out work/life balance is that it took me a while to determine for myself what kind of work and life I wanted to pursue, versus accepting other people’s visions for what a good mom or successful worker looks like. I had a strong resume before having my oldest child, but for various reasons including inflexible bureaucracy and lots of travel, I wound up leaving the job when she was six months old. Then I contracted here and there for a while, always thinking I could just snap my fingers and get back in the game full time if I needed to. When I wanted to, it turned out that on-ramping is no joke even if you do have a great resume and lots of transferrable skills. In the process of networking toward a full-time job, I discovered that I really prefer to work flexibly and own my schedule, so I ramped up contracting work instead of choosing a full-time job. I’m also passionate about education and wanted to homeschool.

    I ramped up my work without regular childcare by enforcing nap/quiet time, working in the mornings before the kids got up, and working at night after they went to bed and on Saturdays when my husband was home. When I needed to do client meetings I found sitters. At one point I tried taking projects requiring lots of on-site time, but the childcare hassle was immense since I couldn’t predict exactly when or how long I would need a surge in hours.

    Last fall (after a chicken-egg comment left on this blog!) I did find a fantastic nanny who we share with another family. She comes over two mornings a week for a total of ten hours and, most fantastically, she has a teaching degree and doesn’t think homeschooling is weird so she handles the kids’ core school work those mornings, giving me a little break. When I can’t fit meetings in to those two mornings, I still get additional sitting as needed, but I don’t have to stress about it and most clients are fine with me giving them the two days a week option. In addition to the ten hours a week when the nanny is here, I still work during afternoon rest times (the big kids do their assigned independent school work and the little kids play quietly or nap) and a little on Saturday morning, for an average total of 15-30 hours a week.

    Like other commenters have said, I could work more, and I do re-evaluate that frequently. At this point, homeschooling is working for my children and a source of satisfaction for me, and my income working part time is more than enough to cover bills and some extras.

    Paying for childcare hasn’t made me more profitable–I would have gotten the work done anyway–but what it has done is reduce my stress level by leaps and bounds, and that is really, really worth it. It has helped me not to burn out from homeschooling (at which I tend toward overzealousness), saves me time scrambling for last minute sitters, and has given me breathing room in the rest of my life.

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