I had the pleasure of speaking at the first annual WomanCon event in Manhattan last week. I always love the chance to head into that spectacular city and spend some time meeting with other small business geeky folks. And I especially enjoyed this trip, as it was a group of women entrepreneurs gathering to share different aspects of the grand game that is business building. I was so inspired by the presentations and the conversations I had there. It is a very collaborative and encouraging community, which comes in very handy when you are working to build a successful business.
I thought I would share my speech with all of you, as I think it pertains to a broader audience of entrepreneurs. I talked about how to keep the human side of your business thriving. These are the original notes I wrote for my speech. I don’t believe in “reading speeches”, so the actual talk itself was an ad-libbed version of this. I even got a bit lost in the mid-to-late slides, so a few parts of these notes were skipped completely in the presentation!
I talked about some very important goals of mine as a woman business owner. I hope they will valuable to some other business owners out there, as well. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Notes from Pamela O’Hara’s speech at WomanCon in NYC, September 25th, 2013.
I don’t often speak at women’s groups, but I accepted this invitation for a few reasons. One, because I was invited by Laura Leites. There are some people in your life, that no matter what they ask you to get involved in, you say yes. Laura is one of those people. And secondly, I come here as a business owner, who happens to be a woman and a mom. I think the best thing I can do, as a woman and a mom, is to work as a business owner to build a business that values other women and moms and fathers and men and single people and all of my employees. That is where I can have the greatest influence on working families today.
First, a little about me. I am the founder and CEO of Batchbook. We make a very easy to use customer relationship management product that helps new businesses get launched with a real sales process. We are based out of Providence, RI and have about 20 employees.
I also co-founded The Small Business Web, which is a trade association of small business focused online software companies. Our board includes Google, Intuit, Constant Contact, and Olark. We meet a few times a year to work on integrating our products to create a “web” of software tools small businesses can pick and choose from to build their own enterprise level suite.
I have 4 kids
I like to tell people that I have four children. The very inspiring and accomplished group of 3 you see here plus my company, born the year in between my second and third child. I think of Batchbook as my fourth child because, like my children, people’s lives depend on me. I started the company with 4 employees, myself included. From the start there were 3 other lives dependent on my commitment to this project. Unlike working moms who depend on a paycheck from someone else, I depended on that household income from myself. And three other people, five if you count their children, did as well.
You would never ask me which of my children is my priority. They all are. Same with my business. I can not say it always takes priority over my family, but I also can not say they always take priority over the business. Too many lives depend on me, so I must constantly prioritize them all. And it constantly changes. When my son has an asthma attack, he is the priority. When my daughter has a field hockey game, she is. When Amazon Web Services US-East goes down, my business is the priority.
Everyone is Different
An important thing that I need to remember as the head of my business is that not every family looks like mine. There are single parent families, same sex families, adopted families, military families, grandparent families, disabled families. It is important to me when looking at healthcare policies, insurance policies, paid leave policies, maternity/paternity policies, workday schedules, social activities, communication tools, employee manuals, all of the things I need to run my business, to remind myself that they must serve all of my employees equally, no matter their situation.
When we first launched our CRM product in 2008, each of the five employees on the team took turns handling customer service. I was the only one doing phone service, so the 800 customer number rang directly on my cell phone. Luckily, I rarely got calls, but there were times when I would be on a playground or at the children’s museum helping explain to a customer how to import their file.
The most challenging times were taking phone calls in the car. For some reason, 5 and 3 year olds demand your attention in the car, especially if you are on the phone. So I started keeping a bag of Twizzlers in my glove compartment. If I got a customer service call, I would dole out the Twizzlers and tell the customer they had 2 chewy candies worth of my time to get help. I never hid the fact that I was a working mom from my customers or from my kids. I did what it took to get both done to everyone’s satisfaction.
I saw Karen Finerman on MSNBC’s Morning Joe talking about tips for her daughters on being a female executive. Her quick advice on the show was to “never cry and never cuss”. I immediately said to myself, “well shit”.
Being raised a southern belle, I don’t think I ever did cuss until I moved to New England, started my own business and learned the true meaning of hard work. I very rarely cry, but I don’t want to create an environment where if someone has a very human reaction to a tough day, a tough conversation, a tough problem, they feel like they can not be successful at my company. Men or women. Young or my age. Rookies or pros. I spend a lot of time talking to my team about respect, but I also trust them to be and act like grown-ups. And sometimes grown-ups cry.
I take not only my family very seriously, but the families of my employees very seriously. I know that what we are doing as a company impacts my employees’ lives, their partners’ lives, their children’s lives, their aging parents’ lives … so many different lives. We are all very cognizant of what is happening with each other and support each other with formal leave policies and flexible schedules. But also with informal gatherings and retreats. We have staff across the country, so can not always bring the extended families together, but we still work very hard to make sure those who aren’t close by still know they are valued.
I mentioned we are spread across the country and work on flexible schedules. This makes for good work/life balance, but can you operate a business this way? People love a good company culture, but they love their paycheck more.
It comes down to having the right team. Virtual work, and especially virtual leadership, is not for everyone. It takes extreme communication skills, self discipline and a dogged commitment to the cause. We usually work with virtual staff (and local staff, as well) on a contract basis before bringing them on full time in order to insure it is a good fit. It can be very tough, but with the right team and the right tools it can be done.
Take Time to Play
We have 5 weeks mandatory vacations for all employees at Batchbook, no matter how long they have been with the company. 1 week per quarter and one floating week. We are accomplishing 2 things with this policy; first, it recharges the employee.
This work can be a grind, so it is important for everyone to take the time to step away and focus on other aspects of their lives. Secondly, it builds continuity for the company, which is especially important for a tech company. When we are forced to regularly have another person manning the switches, whichever switches those may be, there is always someone around to handle the emergency situations.
Share Your Story
I think the way for us to all be successful starting and running our own businesses is to continue to share the success stories, the soon-to-be-success stories, and even the “I fell flat on my face but learned a ton” stories. So I’ve shared a bit of my own, but I also encourage you to share yours. You can do it on a blog post, at a local entrepreneur’s group, or anywhere. Someone out there needs to be inspired by your story and mentored by what you’ve learned.