Launching a startup can be all-consuming. For entrepreneurs, there’s usually no such thing as work-life balance, much less being able to take maternity leave. But when Heather Burkman founded Go-Comb, a company that makes credit card-sized combs that fit in your wallet, she knew she didn’t want to give up her personal life or time with her young daughter.
As Burkman was getting her business off the ground, she made strategic choices that allowed her to remain in charge of her schedule — even taking time off after having a baby — and succeeded. After nearly four years as a solopreneur, the former product marketer has seen her combs featured in top publications like Vogue and Real Simple, and sold in stores around the world.
We asked Burkman to share her tips for how she was able to take maternity leave while running a startup and create a company that supports a flexible, family-friendly lifestyle.
BE SAVVY ABOUT HOW YOU FUND YOUR BUSINESS
A question a lot of entrepreneurs face is whether to take on investors. My husband is a venture capitalist, so I've seen how getting major investors shapes a company. Their stake means you’re partially beholden to their goal: growing your business as quickly as possible, sometimes at the cost of your personal life. While this is a great way to develop big ideas into major businesses, that approach wasn’t for me.
I had a long-term vision for my quality of life and I knew that in a few years we would want to start a family. To enable a family-friendly lifestyle, I purposely did not look for private investors and used Kickstarter instead. I re-invested a lot of the money in the beginning. And I run a really tight ship. I'm pretty stingy about where I'm spending money and try to be smart about expenses. That’s how I run my business without major investors. I can be flexible, set my own goals and take time off when I need it. Now that I have a 1-year-old, it's hard to imagine giving that up.
AUTOMATE AND DELEGATE
I knew I didn’t want to work 24/7, so I automated everything I could. On my website, sales are routed directly to my fulfillment center. They ship orders and send tracking info directly to my customers. I send Amazon a boatload of inventory and they sell it down. I work with a PR company that is constantly landing us new magazine features or sending out samples. All these things allow for a pretty automated workflow. I can just plug and play and leave my systems to run.
Before my maternity leave, I prepped those elements to run on their own for a few months. But I couldn’t pause the wholesale side of my business; contact with those buyers is crucial. That's when I hired a salesperson to manage wholesale. In the beginning of my maternity leave, I worked a couple hours a week — an email here, an Instagram post there. I started to work part-time when my daughter was only about 8 weeks old, which is not a full maternity leave like the kind I might have had at my old job. However, now she’s a year old, and I’m still able to just work two-thirds time with flexible hours. So that's the trade-off: I can't always step away completely from work, but I can have the schedule that I want.
PRIORITIZE WHAT’S IMPORTANT AT WORK AND HOME
When you own your company, your personal life can get intertwined with business. Over the last two years, I've had several major life events: my mom’s passing, my sister-in-law getting sick, and giving birth to my daughter. I was able to take extra time for these personal matters, time that might have been more difficult to take off at a traditional company. It's times like those, though, when the business can take the back burner and I have to accept that growth might not be as strong.
Every six months or so I sit down and create goals for the business, both hard-number goals and soft goals. That might mean growing wholesale by X amount or growing the Amazon channel by X amount. I’ll break those bigger six-month goals into smaller monthly goals. Then I break those monthly goals into weekly tasks. It might seem minor, but I make a checklist on my computer and, rather than deleting a task when it's done, I'll leave it up and check it off so I can say, “Oh, I have accomplished this, this and this week.”
With such a small company it's likely that goals and strategy will shift as opportunities arise and life happens. So it's helpful to set some hard, long-term goals, but stay flexible at the same time.