I feel like this economy is forcing a lot of people to get really creative with how they make a living and support themselves. Moms especially are getting in on the act, either out of necessity to supplement their families' income, or because they see the current economic and cultural climate as a perfect opportunity to pursue their dreams.
And so, this is the first of a three-part series I'm calling "Super Moms" - interviews with three of my mom friends who lead extraordinary lives beyond diapers and playgrounds. Of course, ALL moms are Super Moms, but these three in particular inspire me. Whether or not you're a mom, I hope they'll inspire you, too.
The first interview is with a close friend of mine, Nicole Block. Nicole and I met over three years ago when we were planning our weddings together. Several years ago Nicole started her own design company and has since made a name for herself in the custom design business. She did all the paper goods for my brother Mr. Funny's wedding to Daria in 2007, does corporate and custom-made designs, as well as some ready-to-order paper goods.
We sat down in my kitchen one gorgeous fall afternoon and chatted about running your own business and being a WAHM, while the Princeling and Baby Block entertained one another nearby.
How did you start your own business?
My old company downsized and a third of us lost our jobs, so then I had no job. I had been contemplating starting my own stationery business anyway so I decided now is as good a time as any. It was a baptism by fire. I got a website up within a month and the rest is history.
Did you already have clients lined up?
Yes, because I knew people while I was in the process of getting married who were also in the process of getting married. I also had a few close friends and family members who were getting married that I was doing work for anyway as a gift so I was able to add that to my portfolio and that helped me move everything forward. So my low-paying jobs and my free jobs helped me get more jobs. I moved on from there.
At what point did you realize this was it for you, that you could really make a living doing this?
When I realized that I was actually enjoying myself. It's hard, when you work in an office environment, especially a corporate office, even if you love the people you work with, you still have a lot of rules you have to abide by that maybe you're not so into. When you work for yourself that kind of all goes out the window and you have to satisfy yourself. That's what wound up happening. I really enjoyed myself, I really enjoyed working with my clients. I was good at what I did. I realized this was a really good thing for me as the future progressed.
How did your pregnancy affect your work? How did you decide how much time to take off for maternity leave? How did your clients react to the news?
[Laughs] Oh, well! That last part is an interesting one...
The pregnancy for a while didn't really affect anything. It was just a fun little added thing for people to talk about. By the 7th or 8th month I had to decide what I was going to do, how I was going to take some time off, how much time to take off. I figured I'd work until right before the Holidays because I was due New Year's Eve. I figured if I could work until right before Christmas, that'd be great because I'd have some time off for the Holidays and to have my baby [who did NOT come on New Year's Eve]. And then I would take three months off from that point on. That was my original plan.
Then, my clients at the time started to worry about how much time I'd have to devote to them, and if I could come back a little earlier after my maternity leave, so instead of doing three months I could do two months and come back earlier.
Everybody got very nervous, because nobody knows what to do with kids and they feel like it's very unpredictable. And I can understand that. So I worked a little bit further in than I planned to, just to make sure everything got done. I did have one client bail on me at the end because she was so nervous about getting everything done. She didn't want to take any chances, even though I was going to make sure everything got done. But she didn't know that she could count on that.
And I did have to come back a little early. Instead of my planned time of April, I came back in March. But that was it.
Did you save up for your maternity leave? Obviously if you are running your own business you don't have a company paying you for your maternity leave. How did that work for you?
We were poor. [Laughs] There was only so much I could save up because I was only making so much. I was definitely making money, my business was going well, it was on an upswing, and I was more than contributing to our household. But we felt the loss for a few months, for sure. At the same time I wasn't making enough that I could put so much aside that we could live off that for a couple of months. So I just worked as much as I could until my baby was born.
And then it was the winter anyway, and we figured we had a newborn, and it was cold outside and so we just weren't going to leave the house or worry about doing anything we had to spend money on! [Laughs] Everybody bought us food to make us feel better about caring for a newborn, and that all worked out fine. So that's how we survived!
It takes a village!
How do you keep to a work-at-home schedule with an infant to take care of?
I actually HAVE a schedule. I have a charted-out, what-I-do-at-every-second-of-the-day schedule. Our baby is a very scheduled baby, and she likes her schedules. She likes to eat at exactly the same time every day, she likes to take her naps at exactly the same time every day - when she actually does take naps - and she likes to go to bed at exactly the same time. [We both notice the Princeling crawling into the bottom of the Exersaucer that Baby Block is playing in, and butting his head into her legs. We laugh.] So that actually helps ME out, because I know exactly when she's getting up and how much time I have to do things in between. So it actually is all charted out. I have certain days where I go and spend time at my parents' house during the week, when they help take care of my daughter and I can get in a little extra work those days. And those nights I also don't cook dinner, and we know that it's part of the schedule and we're having sandwiches or leftovers because I have to work that night. And that's how we figured it out. Take every second of the day that's for her and compound it.
Do you think that working at home with a baby is easier or harder than going to an office and leaving your baby with someone?
That's a good question.
Or is it both?
I think it's harder to work at home with a baby, in a lot of ways. You can't really devote all of your time to your work. Ever. You have to watch out for what they're doing, especially as they get older and more mobile and get into everything and get into trouble. It's not like you can say, "Yeah, I can get this done today," because you don't know that. Or maybe you're up, like I was, until 3 in the morning trying to get work done everyday.
But at the same time, leaving her would of course be difficult because we're so used to being with each other. I think in a way it would be nice for me to actually be able to get work done more easily, and to see people, and I could just come home and enjoy her.
And a commute is a nice little buffer.
Absolutely. A nice little buffer, and you get downtime to actually read a book.
[Laughs] I don't know what that is anymore!
Or just drink your coffee and phase out and not have to worry about watching children.
But, I think ideally for me, my ideal setup would be to go into an office somewhere else or send her to daycare away from home three days a week. And then be home for the other two days plus the weekend. And then I can work on those other two days, but if I don't put in a full day it's Ok, and I still get the time off that's devoted to work. That's what we're working towards.
In your opinion, is pursuing a creative career (as opposed to a more business-oriented one) easier now that people can connect online?
Yes! Much easier now. We have all our social networking sites that help out. Facebook, Twitter, my website and my blog. Especially the blog.
After I had the Princeling I felt very creative and wanted to write a lot of short stories. How, if at all, has becoming a mom affected your creativity?
I'm tired. [Laughs] For a little while there I didn't have very much of it. Everything I did I tried to make into, "Oh, this has to be wonderful because I have to show my girl that I'm so good at what I do-"
Even though she was little...
Right, it didn't matter.
In a way, though, that helped propel me in the right direction because it does make me want to do stuff that will make her proud. So that's now my main motivation. So that's how I remain creative. Like, I can't say it got my creative juices flowing in a motherly sort of way, but it did get me to push harder to do better at what I was doing because I want her to look at me and be proud of what I'm doing.
What do you do when the creative juices just aren't flowing but you need to work? What do you do when you run out of energy but you need to focus and push your business forward?
When I run out of energy I just drink a lot of coffee!
As far as the creative juices not flowing when I need to work, I tend to try and do the busy-work, which I have to get done. There's always busy-work that needs to be done for any given project. If I'm doing stationery for someone there's always set-up that needs to be done, research that has to be done, color-picking that has to be done. So I try and get all that stuff out of the way because it doesn't take a lot of creativity from me. So that sort of helps me get in the right place with everything and make movement towards completing my piece when I'm not really where I need to be.
And then, I try and spend some time with [my baby] instead of forcing myself to work and look at things that inspire me and that I like to look at.
That sounds like a positive of working from home.
What sort of business savvy do you need to run your own business?
That's a good question. You need a lot more than I think I have!
You need to know what you can and can't do, legally and limitations. Like, you need to know if you're not good at keeping your own books, hire an accountant. Doing your own promotion - you either have to learn quick or you have to get help for that.
I think that a big part of the business issues is that there's a lot of promotion to be done. Promotion takes up so much time, so you have to be creative in how you're going to get that promotion done and be able to get your work done at the same time. Most of us home business owners don't have the money to hire an outside PR person to do that stuff for us.
You make your connections, you make friends with people that have some sort of weight in your field. There are a few bloggers that have a lot of weight in the wedding field and a few bloggers that have a lot of weight in the design field, so I know that if I have news that I really want to spread around I can send it to them and if they deem it worthy they'll put it up. We have a relationship going on and I'll do the same thing for them. And the same thing with Twitter, the more you help them the more they'll help you. So it takes that much less time and that much less effort to figure out what it is you need to get done.
I think you need to have a good personality to be a good businessperson. I think that that's really key if you're by yourself. You need to make so many connections, do so much networking. If you're not [a self-starter] that's really going to hurt you. You really have to be willing to put in that time and that energy.
Do you have any other advice for women out there who would like to make a living working from home?
First of all, I would say that nobody should glamorize working from home. I think that a lot of people think, "Oh, that's such an ideal setup!" And that's not necessarily true. The ideal part of it for me is that I have time to devote to my daughter and still do work. The less ideal part of it is that my daughter takes up so much of my time that my work always has to get pushed until later or into the little cracks of time that I have during the day. And it gets that much harder to really devote to what I want to devote it to. So, you know, that's something that people really need to search their feelings about and figure out if that really will work for them.
And then once they've decided that they would like to work from home, then they can move forward and get themselves set up with a good office space, you know, a nice space that's separate from everything else. And your organizational skills have to be there because otherwise everything's going to fall apart.
You can't expect to just sit in your pajamas with your laptop in bed.
[Laughs] Absolutely not, and those commercials are not true! All those commercials that say you can do that are lying! I've tried it, and it doesn't work that way!
Laptops are great for when you want to leave the house and do work at a coffee shop. Otherwise you have to have a good setup at home and sit around like you really are in an office and put yourself in the right mindset to work. Because otherwise you're going to vacuum, or visit with friends, or go shopping, and do everything except for work.
Lastly, some shameless self-promotion: For those of you who will be in the New York area on Thursday, October 29, I'll be part of a reading, panel discussion, and Q&A on the book, "Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat?" by Claire Mysko and Magali Amadei. Click here for more info. Come on out and say hi!