How to build a family-friendly startup

Less talk, more action

When I was interviewing at Drift, I fell completely in love with the vision. I wanted in so badly I could taste it. But there were two things giving me pause. And one of them was only 6 months old.

Not the 6 month old. But this picture’s the bomb, amiright?

Drift only had about 13 employees, and everything I knew told me that I wasn’t going to be able to take on a big role at a startup at my life stage.

I remember talking to David Cancel and saying, “I’m worried we have a company stage/my life stage mismatch.” It was depressing. He said, “We understand. We want you to come. We want you to be part of our story. We want to build a different technology company.”

While my brain still said, “You probably can’t hack it” I then said, “F u, brain.” And here I am.

So while our focus is building our business, and my main focus is customer acquisition, we’re still making time to build the right culture. Part of that effort is making sure we’re family-friendly from the get go.

Thanks to Erica Orthmann, I was recently invited to speak at Boston’s new Roxbury Innovation Center on Building a Family-Friendly Startup. It gave me a great opportunity to capture all the things we’ve been working on. Here’s my presentation and I hope it helps you talk less, and act more, on the topic of building a family-friendly startup.

I opened with the simple question “What is a family-friendly startup?” to get the audience engaged and see what shook. All of these statements came directly from the audience:

Based on those answers, we jointly built a statement:

I did this because I had already come up with my own definition towards the end, and I wanted to see how aligned everyone is on the topic. You’ll see in a minute the definitions are extremely close.

The rest of the presentation is based on my experience.

The most important thing I stressed on the topic of flexibility is it’s predicated on continued performance. You need to meet your goals in order to receive flexibility.

There’s a theme around Trust emerging. It’s a family value. Bringing family values into work helps create a family-friendly culture.

I recently wrote “Oh Sh*t. Your top female talent is pregnant” on Medium. It has about 38,000 views and 1,800 likes. Although I’ve been immersed in the research and conversation around parental leave, I could never have expected how many people would responded to me directly to talk more. There’s so much progress to be made establishing great policies and making women and men feel like they can take them. I was delighted to make so many connections, but my heart sank at the nature. Every outreach was a woman struggling with her pregnancy at work and feeling cut out, or like she couldn’t take her policy, or that she was stuck in a job but couldn’t leave because of family planning.

This was the toughest part of my presentation. While I was encouraging the audience that they need to be advocates for themselves (and there were men in the audience, too!), I felt it necessary to talk about the fine line between advocating, and pushing for something the organization can’t provide. Some start-ups can’t afford to pay for parental leave. You also have to know the law, which should be part of your research. There’s federal and state laws — check to see if there’s a difference.

I recently heard a founder/CTO of a Boston-based startup and his wife had a baby, and he came into the office the next day. That’s bullshit. You cannot be a leader who wants to build a family-friendly culture, and set that example. This is my beef with Mayer. The higher you climb, the harder it is to take the time; I get it. But Zuck took two months, so let’s all just settle down and admit companies can succeed without even their top ranking execs for extended periods of time.

A lot like the group definition, huh?