Can A Middle-Aged Mom Launch A Startup? Maybe.


By Erica Etelson (Founder, Sharemore)

When I started telling friends about my plan to launch a startup, eyebrows were raised. People who know me wondered aloud how I would fare without going to the gym, sleeping eight (okay, nine) hours a night and being home by five o’clock to spend unhurried time with my family.

They have a point: I’m a 44-year old mother who does not have the expansive time and energy of a single, childless 23-year old. Is it possible to found an e-commerce website without losing my life? Tech founders have lots of advice for those of us just starting out, but the operating assumption is clearly WORKAHOLISM, as in, handcuff yourself to your laptop, partake strictly of ramen and shun direct sunlight and the company of people who are not likewise handcuffed to laptops. Am I right?

There are probably some valid reasons why startups roll this way, chief among them investor pressure to get the show on the road. But I suspect the workaholic expectation also has something to do with the fact that investors, many of them former founders themselves, feel that today’s founders must go through the same hazing ritual they themselves did. It’s the same reason medical residents are worked beyond exhaustion (health outcomes be damned) and law students are tormented by the Socratic method – mentors and teachers feel obliged to do unto their pupils what was done to them, even if there are healthier approaches that could achieve the same goal.

Working “x-tremely” hard is widely admired in our culture. Success, we are led to believe, is for those who are not merely driven but are, literally, tireless. Yet, pick up any spiritual self-help book and it will tell you (what you already know) – that what really matters in life is taking care of ourselves, our loved ones and communities.

Many of us nod our heads in agreement, then go right back to obsessing over whatever it is that keeps us from leading fulfilling lives. (Except for Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur and author of Wall Street Journal bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek. I just learned about this book and, believe me, it went straight to the top of my reading list).

Four hours a week sounds dreamy, but I’d settle for 30. In fact, I’ve long dreamed of working for an organization where everyone works 30 hours a week – I never found that workplace but have always managed to negotiate myself into a part-time role. My co-workers have often commented that I seemed to get as much done in 20 hours as others did in 40; this isn’t just because I’m a good time-manager – I think many people, given the chance, could be more productive working fewer hours.

During off-hours, our minds and bodies recharge, reset and refuel – some of my best ideas and insights have come to me on the treadmill, listening to an inspiring story on NPR, walking in the woods or just interacting with people. If I hadn’t had the downtime to exercise, socialize or commune with nature, these “aha” moments would never have come.

As a founder, working less than a million hours a week means asking for help. With all of the open source social media tools now available, this is easier than I expected: I ask a question on LinkedIn and get an answer from an expert (instead of spending five hours googling my brains out). When I needed to produce a short video introducing my business concept, a former co-worker offered up his services (for free). When I needed advice on how to trademark my business name, I emailed my college boyfriend who’s now an IP attorney (okay, he hasn’t responded yet, but I’m sure he will any day now)!

The point is, the workahol-a-beast can perhaps be tamed if we ask for help and adopt the uber-efficiency strategies that I hope to God are spelled out in The 4-Hour Workweek. I wonder how many of the dot com boomers ever slowed down enough to consider whether there was another way. Or did they think that seeking a more sane and balanced approach, one that involved asking for help, just wasn’t macho enough?

My business model is sound and, if it flies, it will help people who are struggling financially, and it will help protect the environment. That’s as far as it goes – my business won’t save the world, so I don’t need to become some kind of Ayn Rand Super-entrepeneuer. I’m going to try building it my way. If the founders of yore are right, and I have to choose between having a business or having a life, I know which I’ll choose.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

Photo credit: Giorgio Montersino on Flickr

About the guest blogger: Erica Etelson is the Founder of Sharemore, a website that facilitates renting, borrowing and buying second-hand stuff. She’s a former environmental and human rights attorney, journalist and sola marketing strategist, and lives in Berkeley with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter at @sharemoretweets.

  • Nazareen Ebrahim

    Very nice article. I agree 100% with your outlook – we can work 30-35 hours a week and be good, whole productive souls. We don’t need to sell our souls to get achieve great things. I know this, understand it and am pursuing it. Thank you again Erica, it is great to know that there are minds that have similar thoughts in the world. Creates more peace and positive energy.

  • Maria Garcia Smith

    Great comments, I`m 49 years old and have started my new venture a few months ago, age is relative and means experience, especially if you have failed before, vision is ageless, it`s a matter of having the right focus, and the correct support,investors need to look at it beyond how much grey hear we have!

    I still work 70 hours weeks and love it!
    Will be visiting the Bay Area from Peru for the Feb14th Pitch event!.

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  • Nadine Schaeffer

    Best of luck to you, and my respect for holding onto your work/life balance and values. I started a business last year, at the age of 43, and it has been very successful and extremely rewarding for me. Like you, I prefer to work sane hours every day, but very productively, and maintain the time for the rest of my life.

    I harbor a secret suspicion that some of the reasons the 20 something entrepreneurial crowd works such crazy hours is because … well, they aren’t very experienced or good at what they do yet.

    I believe in efficiency. I believe that working all night often ends with very poor work. I believe more hours is sometimes the opposite of quality work. And I believe there is huge value in life experience.

    Here’s to the success of start-ups of all ages :)

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  • Louise Donnelly-Davey

    Whole-heartedly agree with your comments re the 20 hour working week. I have long been a believer that given 20 hours many (read most) of us would do what was required and above in this period of time and that the 40 hour week for many professional occupations is somewhat redundant.

    Many of my aha moments have in fact come while trying to get to sleep.. in the shower – or as you say.. on the treadmill.. they are seldom realised while slaving over a proposal or trying to meet a deadline.

    Good luck with Sharemore … I will be following you with interest. Lou (a fellow middle aged mum with a mission) :)

    Note – I am from New Zealand and yes that is how we spell realised :)

  • Brigid Brahe

    Erica I was thrilled to read your post and could not have said it better myself. As a 48 year old ex software professional venturing into my first start up I’ve at times felt that this club is closed to women over 40. Though I believe in hard work I also believe in smart work and think that one does their best when they are well rested and in balance. A 60-80 hour work week provides neither. I too am working on a peer to peer marketplace with environmental benefits and am based in Oakland. In the spirit of asking for help I’d be delighted to connect with you to share ideas and tips.

  • Donna Haghighat

    Hi Erica,
    I too am a already busy 44 year old woman starting a company I have personal passion for. I am at the trademarking questions stage too! Irony. Would love to connect via email or I am on twitter, either at “dohag” or “shoptimizeorg” my company Shoptimize will feature products only from companies that are women led, women run or women owned.

  • Liz Derr

    Bravo to you! Working smarter not harder has always been my goal. I am a 47 year old female software professional launching a technology start up, and I am making time for a personal life, too. I can do this because my startup is self-funded. Not an avenue many can choose, I know. But I have no anxious investors to appease, no guilt or stress when my latest pivot doesn’t prove to be as fruitful as I’d hoped. After leaving the corporate rat race, I’ve started getting enough sleep, eating healthy and exercising more. I feel great and am enjoying the chance to use all my skills and knowledge to identify opportunities and develop creative solutions. If I want to work 60 hour weeks and be stressed until I can’t sleep, I know I can always go back.

  • Melanie

    Si se puede! Kudos to you Erica, and you’re not alone. I just turned 40 and launched a kid’s writing website at the same time. My kids are young and such an important part of my everyday life that to merge my love of software and kid’s education was the perfect fit. It’s not easy and it’s moving slowly b/c my kids come first, but it’s a much more exciting ride than working for a company.

  • Laura Zavelson

    Love your post. I talk to my entrepreneurship students all the time — especially the young women–about not being afraid to create your own definition of success. Yes! You CAN be an entrepreneur and have a family. Thanks for setting a great example.

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  • Nana Yaa

    Insightful article indeed.

  • Reem Yared

    Hi, Erica
    I also started my company, at 44. The irony is, I could not have started it earlier, because it is only as a mother of teens speaking to other parents of teens that I realized there was an opportunity for a community jobs marketplace in suburbs across America.
    I have been consulting to start-ups for 15 years, focusing on information services and web marketplaces, dying to commit to a start-up, but holding back because my kids were too young & I couldn’t commit to 80 hours a week.
    Now they are grown, I have learned a ton from all my experiences with other start-ups in the same domain, and thanks to the kids, I saw a market need.
    And yeah, we launched our proof of concept in my town of Lexington, MA in 2011 and we’ve got traction!
    And there are so many wonderful moms out there who want to get back into the workforce and are willing to help a struggling start-up. We have a talented segment of the workforce all to ourselves.
    Best of luck to you all,