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7 Management Secrets Of The Postpartum CEO

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It’s very clear to me already that I’m going to need to build more flexibility into my life — and my company’s life — to account for Arjun. I think he’ll make me a more adaptable leader.

By Pooja Sankar (Founder & CEO, Piazza)

Three weeks ago, I gave birth to a baby. After a long and sometimes challenging pregnancy where I was nervous a lot of the time, I am both relieved to hold a healthy boy in my arms and totally smitten with him.

We joke around here — and now I’m on record in the New York Times saying it — that Arjun is my firstborn child, but my second baby. My first baby is Piazza, the strapping three-year-old company I founded in 2009. My husband Shyam is an early employee at Palantir, so Arjun is kind of his second baby, too. It should sound weird to talk about our flesh-and-blood baby as the little brother of a couple of startup companies, but work with me here for a minute, because amidst all of the recent discussion about whether women can have it all, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a startup CEO with a newborn, because that’s apparently pretty rare. In the hope that it will become more common, I wanted to share my experiences so far.

Biggest all-time caveat: I want to say that so far — and I’m almost scared to type this — Arjun has been healthy. We’re extremely grateful for that, and I don’t think anything I say below would apply if that weren’t true. Also, of course, I’m only three weeks into motherhood. I may do things totally differently in a few weeks. But here’s the view from Week 3.

If I have more thoughts, I’ll keep blogging them.

Observation 1: If You Thought Startup Life Was An Emotional Roller Coaster….

I’m quite emotionally resilient as people go, and I’d sort of thought that the sine-wave elations and frustrations of starting a company — getting brutal feedback on the product, launching something great, having to let people go, and raising money — might prepare me pretty well for new motherhood.

Not so much, it turns out. This is trite, but it has to be said. There’s really nothing to compare with holding your own baby — the love, but also the worry and frustration. Will he stop breathing? Will he latch? Is he eating enough? Wait, when did he last pee? And the guilt. I didn’t expect to feel guilty for time I spend on work, but I do.

The peace I made with this during pregnancy and afterwards is that I need more time for myself, away from people in the office, and the time I spend with people from work needs to be very task-oriented. The more focused on am on operational tasks, the more my emotions seem to be in check.

Observation 2: Life Happens

In the early days of Piazza (wow — was that just last year?), I got an opportunity for exposure at an important conference in another state. The only problem: Shyam and I were getting married the day before. Some honeymoon! I went to the conference, henna and all. And it was crucial to Piazza’s development. In the startup world, you need to be ready to pivot.

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with my senior team planning for our summer development efforts. I’d been told to see the doctor for a quick check-up, so I politely waddled out of the meeting saying that I’d probably be back before it ended. Four hours later, Arjun was born.

Life happens.

Since life is going to happen, the key is to choose understanding teammates. Shyam understood from Date 1 that having a professionally satisfied wife would guarantee him a perpetual honeymoon. Here at Piazza, everyone on the team knew about the baby from embryo days, and I’ve tried to be open about the uncertainty inherent in pregnancy generally and my pregnancy in particular. And the team has rolled with it wonderfully.

It’s very clear to me already that I’m going to need to build more flexibility into my life — and my company’s life — to account for Arjun. I think he’ll make me a more adaptable leader.

Observation 3: You Aren’t Going to Need It

Here’s one exact parallel between the startup world and the baby world: there’s enormous external pressure to accumulate a lot of stuff. And here’s my experience so far in both realms: You Aren’t Going to Need It.

In software development, people want to build in every bell and whistle and every architectural flourish. Because these are smart people, one’s temptation is always to agree. You may have seen the results of this: bloatware that tries to solve every problem a user might have but doesn’t do anything well, or a meticulously engineered system that scales to 10 million users but only has 10. We try to avoid this at Piazza by not investing in anything without solid evidence of value and need. The product doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does extremely well.

In baby development, the really smart marketers of the Baby Industrial Complex would like you to believe that you need special baby furniture, five different strollers and carriers, outfits for every occasion, and a hundred other things. Because these are persuasive people, one’s temptation is to buy baby gear. You may have seen the results of this: houses piled wall to wall with stuff two months before the baby arrives. We’re trying to avoid this in the Sankar household by not buying anything until we know we need it (and baby showers aren’t really part of our culture). So far, we’ve gotten on great without a changing table (though Arjun did soak the curtains once), we’re waiting on the stroller, and Arjun has only a handful of outfits.

I’m sure we’ll buy more, just as I’m sure that Piazza will expand into new areas. But these days in America, Amazon gets you whatever you want in a day, and soon it’ll be hours. There’s really no need to buy anything before you need it.

Observation 4: Talent Invents, Genius Steals

OK, there’s not that much that you actually need when you have a baby, but there are some things and they’re actually not obvious (nor very profitable for anyone). And you know who’s figured out what those things are, for obvious economic reasons? The hospital people.

To avoid the cost and inefficiency of sending nurses scurrying around, everything in the maternity room is exactly what you need. To avoid excess cost, there’s nothing there that you don’t need. It’s a perfectly functional environment.

So we took all of it, root and branch: That little tub? We took that. The water bottle with the big straw? I use it every day and it is wonderful. Little swaddling thingies with velcro? We took those too. We would’ve taken the tray that goes up and down, but that would have been actual theft. So we bought one of those.

The take-away point here is that a lot of what you need has already been invented. Steal it.

Observation 5: Friction Hurts

In designing Piazza, I’ve tried to be really sympathetic to what users want to do with the product and reduce friction around those things. But to be honest, it’s been a while since I was the user around whom things have been optimized. So I’d maybe lost my empathetic mojo a little bit.

That’s one of the nice benefits of being a new mom. You’re very briefly the center of a little universe and people need to optimize around you. So I’m getting to relearn some of the tenets of user-centric design. For example: I had a C-Section and my midriff hurts. So I dress in frumpy robes and sit in a chair where almost everything I’ll need during the day is within an arm’s reach. When you live your life that way, it’s amazing how little you actually need, but how important it is to reduce friction (in this case literally!) when you really need it.

In this sense, being a new mom is a bit like designing for a mobile device: the smallness of your universe imposes very useful discipline.

Observation 6: Free Help is the Best Help (But Pay For It if You Need To)

Moms, I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here about being the center of the universe, but I don’t change a lot of diapers. I’m lucky enough to have four grandparents crawling all over themselves clambering to do that for me. I’ve written before about the benefits of free help for your startup, but I’ve got an even more amazing set-up now, because both sets of grandparents are living with us — one set permanently.

This is an unusual situation. I am amazingly, uniquely fortunate in my family, and I re-learn that lesson every day. What would I say to female entrepreneurs who don’t have this luxury? From my perspective three weeks in, I would say this: pay for help if you can possibly afford it. I would go crazy without the help, and what price sanity? A lot of people can help you change diapers, clean up the house, and even feed the baby at night sometimes. Thanks to all this help, I’ve been able to achieve my goal of engaging with Piazza again after one week, while remaining focused on the thing that matters most to Arjun, which is….

Observation 7: Focus on the Most Important Thing

Milk. Of course, I hope Arjun is benefiting from all the love he’s getting. But he is much more vocal about milk. I’m not saying, by the way, that every mom needs to nurse. But if you choose to do it, it may be more time consuming and emotionally wrenching than you had imagined.

As a new mother or a startup CEO, there are a million things you could be doing. The most challenging thing for me has always been to focus — and to keep the company focused — on the most important thing.

Arjun is a great little teacher precisely because his needs are so simple. I’d have thought that evolution would have designed human babies to latch easily and without the need for special training or strange devices. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but I’ll leave my childless readers with this linguistic tidbit. When a woman gives birth, the word “nipple” changes from a noun into an adjective. It modifies a lot of nouns, including “shaper” and “shield” and “confusion.”

Now back to the lesson. Nursing is important. Nursing is hard. Only I can nurse Arjun. So I focus 100% on nursing and delegate other baby-related maintenance to the above-mentioned crack staff. When I’m not nursing or making silly faces and cooing noises, that gives me time to spend on Piazza, and maybe leaves me with a little less guilt for the time I spend.

You remember Piazza? My other baby. It has crack staff, too, and it’s growing up just fine while I’m away.

This post was originally posted at Piazza’s blog.

About the guest blogger: Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza, an online gathering place where students come together to ask and answer questions in an open, collaborative environment under the guidance of their instructors. Pooja went to an all-girls high school in India and was then admitted to IIT Kanpur, India. She was one of a handful of girls in the midst of many boys. She was shy and studied alone, while the boys worked together, benefitting tremendously from the collaboration. Pooja conceived of Piazza in in 2009 in a class during her first year at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She has worked at Oracle, Kosmix, and Facebook. Pooja holds degrees from IIT Kanpur (India), the University of Maryland College Park and Stanford.