Women Entrepreneurs: May Be, Baby!

Sara-Casual-on-Couch

After spending time traveling, working with two startups, and a brief stint on staff at a culinary school, Sara Sutton Fell was once again looking for something new. However, the game had changed: Sara was pregnant. In a society filled with full-time mothers, Sara sought emotional fulfillment from work-life balance.

By Sramana Mitra (Founder, One Million By One Million)

Over the years, I have spoken with many women entrepreneurs who had various questions around balance and flexibility. The most critical question comes up when these entrepreneurs face the have a child vs. start a company question.

One of the best conversations I ever had on the subject was with Sara Sutton Fell, founder of Flexjobs.

Sara’s story from the start has been about using the Internet to help people find jobs. A member of the early generation of Internet entrepreneurs, Sara’s two ventures, JobDirect and Flexjobs, reflect her desire to make it possible for anyone to find a job, no matter what their lifestyle.

During her younger years in Pennsylvania, Sara lived a busy life in a large family. During her junior year at UC Berkeley, her friend’s father asserted that students could build jobs of their own instead of seeking out post-graduate opportunities. That got Sara thinking.

The year was 1995. Sara and her classmate drew upon their experiences finding internships and the difficulty of applying to jobs at home while away at school. They spent months researching and building a network of industry contacts. In the fall, they started JobDirect, an entry-level job service for college graduates.

The idea excited local investors – 10 of them from a municipal bond firm sharing JobDirect’s office space – and lead to $7 million in funding. Capital, if you recall, used to flow freely in the mid-late nineties for Internet ventures. The capital helped the company expand. Sara and her co-founder increased JobDirect’s presence on other college campuses by hiring interns there. They also began to build their core team by hiring mutual friends.

JobDirect grew from two young girls to a team of 125. It was given an Inc. award for an RV advertising campaign that travelled to college campuses nationwide. The RV was equipped with laptops so that students could sign up instantly rather than waiting for Internet access at home.

One RV grew to three, and generated 750,000 users all told. In 2000, a thoroughly exhausted Sara sold her company after hiring a new CEO. She calls her incredible learning experience with JobDirect her MBA, and carried it with her to Boulder, Colorado when she moved with her husband that same year.

After spending time traveling, working with two startups, and a brief stint on staff at a culinary school, Sara was once again looking for something new. However, the game had changed: Sara was pregnant. In a society filled with full-time mothers, Sara sought emotional fulfillment from work-life balance, “something where I could work from home part of the week or have flex time hours and work three or four long days. I wanted something that would allow me to have balance at home.”

But as Sara explains in an interview for 1M/1M, “I wanted flexible opportunities and could not find them.” Frustrated by the limited opportunities available, Sara took matters into her own hands.

One of Sara’s consulting jobs, LoveToKnow, specialized in hiring stay-at-home moms to write remotely. However, Sara’s employer Howard Love was having trouble recruiting talent. They began discussing the difficulties women go through when faced with the decision to work or remain at home, and how the two rarely coexist successfully. They were shocked at the low
quality of opportunities that existed in the niche that combined flexible opportunities with flexible job seekers.

In 2007, four months after the birth of her son, Sara and Howard joined forces and each contributed seed money to create Flexjobs. Colorado-based Flexjobs is a professional job service, dedicated to helping job seekers find flexible telecommuting opportunities that would allow them to balance work and life as desired. Sara and Howard consciously chose to diversify the industries they catered to, focusing instead on creating a job board with the prequalification that all posted jobs contain an element of telecommuting and flexibility.

The beta site launched that May with a model similar to Sara’s first venture. Sign-up was free to job seekers, whereas employers looking to post would be charged. However, Sara soon found that she was spending a great deal of her time and effort on building relationships with HR professionals, trying to sell them on the model. After testing the model for two quarters with a soft launch, Flexjobs shifted its business model. By charging job seekers a subscription fee – $14.95 per month and $49.95 for a full year – the site now attracts more serious candidates and good quality jobs.

Web and software development are two of the largest site categories, with writing not far behind. Medical and education-focused jobs are also growing markets. Flexjobs counts RosettaStone, AT&T, TripAdvisor and IBM among their employers. And, true to form, the Flexjobs core team can be found all over the U.S., from California to Florida.

Sara references the term “mompreneurs” when discussing what it means to juggle work and life as she does. Though she is now the mother of two boys, Sara remains an advocate of combining business with the business of motherhood.

And that brings me to the central point of this article. Women are biologically programmed to want to have children. If entrepreneurship puts in front of them an either/or question, I’m afraid, many talented women will make the choice not to become entrepreneurs. Rather, they will fulfill their biological urge to bear children.

Sara has established a middle ground for herself and her team, and also created opportunities for balancing motherhood and intellectually stimulating work for a great many.

For those entrepreneurs facing this dilemma, my message is do what works for you. This choice is personal. No VC, no mentor, no parent, no friend, no sibling can make this choice for you.

Women 2.0 readers: How have you juggled work/life balance? Let us know in the comments!

About the guest blogger: Sramana Mitra is Founder of One Million By One Million, an educational business development and incubation program that aims to help one million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond. She is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and strategy consultant. As an entrepreneur CEO, she ran three companies: DAIS, Intarka, and Uuma. Sramana has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. Follow her on Twitter at @sramana.