Third Baby, Second Startup, First Priorities
Jill Hamburg Coplan
Four years ago, mother of one Monica Larson was half of an entrepreneurial couple whose company facilitated mortgage exchanges via the Internet. Back then, HuskyLabs (later Ultraprise) couldn't afford an office, so she shared her West Virginia breakfast table with 13 employees and their laptops. When BusinessWeek Online profiled Larson two years ago (See BW Online, 12/2/99, "The New Mommy Track: Chief Executive, Cook, and Bottle Washer"), Ultraprise had raised millions in venture capital and graduated to an office. Employees were nearing 120, children numbered two.
When we heard recently that she and her husband, CEO David Levine, had a new venture and a third child, it seemed the right time to check in and see how they are balancing all the changes.
TAKING WORK HOME.
Now, instead of building a company in an office at home, they're creating a home out of their former office. Conveniently, it's an old farmhouse on the Potomac. Though Levine, a former rock musician, is still an Ultraprise director, they've moved on from that endeavor. The focus now: Butterfly.net, which is developing networking software for multiplayer computer games.
Like many entrepreneurial families, their work/life equation has changed in important ways -- and not just the switch from having a neglected, shaggy lawn to living in a new place with a backyard that remains little better than a muddy construction site.
When Larson had her first and second children, she took them along on business trips. But with three children, the youngest just 9 months old, keeping appointments with the kids in tow is no longer an option. So these days, she keeps her focus local. This means that even though she works full time at the couple's office in town, she has her sitter bring the baby in for nursing sessions, which often take place during the afternoon staff meeting.
The household under construction is, naturally, busy, noisy, and lacking in privacy. When she has an after-hours business call, she seeks out quiet wherever she can find it. Says Larson: "I usually take it into the bathroom and chat over the hum of the fan."
They've also learned to take it easy, particularly if there is no alternative. When home construction fell behind schedule last winter, for example, they were homeless for a month. So, to help fill the gap, the couple sent themselves to the Caribbean and stayed for two weeks. "We don't take vacations, so a mandatory one was a terrific thing," she says.
But the most significant change in their work/family lives is that the couple, previously "total equals" at work, have become boss and subordinate: Larson is the vice-president in charge of art and marketing and Levine runs the business as president and CEO.
"It became apparent we needed one leader -- a lightening rod for clients, press, and investors," she explains, "and this coincided with the birth of my children. Let's face it, when the kids are infants, they need mom for more hours than dad." These days, while she continues to thrive on the intellectual and creative stimulation of her job, that role isn't at the core of her identity. Says Larson: "I happen to be good at marketing, but I'm not defined by it,"
GIVE AND TAKE.
Even so, in the throes of starting up a new business, it's still hard striking a balance. Sure, dad takes charge of the bedtime routine and a neighborhood carpool helps the logistics, but Larson still finds herself making those working-mom sacrifices: not enough exercise, sleep, or personal time.
As for Larson's plans, I asked her what experience has taught her.
"I'll trust my gut a lot more," she says. She'll also have T1 lines installed in the family home for maximum efficiency. And while Larson continues to emphasize parenting, she remains a vice-president, so those bathroom business calls are destined to end. When the construction work is finished, there'll be two offices in their new home -- his and hers.
Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan