How 10 Small Business Owners Manage Work-Life Balance

Photo: Havenly. Design: Abbie Winters
Learning how to negotiate work and the demands of "real life" is a struggle for everyone. Maintaining focus, excitement, drive, and being "successful" (whatever that means to you) is even more of a challenge when you're the boss. How do you make sure any employees you have are able to do the work to the best of their ability? How do you separate professional time from personal time when you're responsible for both? And is there really any down time for people who are running growing businesses?
We spoke to 10 entrepreneurs — with nine different companies that run the gamut from parenting resources to beauty to swimwear — about their wins, struggles, and ongoing outlooks. We wanted to know: What does work-life balance mean when you're the boss? Here's what they had to say.
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Photo: Julia Kuzmenko. Design: Abbie Winters.

Lora Arellano
Co-CEO & Cofounder, Melt Cosmetics

"It’s crucial to have a good business partner that understands you, and in my case, someone who is okay with me traveling. Dana, my cofounder, really stays grounded here. I have to travel a lot, and she takes care of everything when I’m gone. Without her and our team, we wouldn’t be able to run this company. She knows what I like or would disagree with, and she makes decisions that way — knowing that I would make the same ones.

"There are always things that can go wrong in the business, whether it's production deadlines, or something is wrong with a box, or it doesn’t come in from Italy on time. We just finished liquid lipsticks and found out that the stopper didn't hold the liquid inside and [the tubes] were leaking, so now we have to re-run them. You just talk through it and negotiate with the company, and most of the time, they cover the cost to fix it, and we move on. If we have to move a launch date, it’s not the end of the world. We try not to over-stress about quotas and numbers too much.

"Honestly, when I worked in retail for somebody else, I hated my life and I hated my job. I would come home to my ex-boyfriend and cry every single night because I was so unhappy; everything was about numbers. Yes, numbers are important, but I don’t ever want to make my employees feel like I did [before]. Every time I come in, we're smiling and laughing, and everyone makes a little family. We buy doughnuts for each other. We take shots on Friday sometimes! We try to make the coolest thing out there, and so we also want to be as excited as possible about our work. We can get a little more serious later on when we have investors, but I want everybody to enjoy coming into work. Every month, we take a day off to do a day of volunteer work and keep that family ambiance of giving back to the community. We try to not make our work feel like work."
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Photo: Guarionex Rodriguez, Jr. Design: Abbie Winters.

Danit Zamir & Julia Capalino
Cofounders, Bloomerent

Capalino: "Having a cofounder means that you have someone to keep you accountable. Danit and I handle different aspects of the business and we have a weekly meeting to check in on last week’s progress and report the next week’s goals. Even if you don’t have a cofounder, find someone in your space and set up a weekly meeting to share goals and progress — and have a very clear understanding of your [respective] responsibilities. Take time to break down every aspect of the business and assign someone's name to it. That way, when an email comes in that relates to a certain aspect, one person immediately knows she owns it."

Zamir: "I have a hard time turning work off and often find myself working into the early hours of the morning and over the weekend, too. If an email comes in, I answer it. If a customer reaches out, I jump on the phone with them and then organize our database and website accordingly. I finally realized that I had to take a step back to create a more realistic balance after my husband and I bought a home. There is so much work to do on a new home, and it forced me to spend my weekends working on the house. Now, after I get home during the week, instead of continuing to work in my home office, I force myself to turn off my computer — and that has made a big difference."
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Photo: Josh Meister. Design: Abbie Winters.

Prerna Gupta
CEO & Cofounder, Hooked

"The secret to work-life balance is discipline. It takes discipline to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat well, make time for family, and say no more often than saying yes. I find it easiest to stay balanced when I am disciplined about sticking to my daily routine. I try to get eight hours of sleep every day, eat three healthful meals a day, exercise five days a week, and read for pleasure before bed every night so that I go to sleep with a clear mind. I schedule my work around this routine and say no to opportunities that will disrupt it, unless they are incredibly important.

"I also prioritize spending time with family and being in nature over attending incessant business networking events, dinners, and coffees. I am most effective at work when I am living a balanced life, and recognizing that helps me prioritize my personal well-being over short-term professional gains."
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Photo: Amy Bao Photography. Design: Abbie Winters.

Laura Behrens Wu
CEO & Cofounder, Shippo

"I’m seeing a transition from conversations about work-life balance to conversations about work-life integration. The first term suggests that work and life sit on opposite ends of the seesaw. I genuinely love my work and I try to find a way to integrate my life into it; the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

"A mentor once told me: 'If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be any good at work. By taking care of yourself first, you are actually taking responsibility of your duties.' So in practice, for me, this usually means blocking off time on my calendar for jogging, reading, traveling, taking care of my cat, meditating, sleeping well, and being with people who are close to me. Work changes constantly, so I create routines in my life to do all of those things, and even establish what time I get up, what I eat for breakfast, when I mediate, and when I work out.

"A word of caution to those who have a packed schedule: Networking dinners and meet-ups are important, but it’s impossible to attend each one, especially if it takes focus away from some of your bigger initiatives. It’s important to learn to say no, and to delegate tasks. By contrast, put things on your schedule that are non-negotiable — I can’t underscore this enough. Making time for things that are important to you, and activities that serve as a source of energy, is a major component of taking care of yourself. For me, family trumps work, so I make sure I have time for that."
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Photo: Noemie Marguerite Photography. Design: Abie Winters.

Altrichia Cook
Designer & Founder, Allusions by A.Lekay Swimwear

"Balance is BS. You're never off-duty as a mother or a wife, and when you’re building a business, you're never off that clock either. But my family is such a huge part of everything that I do, and just like I'm a team player, I explain to the people around me that I need them to be team players as well. I may want to finish cooking dinner by 6:30 every night, but that just doesn't work for my family. The important thing is that everyone is on the same page and communicating. My boys, big Anthony and little Anthony, have my back because they know that I have theirs.

"My son is a young boss himself and helps me with work, like filling orders. When I have to speak or showcase, he and my fiancé help me set up and take everything down, and they’ve even worked the booth. But what they have going on is no less important than what I have going on, so there are also times when I have to turn my phone off. I restrict my technology use when I'm being a mother, like helping out with homework or sitting at the table for dinner. I want to show my son that I'm engaged and that what he's saying is important. He plays basketball, and I’ll make little snacks for his team and cheer for him. When I can't go to his games because of business, one of his teammates' moms FaceTimes the game so he doesn’t feel forgotten and knows I’m there, even if I’m not physically present. You need a village as a mother and for the functionality of your business.

"I was a teenage mom, so I learned how to multitask well and ask for help. When you become a mother, you kind of lose your identity, and only 2% of teenage mothers go off to college by the age of 30. I was homecoming queen, cheer captain, and class president in high school, and I've always been ambitious, so when I found out I was pregnant just a month before graduating, I thought, Okay…but I'm still going to college. My family was so supportive... Other people on campus saw me as 'the girl with the cute baby' — not as Altrichia — but many of those people would offer to help with my son. And when other girls got pregnant, they would come to me and ask for help or feedback or advice. It took a village then, and it still does now. No one can help you if you don't tell them that you need it. If you feel like you must do everything all by yourself, of course it will feel like you're struggling. Everything becomes easier when you let people know how they can pitch in, and you reciprocate when they need you. It’s about teamwork. Do I feel overwhelmed sometimes? Absolutely. But I'm never alone."
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Photo: Clue. Design: Abbie Winters.

Ida Tin
CEO & Cofounder, Clue

"As a leader, I see a lot of things that I feel I can personally take care of. I used to try to do too much myself instead of assessing my limitations and then delegating tasks, which would enable others to share the workload with me. That was a big mistake for several reasons. It made me scattered, it made me create a bottleneck, and spreading myself so thin meant that things often went overlooked and tasks weren’t completed as well as they could have been.

"I realized this was starting to have a negative impact on my work after things started to fall by the wayside. I was not delivering in key areas as well as I wanted to because I was too caught up in every little thing. When your work starts to suffer, that’s when you know certain habits need to change.

"Now, I try to really focus on the things that I, uniquely, can do, and I take a step back to grant others the autonomy to take care of the rest. This allows the whole company to grow and work at a high speed, while enabling me to deliver on the core things that the company needs from me. Letting go and trusting others to take over important tasks is not easy when you are so invested in something, but I think it is something that everyone in any positions should think about in order to be more productive. Letting go is easier as a team grows. Now, there are many talented people around me who are honestly better-equipped than I am to take care of certain things."
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Photo: Sara Mauskopf. Design: Abbie Winters.

Sara Mauskopf
CEO & Cofounder, Winnie

"The typical Silicon Valley start-up has a mentality where you have to work 24/7, and if you don’t sink all your time and energy into the company, it's not going to be successful. When my cofounder and I started Winnie, we were very deliberate about doing things differently. Some of it was out of necessity — we are both parents with young children whom we want to be there for — but we also believed that [working differently] would make us more successful.

"We don't work weekends, and we don't work 24/7, but we do work smart and prioritize... It's hard to stand out in Silicon Valley and recruit top talent. You can't pay what Google pays as a start-up, but I think our flexible work culture is something that really stood out to people. We understand that people have lives outside of work, and if that means you have to take your kid to a doctor's appointment during the day, we get it. We just care about what you get done, and we're flexible in terms of when you do that work.

"Even so, as deliberate as we were about building a company with flexibility, I was obviously not deliberate about my husband getting sick and being diagnosed with cancer months into starting Winnie. We were still in development, and I thought hard about whether I even wanted to continue with the company or just shut things down, but my team really stepped in and took over, which allowed me to focus on my husband and get him better. They even launched the Winnie app without me. I think what helped is that we had set up the company in a flexible way that allowed me to be involved even if I wasn’t physically there. I was online from the hospital sometimes, or in and out of the office; I wasn’t completely absent.

"You need to have a strong team, because even if you have every intention of being the CEO who's always there and who devotes your life to your work, things that are out of your control can happen. The experience was really tough, and of course my husband bore the brunt of it, but it's helped all of us see the big picture. I'm not going to sweat the small stuff. If an investor rejects us or our user numbers are bad one week, we’ll recover. Winnie is a more resilient company now because we know how to put things in perspective and move on when needed."
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Photo: Numa Perrier. Design: Abbie Winters.

Numa Perrier
CEO & Cofounder, Black&Sexy TV

"I realized last year that I was depressed and lonely because most of my efforts and thoughts belonged to this entity — the company — leaving me little room for my own personal desires. [Acknowledging] that was sobering and difficult to share with anyone. As a woman and the mother of a young girl, I felt an extra sense of responsibility to 'have it together' and be a solid example. I felt better when I read similar stories from other entrepreneurs, especially women and moms like me.

"Building and running an independent media company like Black&Sexy TV requires stamina. [In our office], we often talk about it like a marathon; no network was built overnight. The challenge is that I'm a sprinter. I'm used to operating on bursts of high speed and then rest, and I've had to figure out how that fits when working on long-term goals that need slower, steadier pacing. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I've accepted these waves as part of the reality. All of these feelings are part of the balance we say we seek. I love doing my part to propel this company forward. Many short sprints equal a marathon, eventually."
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Photo: Havenly. Design: Abbie Winters.

Lee Mayer
CEO & Cofounder, Havenly

"The hardest part about the concept of 'work-life balance' is that we're often too hard on ourselves when we feel like things are 'out of balance.' It's helpful to remember that everything changes. There are times when you’ll be driven hard at work trying to close a deal or raise funding for a new company. There are also slower weeks when it's important to take the opportunity to catch up with family and friends, or unplug for a week. So, to me, work-life balance is a bit of a red herring.

"Work is a big part of my life! I love what I do, so I do it whenever I can. Sometimes you’ll catch me reviewing product designs on the ski gondola on a Saturday morning, or sending emails late into the night when I can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other things, but I find that thinking about life more holistically, as opposed to a zero-sum game in which I’m either 'living' or working, keeps me sane."

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