How to Handle a Paternity Leave in a Startup

Introduction

Do you own a startup or small business? Do you have kids or are you preparing to have a baby? As men, it's tempting to tell ourselves that it's OK to only take a few days off following the birth of a child. You're not running a Fortune 500 company with paid paternity leave, and frankly your business IS you. How can you possibly leave it all alone for more than a few days?

I'm here to encourage you to ignore that temptation and to provide you some advice on how to handle a paternity leave in your startup or small business. I'm talking to you, dudes, or at least you, the one who isn't having a baby in the relationship.


I'm a co-founder and COO of Giant Hat, a software development consultancy which works with tech startups to solve their problems and bring products to market. I have a lot on my plate in my role here: operations, financials, project management, front-end development, client relationships, business development. I recently became a father of two and I want to share my experience with preparing to take a paternity leave.

In the startup world, we're encouraged to engross our lives in the pursuit of the success of our idea. I'm here to tell you that with the right team and preparation (yes, you have to prepare for it) you can take a paternity leave. It might not be 12 weeks of paternal bliss, but it will be enough time to help transition things at home and to provide a needed level of support to your partner or spouse. I'm going to show you how you CAN and why you SHOULD do it.

Intangibles

Advice out of context is no advice at all. So let me tell you a little bit more about my situation. I'm super fortunate to have a tightly knit support group around me in both my personal and professional life.

First of all, my wife gets it. She understands the sacrifice and support that goes into every moment of owning your own business. I wouldn't be able to do this without that.

We have a single mother of two on our team at Giant Hat. Having Kathy on the team to understand, empathize, and advise from first-hand experience was invaluable.

Even though my business partner doesn't have kids, I have a high level of trust in his commitment to a family-friendly workplace. Thanks, Bredon.

Last but not least, my wife and I had our first child not long after I joined up with Bredon. So the second time around we were able to anticipate and plan much more effectively.

OK, on to the juicy stuff...

What We Did to Prepare

Set out of office, damnit

I'm serious. Do it. Once you catch your breath after that baby arrives, go in and set it. Here's what I said:

Oh Happy Day! You are receiving this automated response because on July 09, 2015 my wife gave birth to our second child - a beautiful and healthy baby boy. As such I am taking some time off and will return somewhat part-time to check in on email and your project on July 20. If I am able to check in sooner I will certainly do so, as you are important to me.

For communications not of the urgent nature, please contact my business partner and CEO of Giant Hat, Bredon Jones @ [email protected]

If this is urgent, please contact [email protected] via email or call 314-254-2024.

Talk Openly

Even if you only have an employee or two, your "team" is actually quite large. You have your spouse/partner, business partner(s), employees/team, vendors, and clients. Talk openly with each of these groups about the plan. Ask questions to your spouse/partner about what would make them feel the most supported. Let that weigh heavily on your recommendations to your business partner(s) and team on how you plan to take leave. Get feedback from them and see how much of your responsibilities they're willing and comfortable to absorb for the first few weeks postpartum.

How do you tell your clients?

Simply tell them your plan. You don't want them to have much input to the plan, but they need to know. I recommend sending each of them a personal email explaining the plan. Who knows? Some of them might even send gifts!

If you deal with vendors directly take a similar approach as you would your clients.

Discuss Money

You should continue to pay yourself during your leave. It should be that simple. It's not really about the law of the land where you live. It's simply the right thing to do.

Know the Pipeline

Comb the sales pipeline for any potential projects you have been cultivating. Work to get contracts moved along or to a state where they can be handed off to your team to complete. In a high-touch business like Giant Hat, or any consultancy, the last thing you want is for sales to take a dip because you just ignored your opportunities for a few weeks.

Make Financial Decisions Ahead of Time

Give yourself some breathing room by paying (or scheduling) bills, payroll, taxes, etc. long ahead of time. Depending on your birth plan (and assuming things go ordinarily) you can expect to have a baby sometime between 35 and 45 weeks (more on due dates below), so aim to get this kind of stuff out of your mind and off your plate early on.

Delegate Responsibilities

I don't want to oversimplify things. Contracts, money, development/coding, business development, marketing, networking, and all the other little things you handle in a startup can't just be "handed off" to someone. They start to become part of your professional DNA and you have this feeling that only you are capable of doing certain things in that certain way that you figured out through hard-won experience. I get it. Chances are you don't have any kind of document that actually spells out what you are accountable for anyway. You just know what to do.

Well, let me tell you what - now's the time to get what you do in writing and share it with your team. Here's my advice: actively think about what your roles are in the business. Get them documented and in front of your business partner and/or team. Dole 'em out to the best person to handle them. While you are at it, you might learn a thing or two. "Do I really handle ALL THAT?" And remember, sometimes things just don't need to get done while you are out. Don't waste anyone else's time on some low priority task like ordering new dry-erase markers.

Know Your "Due Date"

My wife and I chose natural, unmedicated births (both our babies were born at home) and with that comes the stance that your estimated due date (or expected date of delivery - EDD) is a very loose estimate. Calculation of the EDD arriving at 40 weeks comes from Naegele's rule. I'm not a birth professional, but the standard deviation is ±13 days, so we're basically saying anywhere between 38 and 42 weeks is average.

I honor and respect any woman's birth choice. If you want to let the baby bake for 50 weeks and your care provider is good with that - more power to you. If you want to pick the baby's birthday and opt for the cesarean route - more power to you as well.

I explain all of this for this reason: GET AS MUCH DONE AS POSSIBLE TO GET AHEAD BEFORE 37 WEEKS.

Because you never know.

How Much Time to Take Off

Ok, so you have everything and everyone on the same page, you have your responsibilities divvied up, and you have your out-of-office turned on. Now the question is "Well, how much time off?"

Every baby is different, and every birth is different. As far as I can tell, that is a universal truth. Accepting that your mileage may vary wildly depending on your family, birth, baby and business, I'm aiming to set the bar at that point where you are home and present long enough that your partner or spouse will feel and appreciate your love and dedication, but you're not gone and disconnected so long that your startup falters and fails.

Remember: you CAN do this, and you SHOULD do this.

Week Minimums

Week 1: Unplugged

This is the hard one for most people. Some of us can't even handle a weekend out of cell service, so taking seven days is a big ask. For this first week, starting the day the baby arrives, do nothing work-related, seriously. Don't open that computer. Disable your phone notifications. Ask your team to call you only in the case of emergencies. (They won't.)

Week 2: Remote Week

By now you've probably peeked at your email and Slack on your iPhone, oh, about 600 times. And you probably responded to a few things. Because they need you, right? Hell, that's what I did. But let's pretend you didn't. So during the second week, you can start to reengage with your team.

The goal is a whole week where you work from home. Here's the kicker: You. Are. Part. Time! Sleep in as late as your baby will let you, make a big healthy breakfast for your partner and go slow. Don't leave the house. Expect interruptions during your work to lend a hand with the kids and chores. If you have to take a meeting, do it via video conference and not before noon. Use Slack when you're online and phone calls for emergencies when you're offline. So, if your team sees you are online in Slack then you're free game; if not, have them leave you alone except for emergencies via phone.

Week 3: Minimum Commitments

After you get through your first two weeks and things are starting to feel like a new normal, you should venture out into the world, return to the office, see how it feels. If you're out of the office try to keep a part-time commitment. Don't commit to meetings before noon. Get home early and help with dinner and the kids.

Also, on that first day you leave your partner alone with the kid(s), schedule nothing and be prepared to come home and relieve the stress of the unknown.

Week 4: Full-time(ish)

You should be working a full-time schedule, but don't expect this to be a 9-to-5 kind of thing. Figure out what times of day are most important for you to be home. Try to get at least 4 or 5 hours solid in the office with your team if you can. But squeeze everything around your family's needs. The end result should be about a 40-hour week, not 60 or 80 like you are used to doing.

Why Not Get Back to Work After a Few Days?

It took 9-10 months for that baby to develop and make its way to this world and, regardless of your birth choice, your wife or partner needs to heal and needs help. Healing takes time. Postpartum changes are different for every woman, and it can often take six weeks for afterpains, sore muscles, vaginal or cesarean soreness, and breast engorgement to level off. Need I say more? Your job is comparatively easy here, partner.

Bonding Time

The non-birthing partner (you) is often left feeling like they can't bond with the new baby in the same way as their partner. That is a very normal response and one I struggle with, but being home and available during those first few weeks is an excellent time to lay the foundation for bonding for years to come.

If you have a nanny or family or close friends in town, by all means request their help. They'll want to bond, too, in their own ways. Though I must say there's something magical about it being only your core family unit for those first several days. If you haven't shed all of your pressing work responsibilities in advance, it will truly diminish your enjoyment of this special time.

My Bare-freakin'-minimum Non-Working Recommendation

This chart is a bare minimum recommendation on how to not work. These times should be adjusted depending on the recovery time of your partner postpartum.

Week Postpartum Work Load
1 (birth - day 7)
  • Do nothing, seriously.
  • Don't open that computer.
  • Disable your phone notifications.
  • Have your team call you for emergencies only.
2 (day 8 - day 14)
  • Part-time remote work only.
  • Don't leave the house.
  • Expect interruptions at home.
  • Use Slack when you're online.
  • Phone calls for emergencies when you're offline.
3 (day 15 - day 21)
  • Part-time commitment in the office.
  • Don't commit to meetings before noon.
  • Get home early and help with dinner and the kids.
4 (day 22 - day 29)
  • You'll get closer back to full time.
  • 40 hours NOT 80 hours.
  • Still plan for late starts and getting home early.

Bottom line: my recommendation is to wait 30 days from birth to be fully committed to your work again.

Communication Tools

At Giant Hat, the tools we use to stay in touch remotely (Asana, Slack, Google Hangouts, phone, and sometimes email) needed to be used much more deliberately when I was on leave. Every business is going to have its own communication tools, but remember that each one has its own strengths. Try to only use what is necessary and be clear with your team about what is best for you and what you think is the most efficient way to communicate.

As mentioned above you might want to use the phone more than your computer for quick check-ins and emergencies. A lot of time can be wasted typing a chat or text message and waiting for a response when you could just have a quick little conversation. A good rule of thumb is that if you need answers to more than two questions, with additional clarifications needed, just pick up the phone.

Coming Back

Now you're chomping at the bit, you're getting antsy to dive back into that go-get-'em entrepreneurial role to get your startup to the next level! Hold on a minute, Sparky. Let's ease back into this. Remember, regardless of how your birth goes your partner has to heal. There can be a lot of bleeding - it got crazy down there. You don't see her running around diving right back into her routine do you?

Here are a few tips on how to ease back in to a new work routine that is baby-friendly:

  • Don't schedule meetings for the first work day after Unplugged Week.
  • During Remote Week, attend afternoon only meetings via video conference.
  • Afternoon meetings only for first week back after Remote Week. The mornings are always complicated - especially the more kids you add up.
  • Don't overcommit. Once you're back closer to full time go slow and leave some flexibility for moving meetings.
  • Ask for help! Remember that team you trust so much? Use them.
  • Don't work from home in the evenings until after full week back. Be home to help and cuddle your baby.
  • Use your project management system to reassign duties to yourself as you feel like you can manage them effectively.

Summary

In summary, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Plan well in advance
  • Trust your support group and team
  • Be open with everyone
  • Delegate your roles
  • Don't over-commit
  • Be remote
  • Enjoy your baby, help your partner, and thrive!

Let me help you! It's hard enough being an entrepreneur and it's really hard being a parent. If this is your first rodeo, let's go through it together. Hit me up on Twitter @reidelliott or email me [email protected] You can do this. You should do this. And you don't have to do it alone.

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