Steven and Lina Zussino, founders, | BCBusiness

Steven and Lina Zussino, founders, | BCBusiness
Steven and Lina Zussino and baby Eva.

It’s the one contingency that no business plan can fully prepare you for: how entrepreneurs can keep their business alive and thriving when a baby enters into the equation.

Every new parent has to make changes to baby-proof their life and home, but self-employed expectant moms and dads have to make sure their business can carry on after the stork visits their home office.

Unlike the wave of “mompreneurs” who set up family-friendly businesses after having a child, these are people who started their enterprises in the early throes of entrepreneurial spirit, when their business was their baby. Their businesses are probably time- and energy-intensive, often based on one or two people’s talent and expertise, and don’t fit in well with the demands of a small child.

Yet being self-employed is often seen as the best way to combine work with family life. A survey by the Women’s Enterprise Centre found that 42 per cent of entrepreneurs with expanding businesses in B.C. have children under the age of 18, and the top reasons for starting a business are passion, self-fulfillment, greater independence and autonomy. So how do self-employed expecting parents ensure their livelihood survives the arrival of children?

Maternity benefits – take them or leave them?

“I was on my laptop in the delivery room hours before I gave birth, sending emails so I could get at least a day off,” says Terri MacDonald, who was running a business consultancy in Slocan, B.C., when she had her baby in 2008. “I didn’t have a choice. There was no EI for self-employed people then, and there was no way I could have taken time off, because my business wouldn’t make any money without me.”

Under the January 2011 Fairness for the Self-Employed Act, entrepreneurs now have the same right as employees to take maternity or parental leave under the EI special benefits program. But nationally, only 0.38 per cent (10,156) of the 2.67 million self-employed Canadians have opted for the special benefits since they were introduced, in January 2011, according to the Government of Canada. That contrasts with statistics from the Women’s Enterprise Centre, showing that 42 per cent of owners of growing businesses in the province have children.


Image: Anna Anaka
Jill Earthy, former CEO of the Forum for Women
Entrepreneurs, says many small business owners
can't afford to take parental leave.

Jill Earthy, former CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs in Vancouver, offers an explanation for the discrepancy: taking extended time off work is often not an option for self-employed business owners who are concerned about the long-term survival of their business. “As an entrepreneur, you can’t just stop your business for a year,” says Earthy. “Especially in B.C., there are a lot of small businesses where the owner is such an integral part. Stepping back and going on EI just isn’t realistic.”

Earthy was the head of a successful events-staffing company when she decided to start a family. Realizing the frequent business trips to the national company’s eight locations would not fit into the lifestyle she hoped to have as a mother, she sold the company and accepted a job offer from the new owners, with the chance to claim maternity benefits, and was pregnant a month later.

“I had only had the business three years,” Earthy explains. “I wasn’t quite ready to sell it, but I had gotten married a year earlier and knew I wanted a family. It was a huge factor in my decision to sell.” After having children she left the business, and later co-founded Momcafé Network Inc., which connects business-minded moms.

Heather Martin, skills development manager at the B.C. Women’s Enterprise Centre, has never heard any of her entrepreneur clients talking about signing up for EI special benefits, or making any plans to take maternity leave from their business. “Most entrepreneurs are micromanagers, so they have a very hard time letting go and letting someone else take on their role, or changing the business they have built from scratch,” she explains. “Even if they have employees that they have trained and trust, it is still very difficult for them to step back.”

A Guide to EI for Entrepreneurs

Since January 2011, self-employed Canadians can voluntarily pay EI premiums on their earnings in return for claiming benefits if they need to take time off work for maternity, parental, sickness or compassionate-care leave

• The EI special benefits for self-employed people program is optional, unlike the compulsory employees’ program. Once an individual has made a claim under the program, they must pay into it for the rest of their working life.

• New mothers are eligible for maternity leave payments of 55 per cent of their average weekly salary (up to a maximum $485 per week) for 15 weeks after giving birth.

• Self-employed people must pay 1.84 per cent of their earnings in premiums for at least 12 months, and must have earned at least $6,222 before they can make a claim. This is the same contribution that employees make.

• Self-employed claimants whose business hours have been reduced by more than 40 per cent can access maternity, parental, sickness or compassionate-care leave.

• Payments are based on the average weekly salary for the previous 12 months, to a maximum of $45,900, based on their income tax return, if it has been filed for that period. An individual who has not filed an income tax return for the previous calendar year must provide an estimated income, which will be used to calculate payments, and will be verified by the Canada Revenue Agency when the income tax return is filed.

• New mothers or fathers are eligible for payments of 55 per cent of their average weekly salary (up to a maximum $485 per week) for a total of 35 weeks. They can share this parental leave between them.

• Payments may be reduced if the individual works during the benefit period, or if their business generates earnings from profits or commissions while they are making a claim.

The pretirement track

Diana Stirling and Shannon Ward know what it’s like to try – and fail – to squeeze family life into an existing business. When they each realized they wanted to have children in 2005, their marketing company, On Track Media, had just moved into a custom-built office in downtown Vancouver and was on its way to $1 million in annual revenue.

“We knew we wanted to make $1 million in revenue and have a dozen employees; the family had to fit into that,” says Stirling. “We were ridiculous with how we thought we could plan it. We went for sushi in Yaletown and wrote down when we would each have our children. I would go first, then she would go next, with enough space in between that there would be no interruption in the business. It took me longer to have my first child than we had planned. Then, I got unexpectedly pregnant with my second when she was supposed to have her baby, so we ended up having babies within three months of each other. Three children within 18 months, which was not what we planned.”

Meanwhile, Stirling says, it was harder than they expected to make family life fit into their entrepreneur lifestyle. “Two hours after I gave birth to my son, Shannon came into the hospital to meet him, and also to bring me company incorporation papers to sign. I was the person that went back to work right away and was pumping milk while having a conference call and hoping the client didn’t know what that sound was.”

By 2007, Stirling and Ward felt strangled by the business they had previously felt so passionate about. “We made a definite decision that we weren’t going to work our children’s youth away,” says Stirling. “We wanted to be business owners and to have love and passion for our business, but we didn’t want to be workaholics and sacrifice time with our children.”

They decided to redefine their idea of success. The key, they realized, was to stop worrying about what their business looked like to outsiders. “From the day we realized that and started focusing on what success looked like to us, our business became more profitable than it ever was before,” says Stirling.

They also began focusing their effort on the tasks that created the most benefits for the business, reducing the client base to those who were most important to the company with the least amount of hassle. They simplified their business processes, ensuring that their input was not needed at every step of the process, allowing them to work reduced hours and work remotely from home, or from overseas. “Being able to work while travelling was a big deal for us, because we wanted to be able to do it while the children were young and when they weren’t at school,” says Stirling.

Today, five years after transforming their business plan with a view to accommodating their families, Stirling and Ward each spend around four months of the year out of Canada, and their children have experienced life in many countries. At first, they worried what their more conventional clients would think when one of them was working from Australia or South America, but they soon found that clients saw the new arrangements as beneficial. “The key was communicating the reason we were doing it and how it was going to work,” says Stirling. “They all supported us. One client’s response was, ‘So you are working on Australian time, and Shannon is working on Canadian time – it’s like having 24-hour support.’”

When they are in Canada, Stirling and Ward focus on being highly productive and effective, rather than holding conventional office hours. They also “embrace the imbalance of work and family,” explains Stirling, which means refusing to feel guilty that some days they will have to work long hours to finish a project, and embracing the reward of spending whole days with their family when the deadline is over. Stirling and Ward call their business style the “pretirement living model,” and coach other parents to follow their lead, through workshops, keynote speeches and also through their blog,

Stirling, who now lives in Penticton, says that not everyone sees pretirement as an opportunity to live overseas; others just want to have breakfast with their kids every day. “I think people are changing their perception of what they want family life to look like, but we don’t have enough role models of entrepreneurial women who want to have a business and a family, without it draining their energy and their time. We want to show parents that it’s OK to have a smaller business that supports the lifestyle that you want.”

Entrepreneurs to parents in four hours

Lina and Steven Zussino set up from their Victoria home in 2009, specifically to earn passive income requiring little input from them as they started a family. Their website links to Canadian grocery deals and coupons, using per-click advertising and referrals to create revenue. Lina and Steven used the principles from Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek to structure the business so that it would practically run itself, delegating the most time-consuming administrative tasks to virtual assistants across the world.

Lina quit her business-development job at a software firm in Victoria in 2011 to focus on growing the business full-time, and she became pregnant within months. Speaking before she gave birth in April, Lina said that, while starting the business has meant financial sacrifices, it will mean Steven can spend more time at home with her and the new baby as he reduces his hours to claim parental leave employment insurance from his software-coding job.

“We will have four full-time virtual contractors helping us with the company while I am looking after the baby, so all I need to do is oversee the websites and make sure the staff know what to do,” Lina explains. She says she didn’t know that self-employed Canadians are eligible for EI special benefits until after she was pregnant – too late to complete the minimum 12 months of payments into the scheme before claiming. While this was disappointing, she feels the program would not have justified the premiums she would have to pay over the course of her business career. She adds: “The business has meant a lot of financial sacrifices for us already, but I’m looking forward to the next few years growing the business, knowing I can work from home and be with my baby for all the important times. We don’t have any family in Victoria so it is very important to us that we have freedom and flexibility from our work.”

Lina has noticed the benefits of self-employment during her pregnancy, when she has been able to take regular rests and spread her work throughout the day and evening without any disapproving looks from fellow employees. With new, first-hand knowledge of the babies and children market, she and Steven were also able to expand their business and launched, highlighting deals and coupons for new parents.

Planning to be expecting

It’s no accident that Kyla Rozman is a successful professional organizer and planner. She doesn’t expect to be expecting for several years yet, but is already planning to make sure her Vancouver-based business, In Order to Succeed, can carry on when the time comes for her to have a baby. “I always knew I wanted children,” she says, but it wasn’t until she met her partner and then turned 30 that the baby switch flicked on inside.

On the advice of her marketing consultant, Kyla asked herself what her ideal day would look like and realized that it featured a baby and a successful business, but none of the hands-on work with clients, which, at that time, was the main focus of her day. “That was the moment when I realized my company needed to have some fundamental structural changes if I was going to be able to have a baby,” she says. “If your business isn’t supporting you in how you want to live your life, it is not going to be successful, or a great business for you to be part of.”

Rozman is now focusing on expanding her business into residential organizing and commercial relocation work, with an emphasis on building a team of professional organizers who can work directly with clients, so she can take a project-leader role. She also hopes to develop her personal brand as a public speaker and corporate trainer, creating a new revenue source that isn’t time-intensive and can work around her future home commitments.

Rozman (who admits to being “a really long-term planner”) recognizes that not everyone will have a five-year plan before having a child, but says even nine months is enough to get business processes organized and efficient. “Get your policies and procedures in place,” she advises. “If you are hiring new staff to help while you have a family, this will help them to know how to handle a situation without consulting you every time. If you are planning to carry on working, it will help you be more efficient and save time.”

Rozman also has a different take on the traditional mother’s help. “I wouldn’t want a nanny for the children. I’d need someone to take care of the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping for me so that I can get an extra 10, 20, 30 minutes or an hour to concentrate on the business when the children are in bed. I can earn more money by working on my business in that time than I will spend on paying someone to clean or cook.”