The Tradeoffs We Make as Founders

Thriving amidst the chaos of running a startup isn’t exactly a cake walk. So, when I see someone pulling it off even relatively well, I get intrigued and want to know more. Beyond just being curious about how someone has built a successful company operationally, I want to know about all the struggles that leaders face, how they’ve overcome them, and how they make the daily, hard choices that arise when carrying such heavy loads. And that’s exactly what I got to do recently after meeting Piper Foster Wilder, CEO of 60Hertz and a renewable energy expert who’s not only running a company but doing it while caring for a newborn.

What impresses me most about Piper’s story is her clear ability to navigate something that so many of us struggle with on a daily (or hourly) basis—handling serious limitations, especially the universal challenge, “Not Enough Time.” Even with the stress of being a new parent, 60Hertz is growing tremendously, and—in my opinion—Piper seems to be facing her tradeoffs with a great deal of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

Here’s the conversation we had, with each of my questions in bold and her responses below. I think you’ll find it as insightful and inspiring as I did.

 

So, what does 60Hertz do?
60Hertz is a Computer Maintenance Management Solution, which is basically a breed of software that helps us maintain things. But 60Hertz’s niche in the market is that we’re focused on microgrid maintenance. We know this is a $30+ billion dollar market that’s growing—whether it’s microgrids for critical infrastructure, or villages, or disaster relief—but no one has given thought to how we actually operate these systems and we’re evidently the first and only solution on the market.

You’re doing all of this while being a new parent?
To an 11-month-old, yes.

That’s so great. Now that your baby is almost a year old, how has it gone for you, both mentally and physically?
Well, at the same time we found out we were having a baby—and I mean almost to the week—I had given notice at my full-time job because I was ready to leave and devote all my time to 60Hertz. We were accepted into Launch Alaska (a GAN Accelerator), we knew we had the Friends and Family money in place, and it was time to take the leap. The sudden shock that we were pregnant was admittedly a little challenging. And that’s something you’re not really allowed to say because, of course, so many women around you can’t wait to be mothers. My friends were all so eager to be mothers. But in reality, I wasn’t totally ready for it.

When you found out you were pregnant, what else went through your mind about your job as a CEO of a newly founded startup?
When I found out I was pregnant, I raced to my laptop and Googled, “startup + pregnant,” and was just yearning for some validation that someone had done this and it hadn’t been a colossal face-plant. The only person that came up was Marissa Mayer from Yahoo, who not only had one child but three during her tenure as a CEO. Still, I just remember being so hungry for evidence that it was possible, which says something to me. We actually do need role models. When I reflect on my own wish to see that someone had forerun this, it’s even more evident to me how essential it is for women and people of color to see that others have come before them.

How hard were those first few months while being pregnant and what was going through your mind?
There were moments during those first several months of pregnancy and 60Hertz becoming its own company that really gave me pause. In fact, I have a vivid memory of driving with my mom and just stopping and saying, “You know what? I don’t think I can do this. This is just too much,” because I knew the effort it would take based on a prior experience of helping to start a company. And she said, “Honey, it’s okay. Just take a step back, get an easy job, just get through the pregnancy, and enjoy your time.”

But there was such undeniable interest and momentum for 60Hertz that I had to respond to it. Actually, I knew I had to step up because it became obvious that we could continue with the company and that I could continue pushing it forward. And that’s how it continued to go—certainly during pregnancy and in this last year since having the baby. I mean, I have been working these incredibly long hours, but also savoring and just delighting in the time that I get to spend with my daughter that I couldn’t spend with her if I wasn’t a founder with the type of flexibility I have.

That’s such a beautiful answer. It sounds like at the end of the day you’re actually thankful to be a founder and a mom. Or said another way, it’s like if you took a desk job, you wouldn’t love either as much.
It’s so true. Despite what a large lift it’s been, the surprise for me in this last year has been realizing that I would not have spent as much time with Bingitt if I hadn’t been a founder. It’s provided the flexibility to work very late at night or on Saturdays so that I can spend more awake time with her. Plus, I’m working at home right now and that’s cool because then—even if we’re in the same place and my attention isn’t fully on her—I’m present. She doesn’t necessarily need my full attention all the time, but I’m there. It’s just so nice to be sharing space even though the work is quite consuming, too.

I’d love to hear ways that you’ve hacked your way into being both a mom and a founder.
Well, I love the question. I can’t answer any further without mentioning my husband, the noteworthy, extraordinary, and commendable Nathaniel Wilder. He’s such a huge part of this equation. The blessing for us is that Nathaniel is a commercial and editorial freelance photographer. So, he has a very flexible schedule, and even though he travels 50% to 75% of the time and he’s away a lot, he drops everything to support me when he’s here. There’s no other way to describe that; he truly drops everything. And that has just been gorgeous, and I am so in love with him, and so grateful.

The other “hack” is my folks. Someone told me recently that if your parents help with childcare, it’s “cheating.” But if you have extra resources that help support you, then I think you should take advantage of them. So, my dear parents have also dropped quite a lot. We lived in Colorado with them, in their basement, for a good part of the first five months of our daughter’s life. Which, again, says a lot about my husband and how amazing he is—just that he was willing to live with his in-laws. And now, they’ve moved to Alaska to help us as the momentum for 60Hertz is growing. They’re excited to be here now.

Would you recommend becoming a founder to others who might not have a partner and/or parents who can help out as much as you’ve had?
Everyone has a different pain tolerance, but I think for most people the ability to maintain your endurance could be challenging. And Patrick, I know you’re a parent, too, so you know it’s a lot—even before they’re talking back to you or wildly independent. I really would not recommend this, I think, without some sort of substantial support system. There have been two months so far that I’ve been on my own with Bingitt, where Nathaniel was traveling, my folks weren’t here, we were in Alaska, and I was just relying on friends and babysitters. One of those weeks, in particular, fell during the time when I was completing the full investor document and establishing our evaluation. I stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00am for seven nights in a row and I needed to be ready to take care of Bingitt at 7:30 or 8:00. And I’ll probably never forget that because some weird thing must happen to your brain when you’re that sleep deprived, but that was too much.

How are you seeing the environment change for the better for founders who also happen to be parents?
Within the Alaskan community, I’ve experienced a great deal of support. A key staff member at Launch Alaska helped care for Bingitt during a couple of our pitch practices and meetings. The Launch Alaska CEO let us use his baby crib and a lot of his children’s toys. So, there has been just this really sweet contribution. So I’d say, in general, there’s a lot more awareness—well, I don’t know how to baseline it—but there is at least an awareness and deference for the effort that it takes that may be different than in the past.

The large majority of startup founders are men. And, probably, the only people who end up clicking on a blog about a female CEO and raising a child are women who, like me, are longing to hear from others like them. So, hats off to any men still reading because they’re showing interest in a demographic outside of their own.

But a deep realization for me is about the momentum and focus that we all need to get our work done. Being responsible for a baby means being constantly interrupted, and when you’re also responsible for so many other things, it’s hard. It can be challenging to perform at the level you’re used to performing at because you’re just so frequently needed in five different directions all day. That’s a thing that most anyone can relate to, though, no matter who you are. But it can certainly be more difficult for others who are already facing greater demands or barriers (fewer resources or help, like we just talked about). So, it’s important to take a look at life in someone else’s shoes. And, for ourselves, to accept that—in order to maintain it all—performance won’t always be as high as you wish it were in every area, every day.

Do you think being a startup founder has helped you be a better mom?
That is a great question. Here’s what I’m learning and did not know about being a founder: You need to be a renaissance person. You actually have to be good at so many different things at once to be successful. Or at least endeavor to be good at many things at once. And that’s the same with being a mom. That also requires an ability to prioritize, which is a familiar phrase. But when it really comes down to it, “prioritize” means cutting off a conversation when you’re no longer getting value. Prioritize means looking at the to-do list and just being frank with yourself that you can’t actually do all of it, and asking yourself what actually matters. Prioritize also means attention on how to spend money. And the endeavor to prioritize is an effort I’m bringing into Bingitt’s life, too.

So, let me switch and ask the question in reverse. How has being a mom helped you to be a better startup founder?
Well, I don’t know if it makes me better, but there are a couple dominant questions I have as a mom. I’m constantly asking myself, “Am I doing it right?” And also, “Is she breathing?” And I think these are questions you should be asking about yourself and the company all the time, too.

Can we end with talking about the tradeoffs that you’re faced with every day, and just how you’re thinking about them?
There are some big ones, and realizing that “balance” actually isn’t possible is probably the most painful, difficult one. For all that’s said about work-life balance, I’m at a point in my life where I just have to write that off. It’s not possible. And what’s been sacrificed is friendships. Friendships with my girlfriends. There was a big five-month section last year, especially going through Launch Alaska, when I literally could not get a text back to people that were asking kind things like, “What are you doing Saturday?”

I just couldn’t find the mental space to even reply because, when I finally would have a moment to myself, I was so exhausted that I just needed my own moment. So, gratefully the dearest friends have understood that, and I’m working on it for myself now, too. I’m working on not feeling guilty. I’m trying to not feel so responsible for the friendships that I would like to be enriching, but that I’m not able to right now. So, that is definitely a factor. And things like exercise, and quiet time, and certainly time to myself—those are not happening to the degree that I wish.

Yes, there are real tradeoffs that we come face-to-face with, aren’t there? Some are so great but some aren’t as great.
Oh yeah. And I’m on the verge of tears telling you that because even a few minutes before our call I was just getting to go cuddle Bingitt, and nurse her, and play with her. And it is just so awesome to watch her discover awe and wonder at even the flow of water coming out of the bathtub. She just can hardly believe that water flows out into the bathtub the way that it does.

I love that. Actually, I have one final question for you. It’s kind of a weird one. But what questions do you not like being asked about being a founder and a mom?
Well, what I am really vigilant about is what I allow other people to attribute or assign to me because I was pregnant or now that I’m a working mom.

For instance, there is this whole thing around “pregnancy brain” that people are eager to attribute to you automatically if you space out or forget things or lose a detail, which happens to plenty of people who aren’t pregnant or nursing. Just like in startup culture, people are eager to tell you that it’s pretty likely that you’re going to fail. I just don’t accept any of those stigmas. I have a pretty big soap box about sovereignty, and that each of us is living our own, independent life, and the statistics or demographics that you might fall into just do not need to apply in many cases. I think so many women willingly perpetuate these beliefs but we don’t need to sign up for that.

 

If you’d like an introduction to Piper or would like to join her new group of women startup founders who are either pregnant or new moms, shoot me a note and I’ll connect you. Photo provided by Piper Foster Wilder from a Humans of New York for Founders event hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Economic Development.