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Michele Mehl's son, Jack, had a say in her startup plans
Michele Mehl’s son, Jack, had a say in her startup plans

Starting a new business wasn’t just a professional decision for me. It was also a family one where I sought the permission of my 9-year old son before making the final leap.

I co-founded and started my first company, the Seattle public relations firm Buzz Builders, when I was pregnant with my son Jack who is now 10.

He came into the world with a mom who worked full-time. I often carried a certain level of guilt for having him spend his days with a nanny, and then later in daycare.

So, when I decided to start my second company, Excy, and transition from servicing startups to running one, I was 110 percent committed to getting Jack’s permission and letting him have a say this time.

Jack had watched my co-founder and me build Buzz Builders, a PR firm dedicated to tech startups, from scratch. I had always believed heavily in using my client’s products, so when we launched Zulily, I think every t-shirt he owned was from the site and I explained how e-commerce worked. When working with OfferUp, we booted Craigslist from our life and he sold his dirt bike and other stuff using the app. We even bought a car using our startup client Tred at the time and he was involved in the test drive.

Michele Mehl demonstrates the Excy at the GeekWire Summit
Michele Mehl demonstrates the Excy at the GeekWire Summit

I used every moment I could to teach him about the people running these companies and what it meant for them to be entrepreneurs and take risks to do something they believed in. An idea he fully embraced when he ran his first lemonade, coffee, and cookie stand at our neighborhood garage sale and used the money to buy a scooter.

But now it was a little more personal.

His mom wanted build an actual product versus market something someone else built.

I had already gotten the blessing from my husband, but now I wanted to include our son in the decision, which was to create a new portable exercise system that helped busy people get more active and less sedentary.

I had worked for startups my entire career and I personally knew that it was going to be beyond challenging and all consuming. So, I sat Jack down for a good talk that included a list of warnings that would impact him on top of experiences he was already familiar with:

  • Missing sporting events
  • Traveling more frequently
  • Working more hours
  • Working on vacation
  • Being distracted

But also, other items specific to me that might impact him:

People might say mean things about his mom that he’d have to brush off (i.e. not in shape enough, too skinny, too old, selfish to do something that takes me away from our family, etc.).

His response: “Do I get one?” Of course I said yes, and he said: “Do it.”

It felt good to share this moment with him.

I didn’t know this at the time, but getting the permission and complete buy-in from Jack (and my husband) has ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made to date in bringing Excy to market. Not only have all the warnings become a reality that he was prepared for, but it also gave him a sense of ownership of being part of the journey.

I have involved him in important decisions where there was an opportunity to expose him to the process of starting a company, including selecting a name, a logo, tag line, colors, budgeting, and even testing our products.

Michele Mehl, with her son Jack, at the GeekWire Summit.
Michele Mehl, with her son Jack, at the GeekWire Summit.

If you ever want brutal honest feedback, put your product in the hands of a child. You don’t even need to ask for their opinion. They will tell you exactly what they think and ask tough questions, especially if they have been watching Shark Tank.

When it came time to publicly show Excy for the first time at GeekWire Summit, I pulled him out of school and let him share in the experience. Not remotely on the same scale, but at that moment, I had even more appreciation for Zulily CEO Darrell Cavens letting his son push the button to begin Zulily’s trading on Nasdaq.

During my 20-years of supporting startups, it was always naturally easy to ask the entrepreneur and their team how they were doing. What I’ve learned to appreciate during the process of running Buzz Builders and starting Excy is that there is a family dynamic and support system behind every person involved in creating a startup.

That family dynamic is the underlying current that could either pull people down or lift them up and empower them to passionately continue down a path of growing a company.

So, when people ask “How do you do it all and find the right balance?”

The better questions might just be:

  • “How do you and your spouse partner to make it work?”
  • “How do you talk to your kids about the time you spend away from them and why it’s important to you, especially if there are times when they think, you are choosing work over them?”
  • “How do you build an extended support system to make it all possible?”

For anyone doing a startup, it truly is a sacrifice by the entire family, especially for children.

Seeking their permission just might become your life jacket to keep floating through that current, even when the rapids get big and you run across sinkholes or hidden rock beds when well beyond the point of turning back.

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