Five years ago I was thriving as a corporate communications director at a mobile-tech start-up in Silicon Valley. As the sole breadwinner in my family, my six-figure salary supported my wife, Janet,* and our two kids, Ben* and Sarah,* who were 11 and 9 at the time, respectively.
We didn't live large or spend carelessly, but we had a comfortable life. We had a nice home in the Bay Area suburbs. We could afford private school and after-school activities for the kids. And we were still able to save money.
But being comfortable came with a price. I worked long, demanding hours — it wasn't uncommon for me to arrive at the office before 7 A.M. and return home just in time to give my kids a kiss good night. In many ways, I felt like I was missing out on their childhoods.
That's why I ultimately made the decision to "lean out" of corporate life and work from home as a public relations consultant.
Was it easy? No way — running my own business was more work than I ever imagined. But I can honestly say that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was a family man who didn't have time for family
I was raised in a single-parent household. My dad was only around during our every-other-weekend visits and assorted holidays. And my mom worked as a nurse to provide for us. As a result, both of my parents usually missed out on the after-school activities that were important to me, like soccer and tennis.
So as I started my own family, I told myself that I would be there for my kids. But as any working parent can attest, striking work-life balance isn't always so easy — especially when your family's livelihood is on the line.
I began my career in marketing and public relations in the early 1990s, working mostly for tech companies. The workdays started early but seldom required me to work late, so I didn't expect to miss out too much when my son was born in 1997.
Shortly after we welcomed Ben home, I was laid off. Fortunately, it only took me about ten weeks to find another tech PR job. Unfortunately, my industry took a downturn and just a few months later, I was laid off again. Knowing that my family was relying on me, I just dusted myself off and moved on.
About two months later, I landed the best job I'd ever had, working in corporate communications for a small wireless-tech company. I truly enjoyed the projects I was working on and the people I was working with, but as the only internal PR employee, my workload was heavy. I worked 12-hour-plus days just to stay afloat.
Life got even busier in 1999, when my daughter, Sarah, was born. After the sting of two layoffs — and knowing I had a new addition to the family — I worked as hard as ever to prove my value to the firm.
Unfortunately, that meant I missed many family dinners, bath times and bedtime stories. Sometimes if the kids napped well during the day, they could stay awake until 10 p.m. — and we occasionally got to squeeze in some quality evening time together.
But my schedule never let up, even when I moved around to other jobs. As the kids got older, I continued to miss out on parts of their lives, including soccer practices, baseball games and homework time.
Janet and the kids never complained. They knew I had to do what I had to do to keep food on the table. But I still felt guilt because there were times when Janet was worn down, especially on days when she had to drive all over town trying to juggle both the kids' activities.
So while my career enabled me to provide a good life for my family, it was also the reason why I was missing out on that life.
My lean-out lightbulb moment
By 2009 I was making a little more than $100,000, had great stock options and loved the work I was doing at the mobile-tech startup.
But I still lacked work-life balance. I was usually out the door before the kids were up, and often didn't get home until they were getting ready for bed — some days I didn't see them at all. The hours were getting to me, and I started to think about branching out on my own.
In truth, I had been playing with the idea of starting a PR consulting business back in 1997, after I'd gone through that second layoff. I had even started setting up a shed in my backyard as a potential home office, but I never had the time to finish it. Plus, I wasn't really ready yet — it was too big of a decision to take lightly, and the welfare of my family was at stake.
But the seed had been planted, and in 2009 I began reaching out to people I knew who were already consulting: lawyers, accountants, friends, business contacts. In the process, I realized how strong my professional network was in Silicon Valley, and I felt confident that they could help me generate business.
Then I got wind that my company was preparing for a round of layoffs.
While I was fairly certain my position was safe, I knew some of my co-workers' weren't. Having the company clean house, only to tell them a short time later that I was leaving, didn't seem fair. I realized that stepping out then could save someone else's job.
I spoke to Janet about leaving the corporate world and she supported the decision. She knew I wasn't one to make a rash decision unless I was convinced I would be successful. And the more I thought about it, the more I also believed that going freelance could be a smarter financial choice in the long run.
Yes, I'd have to find my own business, but consulting offered the potential to make more money. Plus, I would no longer have to worry about working tirelessly for a company — just to be laid off when things went south.
So I took the leap and gave my notice. Thankfully, my higher-ups took the news well and only wished me the best. Even better, they agreed to hire me as a consultant — and this was in addition to another client I'd already lined up through my contacts.
And that's how I began my new life as a work-from-home dad.
Work-life balance — and a better nest egg
The transition from full-time to freelance hasn't always been a smooth one. When I first started, I realized there were things like payroll, taxes, billing and IT support that I had to quickly school myself on — or at least get help from the right people.
But that's been a small sacrifice for being able to take more of an active parenting role. Once I became a consultant, my time was finally my own. I could schedule my workflow around my children's schedules and, as a result, I've been able to watch them grow from young kids into young adults.
A typical day now starts at 6 a.m., which is also around the same time my kids start their day. While they're eating breakfast, I'm working on my laptop from the kitchen table. This may not make for prime family discussion time, but I still love being in the mix as they get ready to leave for school.
The rest of the day I'm in my home office and focused on work, but I step away when my kids finish with school. I'm able to pick them up, coach Sarah's lacrosse team, sit down to family dinners, and, more recently, help Ben with college research. Janet and I now tackle the kids' schedules together, and I don't think there's been a single game of Ben's or Sarah's where at least one of us hasn't been present.
When the kids turn in for the night, I do squeeze in some more work time. At times, that means working until midnight, but I prefer that over missing family time.
Financially, I've been fortunate enough to maintain enough business to match the type of income I had in my corporate life. I direct deposit a paycheck for myself from my business account every two weeks, and I've even been able to give myself small raises over the years. If I'm anticipating a major expense — like the used car I recently bought for Ben — I can always take on another client for a while, which can bump up my income by up to 25 percent.
Since going solo, I've also boosted my retirement savings. As a business owner, I was able to set up a Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP) to which I contribute the full amount — about 35 percent to 40 percent more than what I was putting into my company's 401(k) back in my corporate years.
There are moments when I think it might be nice to go back to corporate life, but I honestly don't see that happening anytime soon — the rewards my lifestyle have afforded me are too valuable.
I've always viewed my most important job as being the breadwinner in the family, but I never wanted to do that at the expense of helping to raise my children. I learned firsthand that you have to take advantage of the time you have watching them learn and grow because you'll never get that back. Now I have the best of both worlds.
*Names have been changed.
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