In 2009, Amy Norman was pregnant, turning 35, and launching her first business, a San Francisco-based kids subscription service called Little Passports. Before her fledgling venture grew into a profitable 43-person company making more than $20 million in revenue, Norman and co-founder Stella Ma struggled to get it off the ground. Starting a business in the middle of a recession as first-time entrepreneurs proved to be an uphill battle. What she didn't expect was the nightmare that would soon follow. Norman shares how she lost her home, her husband, and her father in a single year, in the midst of having her second child. --As told to Guadalupe Gonzalez 

I had worked at eBay, which I had recently left to take some time off. Stella [who had worked with me there] approached me about different ideas to start a company. We realized pretty quickly that we had a shared passion around global citizenship and inspiring kids to learn about the world around them. She came to me one day in 2008 and said, "We've been talking about these ideas. Are you in or not?" and so we took the leap to try to bring something to market.

We spent close to a year working without a salary and moving quite slowly to get this product to market. I was pregnant with my second child, and it was hard to really get the momentum going at first. We didn't have any money; it was all very scrappy. My parents lent us the first $25,000 so that we could order inventory to send out to people. The first year, you're lonely, you're at home, but you're really committed to the idea. I was turning 35, and I remember needing to sleep about 15 hours a day with that second pregnancy.

There was definitely pressure to start earning money living in the Bay Area. We launched the business in April 2009, and we were really excited for the website to launch so we could start paying ourselves. And then, that weekend, my marriage ended. I don't share more about how and why, but my marriage ended unexpectedly.

It was a big shock. I was eight months pregnant, and to have to think, while you're still pregnant, that your child, literally a part of your body, is not going to live with you full time at some point in the relatively near future--it's just heartbreaking. I sat at my desk in that home office with tears streaming down my face.

That was April, and then in May, about four or five weeks later, my son was born and he came out healthy, thank God, but I had Bell's palsy on one side of my face. It was paralyzed. So I'm in the hospital thinking, "Oh, no. I'm single, my face is paralyzed. I don't have an intact family. How am I going to create that again?" I think my body literally could not take the stress of the situation.

Luckily, it only lasted a few days and then we came home. We were healthy, but then my dad learned he had AML, which is a really hideous kind of leukemia.

At that point, around October 2009, my mom and sister had to shift their attention to my dad. I was living in a house I owned in San Francisco, and I needed to move out in the divorce. So then I was losing my home. I really feel like I was in survival mode. It was traumatic, a lot of stress. I don't remember much of that first year.

I do have one vivid memory of three or four girlfriends coming over and helping me pack up the house. I had a 6-month-old infant and a three and a half year old son, was trying desperately to get this business off the ground because I needed to support myself as a single mom now, my dad was dying, and I couldn't afford movers to move.

I took the kids and I got to say goodbye to my dad, but at this point I had no tears left. My dad was my best friend and the most amazing father you could possibly imagine, but at some point your body just shuts down, you can't take any more pain, and that's where I was. By November, I just couldn't take on any more pain. Somewhere in that period I think we raised a $175,000 seed round.

Then I was losing my home. I really feel like I was in survival mode. It was traumatic, a lot of stress. I don't remember much of that first year.

In the midst of all of this in my personal life, I remember going down to Sand Hill Road, going to meet [now LinkedIn CEO] Jeff Weiner in a coffee shop. He was in between Yahoo and his LinkedIn job. It was the Kevin Bacon game. Stella and I started with our eBay network. We just started taking meetings and asking for three more introductions. 

The economy was just terrible, but Jeff had committed to put the money in. He said, "I committed to lead this round and this is a terrible time to launch a consumer business, but I gave you my word." It wasn't like we had signed anything yet. And he said, "I'm going to stick by that." And he also knew what was happening in my personal life and I will give him credit to this day for not underestimating what a woman can do, what a human can do if they have it in them.

I'll never forget our first Christmas together, with my mom there, and my two little boys, and me. We had just lost my dad and my husband wasn't there (since we had divorced). I look back at the pictures now and it was the loneliest time of my life. It took several years for things to get better. Sometimes you have to just know that it's going to take a period of time and you have to just sit with the pain. My family and friends kept me going.

It was so helpful that Stella was my co-CEO. She's the kindest, most empathetic person you can meet. I remember in these moments of deep stress about how was I going to pay the bills and figuring out where the children were going to live as we went through the divorce, and Stella was this rock to me.

I remember my mom saying, "Amy, I know you really care about Little Passports, but I think you should go back and get a corporate job." And I was like, "Why would I do that, Mom? This is my dream." And she said, "Well, it's a steady paycheck, and you might meet a guy." Really practical.

I was down at the bottom of the well clawing my way out and Little Passports was my lifeline. It was the dream of building something big. The dream that one day I could tell a story of survival.

But I was already sharing visitation and custody of my kids with their father, and if I had been in a more traditional job where I didn't get home until 6 or 7 at night and they'd be visiting their Dad, I wouldn't have seen them. That wasn't the kind of mom I was willing to be. And I believed that I could work long but flexible hours at Little Passports by controlling my own schedule. This was my lifeline.

My analogy for that year [comes from the movie] Silence of the Lambs. I was down at the bottom of the well clawing my way out and Little Passports was my lifeline. It was the dream of building something big. The dream that one day I could tell a story of survival.

Now my son sees that I'm a CEO,  and we have around 50 employees and he sees his mom as successful. His friends know Little Passports, and some of them are more excited about that than others, but I talk with them about it to remind them that I struggled. Because sometimes, as they go through their own struggles, they will say things to me like, "Well, everything has always come easy to you," and I have to let them know that that is far from the truth. That while I might look like I have it together most of the time, it took a lot of hard work and persistence and resilience to get here.

Once, a few years ago, I started humming [the song from] Frozen that the boys hate because it was overplayed at school, and they made a joking comment like, "Oh, Mom. You would never need a prince to save you." I am happily remarried, and my husband is my rock, and we all need family to support us, but I do like the idea that my children think I'm strong and independent. I'm proud of being that role model. I think they're proud of Little Passports. And my son wants to do an internship here as soon as he's old enough.
 

Published on: May 9, 2019