Imagine you're in the midst of beta testing your product ahead of your startup's much anticipated launch. Now imagine that in the midst of the long hours and the mounting pressure, you find out you're unexpectedly pregnant.
What's your most likely first emotion?
Pure terror, which is just what Librify co-founder and CEO Joanna Stone Herman told Inc.com she felt upon getting the surprising but eventually happy news that she and her husband would be welcoming their third child right around the time her company was set to launch.
"I have another baby coming already called Librify!" Stone Herman remembers thinking. "The timing is crazy."
Her initial response may have been a blend of shock and a bemusement at the jokes the universe dreams up to play on us, but now that Stone Herman is more than eight months along and her company's big launch of its digital social reading platform is just a few weeks away, she actually feels the experience has had a surprising number of upsides.
Nope, not an alien (or a slacker)
Which isn't to say that combining pregnancy with a schedule chock full of meetings with potential investors and partners wasn't without its hardships. The biggest of which, she says, was the simple unfamiliarity of the startup world with pregnant women. Stone Herman has a professional background in publishing where women are in the majority, so transitioning into the world of tech was a big adjustment.
"The startup world is very male-dominated. Just being a woman makes you unusual and being a pregnant woman makes you an alien. There are times where I actually feel like they're looking at my stomach like, 'What is that thing?!'" she laughs. "That's probably the most challenging thing."
There were also, inevitably, questions about how the demands of growing and caring for a baby would impact her work, which Stone Herman left to those who had worked with her previously to address on her behalf.
"Luckily, some of my biggest supporters--people on the board, people who were early investors in the company--have known me awhile and so they can vouch for the fact that, in my last pregnancy, I was literally sending emails from the delivery table and that I have no intention of slacking off in any way post-pregnancy," she says. "I don't know if, as a woman, you can tell that story yourself. You have to have people that can say, 'I know this person. I know how they'll operate.'"
Getting her colleagues to vouch for her work ethic has been effective, but that doesn't mean it's fair, she acknowledges. "A man never has to tell that story. No one ever says, 'Oh, you're having a kid soon. Does that mean you'll be able to keep up these work hours afterwards?'" she points out.
These sorts of double takes and double standards have been an irritating reality of being an incredibly rare beast in the startup jungle, but Stone Herman believes that, annoyances aside, her pregnancy probably comes out to a net positive for her company. First and foremost, that's because being pregnant and being a control freak really, really don't mix.
"CEOs of startups can tend to be too controlling in the early stage," Stone Herman observes, but after she discovered she was pregnant, she quickly realized there was no way she would be able to micromanage her team of ten employees.
"I had to, very quickly, say I'm hiring and working with people that I trust and that I'm going to hand a lot to those people," she says. "It's about delegating decision making." That's a lot easier to do if you have the reality of surprise doctors visits spurring you on.
A flexible family
Her growing belly also had a positive impact on the company's developing culture, according to Stone Herman. "One of the things that I tend to do, and I don't know if it's right for everybody, is I overshare to an extent," she says. Keeping her employees in the loop about the happenings at her OB/GYN has had the benefit of ensuring everyone is informed and staving up worry, but it has also encouraged others at the company to open up and bond. "We have this very family environment here because [my pregnancy] actually makes people ask a lot of personal questions about each other that maybe at other companies wouldn't happen so naturally," she reports.
Not only are employees more bonded, but they're also well drilled in responding to any unexpected challenges that crop up. "Having to juggle based on the CEO's medical appointments taught the team the same sort of flexibility they need to respond to user feedback," she adds.
And when it comes to attracting new talent to join this flexible family, Stone Herman insists her highly visible condition has also been a surprise asset. "We have people who are recently married, people with kids, and I think knowing I'm in the same boat is really helpful," she says of Librify's recruiting efforts. While the company has yet to nail down a formal leave policy (Stone Herman herself is coming straight back to the office but stresses this is a personal choice and not right for--or expected of--everyone), the CEO being pregnant has shown a bright light on work-life balance concerns.
"The policy is we believe everybody is really dedicated to the success of Librify and they're going to make the right decisions about how to balance that with their family and personal needs, whatever those are," she reports, adding that creating an environment that enables work-life balance for everybody, no matter the details of their personal situation, is important to her. "I want to create a company where we think about the fact that if a woman is coming back from maternity leave, we need a place for her to pump," she offers as an example.
Dreams of being boring
Stone Herman is happy to share her experience as a pregnant founder and understands the interest in her currently quite unusual situation--after all, Marissa Mayer is probably the only other pregnant CEO most of us have ever come across--but finally, what she hopes most of all is that one day the combination of having a child and launching a company won't be a novelty worth discussing at all.
"I hope that there comes a time where this is something that's just very common," she concludes.