Q&A: How One CEO Takes Work-Life Balance Seriously
As the founder and CEO of Hostfully, Margot Lee Schmorak says her recipe to creating work/life balance is self-care and being ruthless with her priorities.
For this mother of two (with one on the way), stepping away from her career gave her time to think expansively about what she wanted out of her personal and professional life.
As the head of the San Francisco-based software company that helps companies that manage vacation properties better serve and respond to guests, Schmorak is clear on her obligations towards investors and clients but her first priority is to take care of herself and her family.
While maintaining career growth and building a family has its challenges, Schmorak and her husband believe in an equal relationship that supports their careers and their family life.
What was your path to co-founding Hostfully?
I graduated from business school, joined Apple as an intern, got recruited to join full-time in the iPhone developer relations group, and then I helped launch the iPhone developer program in 2008.
I left Apple because I really wanted an experience that gave me more visibility in the business, and Apple is very secretive ... I joined a start-up here in San Francisco with a serial entrepreneur. I did that for another three years, grew the business a lot, learned a lot about early stage start-ups.
Then, I had my first kid and, to be honest with you, I wasn't sure if I was going to want to go back to work. And I had the kid and then five months later I was like, 'Yes I want to go back to work. I love being a mom and I love this kid, but I really want to continue with my career.'
I went back and joined the company ServiceSource.
Was going back an easy transition?
When I started I had no background in B2B anything or services. I'm an analytical person, I'm a smart person, but I just didn't really understand what the function was about, to be honest with you.
It took me like nine months to figure it out enough to start executing and doing a really good job. Then I just kept on asking questions like, how can I be more meaningful to the business? How can I help us drive more revenue? How can I help streamline things internally?
It led to being promoted to the head of marketing for the full business unit which is a $250 million business.
So at this point you had two children?
The CEO promoted me into this role when I was six weeks postpartum [with second child]. And I remember sitting in the room with him and looking at him like, 'Are you serious? You realize I just had a baby, right? Do you really want me to do this?'
And then I kind of bit my tongue because I said, 'Well, he does want me to do this, otherwise he wouldn't have asked me to. I need to stop doubting myself and I need to take this opportunity and go with it.'
How was it going back to work postpartum?
There was a big company, like an all-company, strategic event and it happened to be when my second son was 6-weeks-old, and I brought him and the nanny to the event. And the event went great.
I know some moms love to travel with their kids with the nanny, but I hated it. I felt like a bad mom. I just felt like I couldn't focus on the work and I couldn't focus on the kid. It was just too hard.
Did you eventually ease into the job?
I did that job for a year. I did a really good job. I did really love the people at that company, but it just was a bad time for me to continue working. I felt like I'd never get to have this time with my kid, like I had with my first. You know, the downtime of waking up and going for a walk and just doing the little baby stuff ... it goes by so fast and if you miss it, it's gone.
And then the other thing was, I was kind of burnt out physically. I didn't get enough sleep and I wasn't you know, taking great care of myself.
Did you let your manager know exactly why you wanted to quit?
It was the CEO. I remember saying, “This is totally a personal choice and I just need some time to just reset. And I love working for you and I love working for this company, and I'm really sorry that I have to go. But I feel like I'm leaving you in a really good place and I need to do this.”
He was so gracious about it. He said, “My door is always open for you.” It was one of the most generous things I've ever heard any manager say.
During the process of bringing this company to life, where were you in your personal life?
I really love actually having children and working. I think for me, it's a really good match. I love the energy level that has to be really high, and I find that I'm a better mom when I do work because I get a lot of satisfaction and kind of flow from my work, and I think it makes it better parent.
On the work side, being a mom also makes me a better CEO because I'm really ruthless about my priorities. I just don't have a lot of time to spend worrying about decisions that I made or thinking about things that are not totally necessary for the business.
So how do you and your husband balance it all?
My kids are the most important thing to me. So if something is going wrong with them, where I feel like they're not thriving, then that's my priority.
I have a structure around me that is really healthy. My kids are in great schools. One of them is at a preschool here in San Francisco, the other one’s in a really great public school here in San Francisco. We also have an au pair turned nanny who lives in our house.
I also have a partner. My husband Ari is an SVP at SalesForce, and he and I are very equal in terms of how much responsibility we think about when it comes to the kids.
You and your husband are both in executive positions. How do you balance responsibilities?
From the start of our relationship, I made it clear (and he did too) that my career is a priority for me (and his for him) so we entered into our marriage with that mutual understanding.
Of course, "equality" is strange to measure when it comes to parenting, marriage, and running a household, but we do make big efforts to share responsibility. This includes nurturing ourselves, our marriage, our kids, their education, household operations, and personal finances.
Some specific examples of this: Ari does the laundry and cleans the kitchen after meals, while I make sure we have food in the house and do most of the cooking. He drives the process of managing our personal finances and bank account, and we make all the key decisions together. I am the primary organizer for kids’ activities and also working with our nanny, but we make all those decisions together too.
The "equality" is more about the intention versus time spent. While you're "in it" sometimes, it's hard to appreciate what your partner does. One life coach that I had, Johanna Bayer, suggested that we swap roles for awhile — it's a sure and quick way to appreciate your partner for all that they do!
How do you prioritize?
I'm a CEO of a company. I clearly have responsibilities to my investors, to my employees, to our customers, and I take those all very seriously.
But I consider my first job is to take care of myself. My first job is to make sure I get enough sleep, to make sure that I'm mindful of my decisions, that I'm being considerate to everybody else around me, that I'm feeling fulfilled with my job and my motherhood.
Then the next thing is my family. My relationship with my husband needs to be healthy, and my relationship with my kids needs to be healthy, and then it's my business.
I'm not trying to imply that I don't care about the business. I do, a lot. But I actually think about my life in that order.
When you say self-care — what are some of the things that you do?
I think sleep is super-important. I will even take a half-hour nap in the middle of the day if I have a window and it’s after lunch.
I also really watch what I eat. I eat really healthfully. I cook my own food as much as I can — that doesn't always happen, but I do as much as I can. I love to do yoga and exercise and go for hikes. To be honest with you, right now that is really hard.
I do have a kind of priority list in my head though. These are the things that you can't skip on. You can't skip on sleep because that makes you irritable and that makes you a bad leader and that makes you a bad wife and that makes you a bad mom. That one just cannot be touched.
You wanted to found or join a start-up. Did the time off help in reaching your goal?
I can definitely say that it was thanks to the time off that I was able to find the people who I wanted to work with to start a company.
That just takes time, and I don't know how other people do it.
You met your co-founder in a unique way.
The idea [of the business] actually came from my co-founder David. He and I met because our kids go to preschool together. I remember we were standing outside of the school and he said, “Oh, you’re unemployed too.” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
He had this idea because he’s an Airbnb superhost and he was hosting guests. He said, “There are so many things I can do better for my guests. One of them was to take this mediocre looking guidebook that I made and make it into a scalable business.”
When I met him I thought it was actually a terrible idea. I said, “I'll help you because you seem like a really nice person and you're in my community, and I can put you in touch with these people, but like I don't think very good idea.”
And then we kept working on it and the relationship grew between him and me and we began to trust each other. And I also realized and I think he knew this before just how big the market is and how much it's growing.
What advice do you have for women who are debating taking time off?
My general advice is that change is always good, and humans are always worried about change. So we actually make changes in our lives slower than is good for us.
Make sure to take off at least three months, optionally four. Don’t do eight weeks, it’s not enough time to really get the full benefit of the experience of taking time off. So you need to think about your budget and you need to think about your lifestyle and how that might change or not, depending on what your circumstances are when you take the time off.
Take the luxury of time that you have to go for walks and free think. Talk to a lot of people about what they're doing and how happy they are. Ask yourself where you want to be in five years, not in terms of a job, but what kind of lifestyle you want and what your priorities are.