An Interview with Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs | Work Life Mom

Let’s talk for a minute about how awesome the Internet is. Last month, when I wrote about the pitfalls of flexible work arrangements, it happened to catch the eye of FlexJob’s PR manager who reached out to me about the post. After a few emails and with my Work | Life | Mom series on my mind, I decided to ask if Sara Sutton Fell, FlexJob’s founder and CEO as well as a mom of two, would consider being profiled on Mommy Sanest.

I assumed it was a long shot, but they pretty much immediately said yes, to which I responded: o_O (because nothing says professional like an emoticon).
Sara Sutton Fell, Founder and CEO of Flexjobs | Work Life Mom
If you’re not familiar with Sara Sutton Fell’s story, it’s a good one. An entrepreneur from a young age, Sara started a company in college called Job Direct, which she and her co-founder sold in 2000. Sara went on to other professional endeavors, but in 2007, she found herself looking for work that would allow her to have a flexible schedule.

Did I mention that Sara was pregnant at the time?

When she struggled to find legitimate flexible work, she did what any pregnant woman would do: She started a company that would solve this dilemma for job seekers by connecting them to real companies offering professional opportunities with flexible work benefits.

FlexJobs was born.

I’ve actually been a member of FlexJobs since last year, and now that I’ve quit my full-time marketing position, I plan to actively use the site to find contract and project work. I highly recommend that anyone looking for telecommuting, part-time, short-term, or contract positions check out the site.

As for Sara, she thoughtfully and thoroughly answered my questions about her family and work life, how she balances it all, and what advice she has for those of you seeking flexible work arrangements. I couldn’t have hoped for a better profile to kick off my Work | Life | Mom series.

Sara Sutton Fell, Found and CEO of FlexJobs talks motherhood, ambition, and how to talk to your supervisor about flexible work options.

Lou: Tell us about your family.

Sara Sutton Fell: I’m a proud mom to two young boys, Harrison and Palmer. While I work from home, my husband works outside of the house, but I have our chocolate lab Derby to keep me company in my home office.

You started Flexjobs when you were pregnant because you couldn’t find flexible work opportunities and kept running into scams. What were some of the challenges of starting a company while pregnant? Were there benefits to this timing?

I often joke that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend someone start a company when they’re pregnant! Probably the biggest benefit to this timing was that it proved that FlexJobs must be a REALLY good idea, because I kept with it even through all the sleepless nights and stress that being a new mom brings along. The challenges were exactly what you’d think–trying to balance my time between a newborn and a new company, all while giving myself a little time, too. Luckily I had tremendous help from my husband and my own mom, which made it all possible. Easy? No. Possible? Yes.

What makes FlexJobs different than other job search websites?

FlexJobs isn’t your typical job search website because we don’t feature any advertising or other clutter on our site. Instead, FlexJobs members are greeted with a clean, ad-free, scam-free, screened database of flexible jobs. In exchange for our 100% commitment to, and focus on, job seekers, we ask for a small monthly or yearly fee from our users. It’s not typical to charge job seekers as a job board, but we truly believe — and have proven through our success — that we’re able to provide a better job experience because of it. FlexJobs aims to make job searching easier, faster, and safer for job seekers.

Another big difference is that we have a client services team for our job seekers. Monday through Friday, job seekers can call, email, or chat with our client services team, ask questions, and get help with their job search questions. It’s not often with any service today that you can call and speak to a human being with no hassle!

What flexible benefits do you offer your employees, and do you take advantage of these benefits as the CEO?

We offer pretty much every type of flexibility you can imagine. All of our 53 staffers work from home, and the vast majority have flexible schedules and can set their own hours (except client services, which needs to operate on a set schedule). We offer full-time and part-time roles, and hire for freelance contracts. I definitely take advantage of our flexible work options! I work from home myself, and while I keep fairly regular business hours, I don’t feel guilty switching up my schedule to care for sick kiddos, or attend to other family and life issues. And our staff know that they are free to do the same!

Can you describe your “typical” work day?

Most days I work from around 9am to around 6pm, from the converted office above our garage. Earlier in the morning, I’m able to help our kids get ready for school and drop them off. When the weather is nice, I’ll get out for a bike ride, and I attend a weekly yoga class. And I’m lucky enough to work from home, so during the growing season, I can make a fresh salad from our veggie garden for lunch. But, as I mentioned, I feel able to switch up that schedule to meet the needs of the day, both for work and for life. I might have an early morning interview with a local TV station, or take a break in the afternoon to attend my sons’ school activities. I know I can shift my hours to later in the evening to make up the difference.

How do you and your partner manage childcare?

We have a great team of babysitters to help us when our kids aren’t in school. When they were very young, before they were in school full-time, our sitters did a great job of caring for them while my husband and I worked. We also take full advantage of summer camps. My advice for anyone with young children is to have multiple childcare options in case something falls through. Trying to work from home and watch your kids at the same time simply isn’t fair, for your kids or your job.

How do you and your partner manage the “business” of running a household?

Google calendar! We have a color-coded shared calendar that, to anyone else, probably looks like a child’s art project more than a method of running a household, but it works really well for us. We each have our own calendar, and share items with each other to stay on track. I’m happy to say that we definitely share the load when it comes to chores, cooking, etc. We work really well as a team.

If you could change one thing about how you balance work with other areas of your life, what would be?

Overall, things work really well for us. Especially because I really see work-life balance as just that — a balancing act that will tip back and forth depending on the needs of the day. The key is to not let things tip too far in one direction or the other. I’m probably not the only one who struggles with this, but I’d love to be better at the ability to let the little things go. There’s always going to be that one last toy that needs to be picked up, or that one last email that needs to be sent, but I often remind myself that if it’s not critical, it can be let go.

Finding a job with significant flexibility often means giving something up—whether it be taking a pay cut or giving up career advancement momentum. Do you think it’s possible to keep a career on track and find the flexibility you need, or do you always have to give something up?

Yes! There are so many surveys that show what people would give up to get more work flexibility, but I try to show people that you don’t need to give things up! One of the biggest misconceptions is that telecommuting jobs pay less than in-office jobs, but from the research we’ve done, we’ve found that’s not the case. Salaries for telecommuting and office jobs are right in line with one other (accounting for the industry, location, experience level, etc.).

One of the keys to keeping your career on track with a flexible job is to be proactive with your manager. Don’t wait for them to contact you–reach out and show them what you’re working on. Because you’re a bit separated from them, physically, you need to proactively communicate your value to the company rather than waiting to be recognized. Doing this regularly will help keep your career on track regardless of where or when you work.

You’re a successful entrepreneur, having started a business before you even graduated from college. Other than starting Flexjobs as an answer to finding legitimate flexible work, did motherhood change your career ambitions or how you view work?

It didn’t change my ambition, but it certainly changed how I wanted to work. Becoming a mother made me realize how vital work-life balance is to a healthy and happy life. I still want to be professionally active, and it’s become really important for me to show my two boys that a mom can have a successful career just like a dad can. I love work, but having a family also showed me that to continue loving work, you need to balance it with other obligations and fun things in life!

Why do you think some companies are hesitant to offer flexible work arrangements? Do you have advice for employees who want to talk to their supervisors about considering these options?

There’s a bit of the fear of the unknown. Managers are used to seeing employees at work, but with telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements, you have to change up your management strategies to rely less on seeing employees, and more on understanding exactly what they’re working on regularly. If you want to talk to your supervisor about flexible work options, I highly recommend planning your proposal in advance. Be sure to demonstrate all the ways flexible work benefits your manager and the company (you’ll be more productive, you’ll require less real estate and office equipment, you’ll take fewer sick days, etc.). And give them a clear picture of where, when, and how you’ll be working. Tell them about your well-equipped home office, schedule a regular weekly call to go over your projects, and promise to email them every day with status updates on your work. The more you can do to assuage their fears, the more receptive they’ll be.

A big thank you to Sara Sutton Fell as well as Kathy Gardner, PR Manager at FlexJobs.

You might also be interested in checking out the next interview in the Work | Life | Mom series with Abby Brennan, Owner of Brennan Spa.

Baby’s First Year: What I Didn’t Expect as a New Mom

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: The first year of parenthood was tough for me. My daughter was not — how do you say — a laid back baby. I do not reminisce about my baby’s first year with a lot of nostalgia. For me, things just keep getting better.

I struggled the first few months of my daughter’s life, and even as some things got better, I continued to struggle because taking care of a newborn plus figuring out who I was as a mom plus learning how to operate as a co-parent was daunting. This is not to say every new mom experiences her baby’s first year the same way—some people may totally disagree with this list, others may only identify with a few, but that’s what makes these “I didn’t know” lists fun, right?

10 Things I Didn’t Expect from Baby’s First Year

10 Things I didn't expect as a new mom. Baby's first year, you never know what you're going to get.

1. The overwhelming sense that I had lost my independence.

This was by far the most intense and immediate reaction I had to bringing our baby home, and it blindsided me big time. This was not postpartum depression or a lack of bonding with the baby — for me, this was how the realization that my old life was gone manifested itself, and no matter how prepared I was with diapers and wipes and onesies or how many times I read/heard my life was about to change drastically and forever, I was unprepared for how this felt. I hilariously referred to home as ‘prison,’ (which I maybe picked up from a Sex and the City episode?), and I sprinted for the door whenever I had the opportunity to get out by myself — even if it was to buy more diapers.

2. Not getting enough sleep wasn’t too terrible — until I went back to work.

I’m not saying I felt 100 percent. But it was a doable scenario if (big IFs coming at ya) your baby gives you 1-2 longish stretches at night (say, five hours then three or so hours, and this does happen for a lot of people by about six weeks) plus some naps, and you are not getting up, getting ready, getting out of the house, and attempting to function among living, breathing human coworkers.

3. The crying was constant during baby’s first year.

Or at least it felt that way. Crying is how babies communicate, so crying is to be expected. Some babies cry less and are generally content to take in the world around them for stretches of time — like for 10 minutes or so. Some babies take two-plus hour naps. My baby did neither. While I’m sure she wasn’t colicky — she slept relatively well at night and was soothable — she was headstrong and only content when on the move.

Baby's First Year: lots of crying

4. We did not actually stay at home.

I have friends who have the total opposite experience. But with Emme, we had to leave the house. We would literally walk out the door after hours of crying, and she would pass out in her carseat, happy to be out in the world. She was a champ in the car and good in the stroller, so we went out a lot. As much as I wished she would hang out in her swing or bouncey seat, I do think that being out and about was good for my mental health and sanity.

5. Reluctant co-sleeping is a thing.

And I did it. Say what you will about co-sleeping — the fact is, when the only way you can get a newborn to sleep is to put her in bed next to you, there’s a good chance your desperate-for-sleep self will do it. While co-sleeping was not the plan, I was generally comfortable with this based on the research that moms who aren’t otherwise impaired rarely roll over onto their babies. My husband was terrified. Luckily, this was a short-lived period of our lives.

6. Breastfeeding was hard.

OK. I knew this. The Internet is lousy with information about how hard breastfeeding can be. But I think somewhere in my brain, I thought that it wouldn’t be hard for me. I have plenty of friends who more easily navigated the early days of breastfeeding, despite it a few minor trials and tribulations (which at the time, let me tell you, do not seem minor, but in hindsight, etc.) and went on to have long and fulfilling breastfeeding relationships with their babes. Emme  and I though, we had a tough road. The first few weeks were extremely trying — I went through a whole breastfeed, pump, bottle routine that was extremely tedious and time consuming the first few weeks of her life. Then I had mastitis multiple times and toward the end of my breastfeeding adventure, I found it extremely painful and never really figured out the cause. At 12 months and one week, I called it quits.

7. Breastfeeding was hard, but pumping is literally the worst.

Pumping is the worst.

And I mean literally as literally. I can’t even go into this, as talking about how much I hated pumping still causes me anxiety. If you’re interested, you can read about my pumping misadventures.

8. I would have gladly made out with anyone who was willing to hold my baby long enough for me to eat a sandwich with both hands.

After I was done with the sandwich—obviously. Seriously, you want to make a new mom happy? Bring her sandwich, then hold her baby while she eats it.

9. There was no perfect work/life balance scenario.

I never really considered staying home full time. And while there were days when I made a break for the front door, excited to no longer hear screaming and eat a sandwich with two hands, working full time was tough. I wanted to experience all the new fun baby shit that exists in our modern world with Emme — playdates and music classes, stroller workouts and baby gyms. I wanted to make her baby food and breastfeed without having to pump in a vacant office that my boss refused to let me move into. I wouldn’t say I felt guilty — I felt like I was missing out on my baby’s first year.

10. The fog of new parenthood wouldn’t lift until we hit day 365.

But it did get better. Every milestone, every week, every month, we got a little more sleep, our routine became a little more familiar, and we settled into becoming a family of three. Acceptance is key… so is hanging on for dear life.

And then there’s life with a toddler.