Founding Fathers: self employment and the work/life balance

Floricane’s John Sarvay talks about maintaining — or trying to maintain — an appropriate work/life balance while starting your own business.

The first year was awesome. Sort of.

The upside of starting a consulting business at the height of a recession is that there’s always plenty of time to spend with your wife and young daughter.

The downside risks are that you continue to have plenty of free time and you run out of money, or the business takes off and all of that spare time evaporates.

Welcome to the last three years of my life as a father, and new business owner.

Knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it easier. Neither does seeing your wife and eight-month-old daughter waiting for you at the door.

On November 12, 2008, I wrapped up a twelve year run with Luck Stone Corporation. They gave me a generous severance check and the option to extend my health care benefits – for slightly more than our monthly mortgage.

Bear in mind that this was when more than a million people a month were hitting the streets. The recession was just gaining strength.

I was lucky. Within a week, I had interviews with two of Richmond’s top employers. I was on the phone for several hours during one interview, and when I hung up Nikole – Thea bundled in her arms – asked what I thought.

“It’s an industry I know well, it’s in the midst of major change, they need someone with my skills,” I said. “The job is tactical, not strategic, and won’t stretch me, and the salary is about 60% of my last job. And they expect another round of layoffs in two months.”


It was at that moment that I realized my 15-year run with corporate America – essentially limited to a stint at Circuit City and my long stretch at Luck Stone – had come to an end.

Nine days into my new job as an unemployed American, I decided to start my own business.

By nature, I’m a planner. I map things out. I ponder and sketch out ideas. I decided to take a few months to regroup and develop a solid business plan.

A tiny voice in my head whispered, “Run like hell.”

I used to ignore that voice. Not this time.

There was no business plan. Within 60 days, I’d networked my way through coffee, lunch or dinner with more than 250 people around town. I had a snappy logo, vibrant business cards and a website. I even had a paying client.

I ran. I sprinted, really. And I haven’t stopped – even now I’m moving at a good new-business-marathon pace.

That’s how Floricane, a strategic planning and facilitation consultancy, was born – and has stayed alive. Thrived even.

Being a business owner has changed everything. It transformed my relationship with Nikole and Thea.

The first year was the best – we essentially lived off of a generous severance from Luck Stone, a major slice of my 401(k), a community benefactor, and one good contract with a nonprofit in Hopewell. I’d never been to Hopewell before 2009.

I used to leave for work every morning at 6.30am, and often didn’t get home until after 6.00pm. This new life meant an extra four hours of day with Nikole and Thea.

It really was the perfect time to have more time – Thea was entering the toddler phase of her life, and was much more interesting, and interested.

We ate breakfast and played together every morning while Nikole got ready for the day. I came home early on sunny days so we could hit the playground.

Life was grand until July of that first year. That was when the money dried up.

It started with a phone call from Nikole. “We have $200 in the bank,” she said, ” and our mortgage is due in a week.”

“Awesome,” I replied. “I have about the same in the business account.”

Suddenly, running a business felt real.

After an exhausting weekend of honest conversation, we decided to stay in the game. And I decided to stop treating it like a game.

One client turned into two, then three, then four.

Floricane rolled into 2010. By Thea’s second birthday, I was staying on track with our morning breakfast dates, but more and more evenings were devoted to clients, proposals, and emails. More weekend hours were being spent at the office. I was barely keeping pace with my #GardenWars competitors at RVANews.

So, I staffed up. Not fast enough.

By the end of year two, I was juggling several dozen projects simultaneously with my new team. My brags of a 40 hour work week evaporated. I was beginning to feel the effects of the marathon pace.

I made a quiet commitment at the end of 2010 to begin to reclaim my family life.

No more than one half-day a weekend would be spent at the office. No more than two nights a week with clients or networking events. More blocks of time focused on Nikole and Thea.

My new team has stepped into the breach. We’re managing our clients more effectively.

For Christmas, I gave Nikole a calendar with six long weekends blocked out between January and July. We’ve had a “staycation” and family trips to North Carolina, celebrated our birthdays, even gone on a few dates.

We planted a garden together last week.

I wouldn’t trade the last three years – with my wife, our daughter, and our new business – for anything.

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John Sarvay

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