About six years ago, while I was busy “maxing out” at my full-time job in San Francisco, a friend of mine started freelancing for a company that sounded like a working mom nirvana.
It was a small web design firm in Silicon Valley called Sliced Bread. The owners (Julie Stanford and Ellen Siminoff) were good friends who had bought houses next door to each other. They set up a large shared office in the downstairs of Julie’s house, and because they had kids about the same age, they decided to share a nanny. Employees came into the office two days a week. The other days people could choose to come in or work from home.
A couple people at the company had babies at the time, and my friend said when she was on conference calls with coworkers, it wasn’t unusual to hear the dull groan of a breast pump in the background. No one thought this was weird. Everyone was just focused on doing great work, and doing it efficiently so they could enjoy their lives.
A few years later, after I left my job, I did a freelance project for Sliced Bread and it was just as my friend had described. (If they weren’t a 90-minute drive from my house, I would work with them more often.)
Since then, I’ve kept in touch with Julie, and I was really happy when she agreed to let me profile her business here on the blog. As you’ll see, she and her business partner have not been afraid to break social norms when they had a good reason to, and their business is thriving. What follows is edited version of our conversation:
Me: What made you decide to start your own business?
Julie: True story—13 years ago I was working for a startup that decided to let one of the designers on a two-person design team go. But instead of just deciding which designer to let go, they told each designer a different fictitious story about what was going to happen next at the company in the hopes that one designer would decide to stay on her own (because the future was so appealing) and the other would decide to leave on her own (because the future seemed so terrible).
This plot could have worked except for the fact that the two designers were good friends and realized they were being played. The designer who was supposed to stay quit, and the designer who was supposed to leave stayed around for a few more months being annoying. Then she quit, too.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I was one of these designers and the other designer was my business partner, Ellen.
We decided we were never going to work for anyone else under any circumstances.
Me: How did you and Ellen know you would be good business partners?
Julie: Ellen and I became great friends when we worked at the startup; it was through her that I met my husband—they were housemates at the time. Ellen and I always dreamed about having an agency together and when the crazy shenanigans at our startup happened, we were happy to leave and start Sliced Bread.
Me: Was it intentional that you bought houses next door to each other, or was that just luck?
Julie: Ellen had lived with my husband for many years and when we first started our business, we set up shop at the house she shared with a bunch of other people. I basically camped out there since my then-boyfriend-now-husband was a resident, so Ellen and I knew that we could live together for all intents and purposes.
Later, Scott and I got married and bought a house. When the house next door to us came up for sale, it seemed obvious that Ellen and her husband Mark should buy it. At first it sounded like a crazy idea, but it didn’t take long for all of us to think it would go well, and it has. For us, there really aren’t any downsides.
Me: Tell us about the decision to share a nanny . . . how does that work?
Julie: When I had my first child, Ellen was still living in San Jose and I was living in Mountain View, so we had separate nannies. After Ellen moved next door, my nanny had a health issue come up that precluded her from caring for the children so I was suddenly stuck without childcare.
At first we used Ellen’s nanny Felipa as a stop-gap measure to watch all three kids (Ellen’s son Zack was 3.5, and her daughter Sophie was 1; my son Alexi was also 1). But it really worked out so we raised our nanny’s salary to cover the additional responsibility and have never looked back.
Me: Some people need firm boundaries between work and home, while others blur the boundaries. Which one are you?
Julie: I like to blur the boundaries. I don’t have a problem mixing business with pleasure.
Me: What’s it like running a business out of your own house?
Julie: I love it! I’m the kind of person who really enjoys having people at my house, having parties, being in a noisy environment . . . I’m extremely gregarious and don’t need a lot of privacy.
I think if you’re considering having a business out of your home, you need to have a dedicated space (mixing the business with the rest of the home stuff is too much). However, we do use the living room and dining area for meetings and have a guest bedroom that is also used for telecons sometimes.
Me: How many employees do you have now, and how important is it to have them together on site?
Julie: If I count contractors who have been with us forever (and could be employees if they wanted to), we have ten people.
I think it’s important to have people together on site regularly, but I don’t think it’s important to have that every day. People work in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays and work from home (or are welcome to come in) on the other days. Some people who live in the city meet up on off days to co-work.
Me: What’s the best and worst part for you about running your own business?
Julie: The best part is having control and being able to make decisions that are aligned with your own standards. For example, I decided I wanted people to eat lunch together so we buy everyone lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we eat together. It’s been great for morale.
The worst part is that if something goes wrong, you’re responsible for fixing it and sometimes that sucks. I’ve worked it out so I work only 32 hours a week, but sometimes I have to work a lot more if an issue comes up with the business.
Me: Do you have advice for other women who would like to do something similar?
Julie: You need to judge your tolerance for risk and have an optimistic attitude. If you’re OK not knowing what your work is going to be in three or four months and you won’t be up at night worrying, then you should do it.
Also, don’t listen when people say things have to be a certain way.
Me: What do you mean?
Julie: Like people might say you have to have a beautiful office and people can’t work from home three days a week, or people have to work more than 40 hours a week. But we broke all those rules and we did make it work.
I don’t understand why people always think businesses have to be run the same way—we’re doing things our way, and our business is very successful.
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By the way, Sliced Bread is hiring. More info here>