187 Renee Warren: Startup Hacks for Family Freedom

Serial Entrepreneur Renee Warren juggles a lot: Her growing business, twins, travel, Crossfit, friendships, and marriage to another high performing serial entrepreneur. Founder of The Family Academy, and before it the Silicon Valley startup PR firm Onboardly, Renee has valuable advice for women in business about how to juggle it all using agile startup methodologies.

Melinda Wittstock:             Renee, welcome to WINGS.

Renee Warren:                 Thanks for having me.

Melinda Wittstock:         I am so happy and excited to talk to you because I love big moonshot missions, and you set out to help one million entrepreneur families gain more freedom in their lives with Family Academy. And I love this concept for freedom, but I want you to define it. What do you mean by freedom?

Renee Warren:                 A lot of it comes down to the mental freedom. So with me and my husband, we had launched two businesses, had two babies, moved twice, all in two years. And a lot of people do that in a lifetime. So when I actually looked back and reflected on those times, I realized there was a lot I don’t remember, probably because of PTSD, but at the same time there were a lot of systems we created to help us get through those dark days. And this was taking business philosophies and business applications and applying it to our family life. We became happier and healthier and more connected because of it, and it was something that I became so deeply rooted with and connected to that I knew other people needed it, and I wanted to share it with the world.

When I look at the future of the workforce and when I look at the future of most people’s careers, it’s going to be either freelancers or entrepreneurs. And with that, there are a lot of people that don’t know how to juggle. And I don’t like calling it work-life balance, but they don’t know how to juggle having the connections with themselves, their partner, and their kids, and growing their business. And that’s why I launched the Family Academy.

Melinda Wittstock:         I love that. Because I think as women in particular, we struggle. We want to do all things and be all things, you know? Running a business, being a mom, having time for our partner. There are so many things, and often in that mix we can end up putting ourselves last.

Renee Warren:                 Oh, yeah.

Melinda Wittstock:         So …

Renee Warren:                 There are far too many people who do it. Even high performing career people. It’s not necessarily just entrepreneurs, but there are people that are super dedicated to their careers and to their businesses. And they don’t know where to draw the line, and it gets to the point where they’re sleeping three hours a night, their diet is crap, and their kids don’t even know their name. They realize, “Oh, this is rock hard bottom.” It’s hard to crawl out of the hole when you’ve reached that low. For me, it’s let’s identify these issues when they start so we can nip them in the bud, and that’s what family academy’s for.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah. That’s so nice. I mean, when you go back to the original motivation for being an entrepreneur, a lot of people come at it because they want freedom. But then they end up becoming enslaved by the very thing that was going to allow them the freedom. How does that happen to us?

Renee Warren:                 It’s kind of like parenting. It’s the exact same thing. You look at it, and it’s like you have friends or siblings that have kids and you’re childless, and you think, oh, they complain about this and that, but really, can it be that hard? And then when you actually become a parent, you think, wow. This is not what I expected, it’s a lot harder than I expected. The same can be said for businesses. When I was 17 years old, I started a restaurant, because my mom told me to go out and get a job, and I said, “I’m not getting a job. Entrepreneurs make a lot of money and they don’t work that much, so why would I get a job? I’m just going to go start a restaurant.”

Well … That was 70 to 80 hours a week. That was busting my balls when I could see … The restaurant I had was on the lake, and it was seasonal. So on the summertime I would look out, while I was working I could see my friends boating by and swimming and having the time of their lives, and I was just working as hard as I could. But at the end of the day, it was an incredible experience. I don’t regret it. I went through college without being in debt a single penny because of the effort I made in making the money before I went to university. So I’ve always been debt free, always, because I’ve been a very responsible entrepreneur.

So, while it is difficult, I think if you do it right it has a lot of its advantages, and there is a heck of a lot more freedom involved in being an entrepreneur.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s so true. So how we find this, I call it work-life integration in a way … Because you know, I’m also a mom. One of my businesses and I started and in the startup phase, before we launched, I got pregnant. And so by the time I got all my capital together and launched with clients and all this stuff, Sydney had been born and she was only six weeks old. And it was crazy. It was one of those things I hadn’t planned either. But somehow, through it all, my kids have made me a better entrepreneur and my entrepreneuring has made me a better mom. I mean, God knows, there have been moments that have been pretty tough. I see it that way now, they’re a little bit older, they’re 11 and 14, but it’s interesting how these two things inform each other. So this is a long segue into the question I wanted to ask you about how you apply startup principles to family life. This is so intriguing. Give me some examples.

Renee Warren:                 It all started with a spreadsheet, and a calendar, and scheduling stuff. This was about five years ago, maybe even more than that. Before my first son was born. So my boys now are four and five years old, they’re 11 months apart, and we were doing this scheduling before, because we had no clue. I remember talking with Dan about this, actually, we were reminiscing of these days before children and he’s like, “I used to never schedule anything before I had kids.” And I was like, “Me neither. Even meetings were like, maybe tomorrow at two PM I’ll be available.” And now it was scheduling everything. That meant scheduling date nights, this meant scheduling me time. So this day, every Wednesday night, it’s me time. Dan picks up the kids from daycare, and I can do whatever the heck I want to do. Most of the time, it’s having a bath. But it came down to creating these spreadsheets. It was reviewing our life like you would review your business. Every Friday at 10:30 AM Dan and I would meet, and we’d talk about the same five things. We reflect on the week, we give each other a score, as a husband, as a wife, as a parents, we work on our five values. So we think, all these things that a business does maybe on daily or weekly standups, we do as a family.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right. So you have a family scrum. You’re doing lean startup agile methodology to the family.

Renee Warren:                 It is agile family planning. And I think, regardless of being an entrepreneur, definitely read up on what that means, because it’s a little intimidating at first if you’ve never heard of it, the idea of applying business philosophies to your family life may sound absurd but it is so helpful and it makes so much sense because there are things you just never want to talk about that when you’re doing scrum or you’re doing weekly standups, you have to bring it up or else you can’t get to the next step.

Well, for us, it’s like, “Well, I don’t really like the way you talk to Max when he gets frustrated. Here’s how I suggest you improve it,” instead of it building up, building up, one day you just blowing up, “Don’t talk to my son like that!” And let me tell you, when you look at this … I mean, Dan and I still argue, it happens because you got two Type A personalities married to each other …

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, two entrepreneurs married to each other. Exactly.

Renee Warren:                 So anyway, it all came down to a spreadsheet. And spreadsheets meant travel schedules, it meant creating a operations manual for our family, which included immunization records, birthdates, locations of birth. Everything you can possibly think you need to remember for the family. It was travel; it was meal plans. Okay, we need to get healthy again, here’s a meal plan. We’re eating the same thing, by the way, and I don’t care if you don’t like cauliflower, you’re going to like it, and we’ve made it work. We’ve created these meal plans. And then we hired a house cleaner that became our house manager. She knows more about our house than I do. And not to sound pretentious about it, but she allowed us to be more present with our children and to be able to function better as entrepreneurs.

Melinda Wittstock:         Oh, man. I love this. This is music to my ears, because what it says is leverage. And I think some of the things that women forget is … Say for instance I could go and do the laundry or something like that, or I could work on my business. And what’s my hourly rate working on my business and creating, say, a new revenue stream or something like that or improving the IP or the evaluation of the company or doing the laundry? Should I really be doing the laundry? Does that make sense?

Renee Warren:                 That’s the thing, and I’m actually in the midst of writing a really cool guide about this. It’s about how to be more present, the things you need to do and eliminate in order to be present. And for me, it’s … We only do laundry two days a week. One of those days, the cleaning lady is here. The other day, it’s mostly just me putting clothes away, but when I know that 30 minutes comes, I put on my favorite podcast, I listen to the music, and between tasks I’ll put clothes away. So every minute of me doing a task that falls outside of parenting or being a wife or working on my business, I leverage it. So it’s listening to podcasts or books or something. Take advantage of the time.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, my drive time, because of course, you know, as a parent and as they get older you become a chauffeur. Right? So that comes. Especially when, like my kids go to schools that are far away from each other. So I have all this driving to do. But yeah; same thing: Podcasts, or Audible is my best friend. Because as an entrepreneur it’s so important to read a lot, so it’s hard to have … I’ve found that it’s hard to have time … I have this big, long, huge pile of books, it was my guilt pile that I hadn’t gotten to, and with Audible and combining that now with driving, again, you find a leverage point there. So it’s really looking for these kind of places to do this. The program, then, that all these entrepreneur families go through … Really, you’re teaching them what you have … You and Dan have really figured out, in terms of your, how you run your household and your respective businesses and all of that, you did the test measure build on yourselves and now you can scale and share it with everybody else. I mean, that’s so cool.

Renee Warren:                 Yeah, and you iterate too. So you find new information and you iterate and test new things, and that’s the cool thing about being an entrepreneur. They’re more open to trying new things. Now, in my previous life I was an agency owner, which I loved and I tried my best to hire people who were entrepreneurial, and they were open to trying new things too, so I would test out new ideas with them. And some people were very … They weren’t. They were very, “I want to show up for my work, I want to go home at the end of the day, and that’s what I want.” And I respected that. But to try to convince them of trying new ways of parenting was impossible.

So it definitely takes somebody who’s a little open-minded and looking at this and saying, “Oh, that makes sense. Spreadsheets, I love it. Gantt charts for family, let’s do it. Where do I sign up?” Because it’s important, and the thing about it is you and your partner need to be on the same page when I comes to all this stuff. So it’s like the CEO’s of the household, they run it, and in this place it’s me and I organize these things, and I make sure that our relationship is good, that the house is clean and organized, that the children are healthy, that they’re where they need to be at the right time and the right date. They’re signing up for the right swim classes and all this stuff. It’s a lot of work, but that is my responsibility. And I’m okay with that. It took me a while to be like … Oh, I can’t believe he’s not doing more of this than I am, but he’s doing a lot of other stuff. So at the end of the day, it’s very equal.

Melinda Wittstock:         You know, I love this correlation, though. Because when you think of the companies that succeed, the startups that succeed, they have a great mission, a really clear mission that everybody in the company can repeat, they have a culture, the right people are in the right seats doing the things that allow them to be fully expressed. These are all things that really apply to a successful family. And just relationships generally! Oh, it’s so exciting how you’re correlating this. Because I think it solves a lot of issues for … The type of woman who says, “Wow, I really … I’m an entrepreneur at heart, I really want to start my business but I can’t do it until … ” Or decides to create something small because she thinks, “Oh, man, I don’t know how I’ll balance a big scalable thing,” like shies away from the moonshot because I don’t know how I’m going to do it or how I’m going to balance it or whatever. So this is a formula to really allow women to really step up in this sense.

So when you think of … You spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, obviously, and you have seen a lot of your own and other entrepreneurial success stories and also what I call fail forwards, and when you look at the differences between men and women as entrepreneurs, what are some of the biggest differences or what are some of the areas where women have the real advantage, and what are some of the areas where we get in our own way?

Renee Warren:                 So I think, well, society also has a lot of pressure, and still does, but I think where women get in their own way is not actually speaking up about the inequality when I comes to raising children and household chores. To this day, women still do the majority of it. And reality is, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s just a matter of a woman saying, “This is what’s happening, it’s not fair, I don’t accept this,” and creating a system that works. And I know Dan hates when I talk about this, but he says, “I’m never going to do dishes ever. Don’t ask me about it, it’s never going to happen.” I’m like, “That’s fine. I’m never going to get my oil changed in my car. So then you have to deal with it.” So it’s coming up with the things that are equal. Where women have advantages, I think, if they’re the CEO’s of their businesses and they’re the ones having children, then when it comes to family time and establishing these values and a culture within an organization, they’re at a huge advantage, because they’re going be attracting top talent, better talent because they understand what it’s like to be a mom. To have a family, so they’re going to create these businesses around that and not the other way around.

Melinda Wittstock:         I love that, because if you’re an entrepreneur you have the freedom to create a business … Yeah, that supports you and your strengths, and you know, ideally, you’re hiring your weaknesses. So all too often I think women and men fall into this trap, we try to learn the thing that we’re bad at. Which doesn’t make any sense. It makes more sense, I’ve come to really see this, to really double down on your strengths. And what’s so interesting about what you just said though, too, it’s like, “I’m never going to do the dishes,” or, “I’m not going to change the oil,” is that it is another way of doubling down on your strengths. Knowing what you want, what you’re good at, what you’re going to do, be really clear about your boundaries, be clear about what you want, and everybody really stepping up in their strengths and then hiring the rest. Right?

Renee Warren:                 Exactly. And you know, it’s the same thing for the house. It’s the exact same thing, so the things that I hate doing … I hate grocery shopping. And the main reason why is I always end up buying more crap than I need. I don’t mind going into the grocery store and doing the whole logistics, although that system is completely broken. I always end up buying all the stupid stuff. And so I just tell myself I can’t do it. Our cleaning lady slash house manager does it for us, and we’ve negotiated, I will not do that. I fail at doing groceries, so what do I have to do to make up for it? Well, obviously, spend more time working on my business. And that is, to me, a fantastic idea.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah. No, that’s so smart. A woman that I interviewed on WINGS I don’t know, 20 or so episodes back, Jennifer Hudye, who’s a copywriter, she runs a company called Conscious Copy, and she was saying that her first ever hire was actually someone to help her as a single woman with her domestic chores and things so she could focus on her business. But she got all this, I don’t know, attitude I guess from friends and family who genuinely cared about her, but they were all like, “What makes you think that you can do that?” Right? And so it’s interesting with our friends and family, when we do make decisions like this that make so much sense but then you get this, I don’t know, backtalk around it or whatever? How do you recommend women deal with that? Because we tend to be people pleasers, and then sometimes the people around us are the people who can pull us down.

Renee Warren:                 Yeah. No, and that’s a fantastic question, everyone suffers from this. It actually took me up to about a year ago to really understand how to deal with it. In those moments, all you have to remember is that what they’re saying and how they’re making you feel is a reflection of them. In Jennifer’s instance, when friends and family were saying, “You’re single! Why is somebody else doing your chores for you, you can do this yourself?” She’s internalizing it and probably feeling insulted by this, but the reality is, these are the people that are probably envious of the lifestyle that she’s living. These are the people that would love to have that too, but won’t change the way that they operate or won’t change their life to allow those people into their lives. So those people are the ones that are doing stuff … They’re being victims. So in those instances, the best thing to do is to say to yourself, “This is a reflection of them and not you.” And maybe offer some advice as to how they can actually achieve something that you’ve just achieved.

Melinda Wittstock:         This is so true, and to make it constructive. I think when people make the decision to be entrepreneurs, or sometimes we’re just born that way, I guess, you know, not everybody obviously gets it, or is wired in that way. So it’s so important to surround yourself with people who actually understand you, and then to not take it personally. Because you’re right, it is really a reflection of them. And there can be jealousies around it. The other thing that’s so interesting to me, though, is I think from the outside entrepreneurship looks so glamorous.

Renee Warren:                 It totally does.

Melinda Wittstock:         To people, it’s like in the ’70’s it would be awesome to be in a rock band. So now it’s to be an entrepreneur. And yet people go into it not really understanding that there are lots of lows and challenges and that ultimately, again, I don’t know, this is an old joke on this podcast now. I say if you want to have great therapy, become an entrepreneur because it’s going to force you to grow and confront a lot of these issues and interpersonal issues, it’s going to make you confront things like hidden fears or limiting beliefs or subconscious stuff, right, how and when you get triggered by other people. So many of these things, and to me it’s just fascinating. At this point now I just figure that my life is some sort of weird lab.

Renee Warren:                 I know, we’re all in a Petri dish. Well, you know what it does, is it allows you to appreciate the seasons, and what I mean by that is if you live in sunny California you don’t get to appreciate the fall and the snow and the springtime cause it’s all one season. But when you’re an entrepreneur, those seasons happen regardless. There’s going to be hot, beautiful sunny days, and there’s going to be blustery cold days, and when those cold days come it makes you really appreciate those hot sunny days. So the highs and lows, like the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship, allows you to appreciate those beautiful sunny days.

Melinda Wittstock:         So one of the things that you mentioned earlier on the interview is the way the economy is changing, that a lot of people are necessarily going to have to become a lot more entrepreneurial, because we’re evolving into this thing that’s know as the gig economy, where people are … I think by 2020 there’s a forecast that 40% of the United States, 40% of people, are going to be gig workers. That means that freelancers are literally going from gig to gig to gig, not having a steady job, that kind of thing. And in that kind of environment, you’ve got to figure out your stuff, like how to be flexible, how to balance all these things. You have to have much more entrepreneurial skills. And so this is intriguing to me, because we’ve been talking about not everybody has that proclivity, say, to become an entrepreneur, but people are going to almost be forced to be able to … To step into that. What is some advice that you would give to a young woman or perhaps even an older woman who is facing the necessity of reinvention a little bit later in life?

Renee Warren:                 Well, the reality is not only is it going to become more of a gig economy, is a lot of the jobs are going to be given up to automation. That includes legal accounting, doctors, and it includes so many different industries because everything will be automated. And they’ve actually proven, I don’t know the research, that legal advice from an automated system is accurate something like 80% of the time, and legal advice from a lawyer is accurate 70% of the time. Not only is it automated; it is actually more accurate. And that being said, it’s like, well, what interests you? Forcing the thought of entrepreneurship onto people, it’s not that entrepreneurship is necessarily hard to understand, is that people have to break through that barrier, their mindset of going from understanding what it’s like to work for somebody else to understanding what it’s like to work for yourself. That’s the biggest transition. And I’ve actually had a former employee of mine going from being one of my rock-star employees to starting her own agency. And that transition for her was relatively easy because she worked so close to me, but it was still a big mindset shift for her to be her own boss. The thought of waking up one morning and saying, “Oh, my gosh, I’m working for me.” That is the hardest thing to get over.

So, in this instance, it’s taking the top five entrepreneurial women that you admire and reading everything you can about them: Their biographies, listening to their podcasts, reading their blogs. Understanding the complexities and the good things that they’ve experienced through that journey. For me, it started when I was 17 years old, because I thought honestly being an entrepreneur meant making a lot of money and not working.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right. The opposite. Yes. Exactly.

Renee Warren:                 Yeah. And now it’s just like when you get the bug, you’re kind of stuck. Forever, now, I can’t really work for anybody else.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, that’s true. Once you do do it, it’s difficult to go back. You almost become unemployable, which is funny in a way.

So at age 17, you think, right, forget this, I just want to go make a lot of money; this is going to be easier to be my own boss. Were your parents entrepreneurial? Where did you first get that entrepreneurial bug?

Renee Warren:                 Well, not really. My mother was a teacher and my dad was in real estate. So I guess you could say real estate, there’s a level of entrepreneurship. My grandfather actually ran a successful mining equipment business in northern Ontario. So this, again, this was … When I was a child, this was my understanding of entrepreneurship. So, grandfather ran his own business. And because he was in mining, he always had these boxes of real solid gold and silver and these precious metals and these rocks … And he had them around his house. And so for me, it’s like, wow, being an entrepreneur meant you had these really expensive rocks in your house, this is cool. And you had a beautiful house. So that was my perception of it, and I didn’t know anything else. He worked a lot and he traveled a lot, that’s what I knew, but he always seemed happy and he was excited to see us and so maybe that was the first bug that I got.

But I was always fascinated in personal development, and the people at the time, so back in the early ’90’s, that were also fascinated in personal development, just happened to be entrepreneurs. There’s a very common thread there, and so then I got more and more immersed into who these entrepreneurs were, and just started following them and listening to, at the time, CDs of their interviews. That’s the stuff that I absolutely loved. I love listening to that stuff. I never really was into fashion, I never really was into any of that stuff, I loved personal development.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s so interesting, this correlation. It comes up again and again, for anyone who’s been a regular listener of WINGS. The one thing that is absolutely a predictor of success for a female entrepreneur, I think any entrepreneur, though, is that willingness or openness to personal development and really being able to be honest, look deep inside yourself, be willing to retire or surrender any old limiting beliefs or any of that, being really open-minded towards your own personal growth. And that can be quite painful. You hear people going to psychotherapy for years and never progressing. I mean, if you’re like that, then it’s going to be really hard to succeed as an entrepreneur. So I like what you say about women really listening to other women. That’s my mission in this podcast, is to be … For all of us to be as transparent as possible about what it’s really like, and overcoming challenges and difficulties, either within ourselves or with our companies, because it gives permission, I think, to other women to just try. You don’t have to be business Barbie.

Renee Warren:                 No. And you know what, I believe that sisterhood is going to save the world. I believe that … Now more than ever, women need to come together, not against each other, but to be the strongest force that your community, your household, the world needs. It’s sisterhood. Women are far more compassionate, empathetic, arguably more intelligent than our male counterparts …

Melinda Wittstock:         Hear, hear.

Renee Warren:                 And just by inherently having these traits means that we are more trusted and more secure, and they have actually proven that companies with females on their board of advisors or as CEO’s or top executives perform better. Revenue-wise, profit-wise, culture-wise. The data is right there, it explains it. So women need to come together more than ever before. Let’s not compete. Let’s be the best as a community that we can be.

Melinda Wittstock:         Oh, beautifully said. And for so many years, and perhaps it was scarcity or the lack of oxygen at the top, there was a sense that only one woman could succeed. All those times where, I’m not sure if this was true for you but it was for me, of being the only woman in the room, and struggling to find a female mentor. Wanting one, but not … All my mentors were men coming up. So it’s so nice, I feel that there’s a big seat change here, that women really are stepping up to be much more supportive with each other rather than, you know, being this scarcity mindset where it’s all competition only with other women, not just competition generally.

Renee Warren:                 The thing about women, though, it’s natural for us to compete. And they’ve actually proven, too, when a woman gets dressed up to leave the house and she takes extra time to put on her makeup and do her hair, it’s not to actually impress other men. It’s to impress other women. It’s to be prettier than the next woman, and I think that is just so absurd. That is true. And I think we just need to step away from those beliefs and the societal pressures, and just realize that the woman next to you is going through her own struggles. And whether she is prettier, richer, has a better life than you, she also needs the support. Everybody needs the support, and especially female entrepreneurs that are really trying to make a dent in the universe.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yes. Beautifully, beautifully said. Renee, I have enjoyed talking to you so much and for all the women out there, women in business, entrepreneurs, solo-preneurs, ‘wannapreneurs’, executives, team members who want to work with you, how can they do that?

Renee Warren:                 They can check out my website. It’s familyacademy.co. Not .com, .co. And that, there’s a contact form there. There’s also all my social profiles that I have listed on my website, but any questions there. Or you can email me, renee@familyacademy.co, and I’d be happy to answer any questions.

Melinda Wittstock:         That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with me today. It’s been so inspiring.

Renee Warren:                 Thank you. I definitely love these wings, and I appreciate being on this show. It’s been a lot of fun.



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