Photo: Plasticity co-founder Jennifer Moss gave birth to her third child a week after her company entered Communitech’s HYPERDRIVE accelerator. Balancing startup life with family responsibilities is an ever-present challenge.

Within hours of giving birth to her third child, Jennifer Moss got back to work on her fourth: an up-and-coming startup called Plasticity.

Moss and her co-founder-husband Jim had just kicked off a three-month sprint in Communitech’s HYPERDRIVE accelerator a week earlier. So, with the family’s fortunes riding on their efforts, there wasn’t a lot of choice.

Such is life when you’re an entrepreneur and a mom – or a mom and an entrepreneur.

Whichever way you cut it, competing priorities are a fact of life for working parents, but especially so for those trying to build world-changing companies from scratch, as the Mosses are determined to do.

Their aim is to make a billion people happy through Plasticity, a mobile and web app employers use to measure, manage and stimulate positive workplace culture. The first iteration of their product, which grew out of an initiative called The Smile Epidemic, is already in use in 11 countries and is set to undergo a major relaunch in a few weeks.

The couple’s backstory is compelling enough on its own. In 2009, the two Canadians enjoyed high-flying careers in Silicon Valley, and Jim excelled on the side as a professional lacrosse player, when he was felled by Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare immune disorder that left him temporarily paralyzed.

The sudden and severe setback prompted the young family to move back to Canada, take stock of their lives and reorder their priorities. Their pursuit of a more meaningful happiness is what ultimately led them to start Plasticity.

On one hand, being in the happiness business makes the Mosses extra conscientious at home, where they’re always on top of how son Wyatt, 6, and daughters Olivia, 4, and Lyla, 10 months, are doing. On the other, they’ve got customers to land, a payroll to meet and investors to court as they work to scale their business.

With Mother’s Day approaching, I was curious to know how Moss manages to juggle such intense and multi-directional demands on her time, energy and focus – and to find out what Mother’s Day means to her.

Q – Doing a startup is probably almost as hard as being a parent. How do you manage both?

A – Jim and I are really co-parenting, that’s a big part of it. And I give myself permission to fail in both places.

I had a moment where I screwed up on the costumes for Wyatt – he competes professionally in dance – so I screwed up and couldn’t find the hats for the dance thing.

I don’t know if it’s the same for women and men, but I really beat myself up about those things. I try to give myself permission to fail, and I let myself off the hook, but most of the time, I’d rather not ever let the kids know that I’m in any sort of state of stress. I just don’t want them to ever worry about that.

Jim and I really do have to work hard to stay extra organized, because our lives in the startup environment are super-chaotic.

We can be living in the now – in two weeks we have to make sure our payroll is met – to living at 50,000 feet where we’re signing partnerships with massive companies, or doing an Oprah Winfrey Network interview.

We’re living in so many different places, but kids need to know that you’re present when you’re there with them, so we really try to keep the work for after bedtime. We wake up early and do it then. We protect that time.

When we’re disorganized at home, they just feel like they’re not valued, and that’s a no-no for us.

We ask them what made them happy at school every day and we talk a lot with them, so we can get right inside where they’re at.

I guess part of that is occupational hazard; you know, we’re a happiness company. That’s what we live in every day. We’re reading, we’re working with researchers and we’re understanding better how to make other people more mindful and present and grateful. So, if we step off of that, we know right away and our kids know right away.

So, I think a big part of that is just protecting the family, and always going back to the heart of what we’re trying to do, because for us, it’s mission-critical to embody it and to live it and to exemplify it.

If we do that, everything else within the company will flourish.

If we were inauthentic, it would be really awful for the company.

Q – What are the main friction points between the roles of mom and entrepreneur?

A – I think it’s everyone’s constraint, and that would be finding the balance between those two things.

I did go right back to work; I was working from the hospital bed after having a C-section. They’re planned, but there’s a lot of healing afterwards, and I was working right from the hospital bed this time because we had started HYPERDRIVE a week before I delivered.

It was just crazy.

I came into a meeting that we had to have with a potential new hire – our CTO was hired a week in – and I had a meeting to develop the product that we have right now with a seven-day-old baby in the meeting.

So that couldn’t sustain itself.

I was like that maybe for the first four months through HYPERDRIVE; I was here as much as I possibly could be, with a brand-new baby, still nursing. And then after that, I kind of looked at where we were at and what we had produced, and I felt like, ‘OK, now I can take just a little bit of a breather’, and I started to work from home a day a week, and spend more time with Lyla.

I have my parents come and help, and they stay in the house while I’m there, and now she’s 10 months and I feel like I can do a lot more work remotely, so I try to have balance.

What I’ve understood is that sometimes you’re going to have to look at your company and say that is the priority right now. It’s not about saying ‘I prioritize business over family,’ but it is saying, ‘Right at this moment, I’m prioritizing this thing that needs to get done in the moment.’

That means my kids aren’t suffering for it. It might mean I have to do four speaking events this week, so I’m out more. But the week before, we might have been on a family trip, so there’s give and take.

It’s being able to say, ‘I give myself permission to prioritize something else in the moment, and realize that the other isn’t going to collapse’, but knowing that if it did come down to having to choose, that my family is always first.

It took me a long time to get to that, I think.

I even felt that with Wyatt. I was working in a corporate PR role in Silicon Valley for a large company, and that year was when I won the Public Service Award from President Obama, so I definitely had the work ethic then; I was still very committed, but I struggled with that.

Maybe it’s age or maturity, but now I feel like I can forgive myself for when I have to focus, and also know where my priorities are, which is with the kids.

I think all parents go through that, and a lot of women do, because we put a perfection expectation on ourselves.

Jim was telling me about a CBC radio show and how women’s alcoholism was on the rise, because it correlates to how much more we’re working. We come home at the end of the night and instead of the scotch, it’s the relationship we have with wine.

But a lot of it is because we still put this huge amount of pressure on ourselves to still make the costumes. Now Pinterest has made it even harder for women; I’m making all these Minion cupcakes, and I’m still trying to sew stuff for the kids, and then I’m coming in and trying to run a company and fundraise millions of dollars.

The dichotomy of the two roles is just unprecedented, so I think that’s what a lot of women are struggling with particularly, because that’s changing for them; the expectations are much different.

But I think women are starting to talk more about it and are getting so much more supportive of each other, in a different way that’s not competitive. We get it; there’s not a looking down on that person because they choose to stay home, or they’re not looked down upon because they choose to work. In my group I find that we all are very supportive of each other’s decisions, and I have such awesome morale around me.

Q – How has being a mom informed your approach to entrepreneurship?

A – It’s hugely influential.

I actually had someone tell me that I shouldn’t mention my kids when talking to other men at work. Some women still have very specific ideas around that, how it might shape someone’s perception of you if you talk about your kids. But it is a dimension of me and my personality that totally has shaped my leadership.

I mentor my kids. Jim and I have a different approach; we came from the school of all-knowing parents, and ‘just listen to us because we’re like God,’ whereas Jim and I say, ‘If we lead by example . . .”

We say this to the kids all the time: ‘Mom and Dad are super-happy; we love each other; we have a great marriage; we have great friends; we fail. But do you want to follow in our footsteps in having those kinds of things, or not? It’s your choice, but if you see our life and think ‘I want to have a life that’s good like that,’ that means you have to listen to the things we guide you on, because we know how to get to this place.’

It’s about mentorship, and in the way I communicate with my team and my staff, it’s about saying ‘I make mistakes, I fail, I’m fallible, but I have had really great experience and lessons that made me the type of person I am right now. So if you like who I am and what I stand for, then listen to the things that I can share with you, because hopefully we can guide this ship together.’

It probably plays back and forth. But I also think I have so much more skin in the game; I mean, I have three kids.

We look for new, innovative ways to solve a problem because this is what we’ve decided to do, and Jim and I also look at this as legacy building. I’m not just in a job now; I’m also looking at doing something that’s impactful.

Olivia said to Jim, ‘I want to do what Mommy does.’ And he said ‘why?’ And she said ‘Because she’s happy every day. I don’t know what she does, but she’s happy every day, so I want to do what she does.’

That, for me, is super-impactful. If I can be leaving a legacy versus just punching a clock, then I feel that’s super-powerful to my kids, and it’s also powerful to the way I translate that into my leadership skills as a co-founder.

Q – To flip it around, how has entrepreneurship made you a better mom?

A – I think it certainly has. I love my job.

Jim and I just continue to evolve our relationship, so we’re really happy in general now. We do spend a lot of time drinking our Kool-Aid; we do gratitude every day, we use mindful techniques, we study it.

An occupational hazard is more smile lines; that’s really our life right now, so I think that translates into the way we parent, and we’re just more happy at home.

And one of the things that is the goal of Plasticity is, we want to make a billion people happy. There’s return on investment for the company and that’s great, but our real goal is to just make those individuals come home at the end of the day and be happier, and bring that home to their kids and their family, and then that spreads.

I have been at a job that I really hated and I was miserable there, and I came home and I was not who I am today. I was a totally different person.

You spend 70 to 80 per cent of your waking hours at work. How can you not expect your energy to spill into your family life?

So, even just us enjoying our job is connecting with the kids, and they see that and they have a different energy.

You know kids; if they see you miserable, they take it on and they worry.

Q – What lessons from your mom do you rely on today?

A – That’s a great question. I always looked at my mom as being a bit ahead of her time. She was a nurse practitioner, so she pretty much had the same education as a doctor, and she had me late, so she’s in her 70s.

At the time, there were very few women working in that kind of role. She never wanted to just settle for what everyone else was settling for; she wanted to take it a little bit further.

She must have been in her late 50s when she went back to university, so that she could lead the team of ICU nurses at McMaster, so she’s always perpetually learning, and that really has guided me to always want to have more knowledge.

So I always looked up to her.

She was very quiet about it, so she would just do it. My dad was the patriarchal figure; he went to work in the bank and he wore a suit every day, and then my mom would work away in the basement and she grew this pretty phenomenal company out of her basement.

It started with this tiny store and then grew to this larger store, and then franchises that she sold. But it was never really talked about; it was always kind of secondary.

And yet, when my dad retired, he ended up working with my mom, and my mom was really the one to help them retire, and financially they depended on my mom’s income.

She started doing manufacturing of quilts, then she would do some importing, so she was doing this whole kind of thing that no one knew she was doing, until I got older and realized it.

My dad had this very visible role, but my mom was just doing this thing, and that really impacted me because it was later until I realized what she was really creating – this little quilt empire, this small business.

You did so much of that and you did it silently.

When we were living in Winnipeg, she was working as a nurse practitioner there, and she was making more than my dad was. But because he was the father and the male and the income earner, we left and went with him, because that’s just what you did.

I look at that now and I think it probably plays into why I’m a bit fiery about stuff like that. I think of my mom’s missed opportunities and why it makes me never, ever, ever want to miss an opportunity.

It’s a little bit of that grit, I think, that makes me – I wouldn’t say it’s feminist anger, but I never want my daughter to say, ‘My mom could have done this, but she did this because that’s what you were supposed to do.’

I think that’s part of why I’m as invested as I am, and I go for it, and I’m pretty determined.

She did that in her silent suffering, and she did that in the way she motivated herself, whether anyone cared or not, and I like that, because she wasn’t looking for someone to tell her ‘you’re amazing.’ She just did it.

Those things, I think, are why there’s a fire in my belly about what we’re doing right now.

Q – Describe your ideal Mother’s Day (one that could realistically happen, that is).

A – This weekend, we have all of the moms – Jim’s mom, my sisters, myself, my mom – and we’re all just doing a potluck on my patio.

Everyone’s bringing something that they love to make, and we’re going to sit outside on the patio because it’s supposed to be nice, and drink mimosas, let the kids run around and play and have lots of people around us to celebrate all the moms.

We don’t get to be together with Jim’s family and my family like that all the time, so it feels pretty ideal.

We talked about going to a restaurant; we do that every year, have a Mother’s Day brunch, and it just ends up being such a shit show, and we have kids running around and it’s not enjoyable.

So, this year I said, ‘Don’t bring anything that you have to cook in a pan; let’s just bring stuff that is pre-baked or cold or that I can just throw in the oven’ so that we don’t have to have a lot of mess, and I can start day-drinking, and . . .

Q – That sounds pretty good.

A – It sounds lovely. And it’s supposed to be nice, and the ideal would be that it is nice; I hope it doesn’t rain. But I think just getting people together is good.

Since Jim and I completely de-accessorized our life, we don’t require a lot. We’re very, very happy to just have the stuff that we have. We don’t really need a lot.

When you strip all those other things away, you realize there’s very little that we require to be happy.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.