The surprising advice many of us need to hear


If you ever worry what it will look like when your kids take over your life, this is it: lunch at my investor’s favorite restaurant to discuss my son’s cello lessons. Me getting there two hours early because one son has an orthodontist appointment and one son has a cello lesson and my husband is taking cows to market, so even in a family with two cars and a nanny and a driver, there is no way for me to get to my meeting on time unless I’m two hours early.

I am working like most people who work from home. I am at a coffee shop. Except I am two hours from home and I am in front of the coffee makers at a gas station which I happen to know has great wi-fi.

People who live in New York City keep a running list in their head of reasons they could never leave New York City. It’s a list of self-delusions (I’d have no friends) and sort-of delusional needs (there’s no roof-raised watercress). A frequent item on the list is I’d have to drink gas station coffee.

I drink so much gas station coffee that Starbucks doesn’t taste like real coffee to me.

I am debating whether or not to wear glasses at the meeting. It would be good to not have to see the investor. Who I will not name because he doesn’t read my blog, but I’m sure his family does, and I don’t want them to tell him that I think a lot about what I wear because I think the biggest value I bring to him is being fun.

That’s why investors invest. They say, “We invest in people not ideas,” but what they mean is, “My life is boring, and the only thing money can’t buy is interestingness, but I’m trying by investing in your company.”

So I have to be interesting by toeing the line between hot and quirky. This is something that is not available to him because he has his wife who is just hot.

I was going to wear big stripes and small stripes but I worried they made me look fat.

When I told Cassie I am thinking of brocade because stripes are fattening she said, “Don’t worry. You’re so old that no one notices if you‘ve gained weight.”

I think she meant that to be comforting. I have to get friends my own age. I wore brocade.

On the drive into Madison I slept in the car. It is easier for me to sleep in the car than sleep in my bed. That’s how much driving I do. Well, that’s how much driving my driver does.

I have not told my investors that I have a driver. Because while two out of my three investors have their own drivers, I’m pretty sure they’d have a thing against funding founders with drivers.

The trick to funding a company, for those of you who think you might be doing that, is to keep the founders in a state of financial insecurity so they think their life depends on getting the company off the ground. As a founder, it’s my job to convey financial duress but not financial meltdown.

Today I am going to have to confess to driving twenty hours a week for cello lessons. And I am going to have to confess that while I did get a hotspot for the car so I could work in the car, I do not use the hotspot because the minute I get in the car I fall asleep.

I was reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book about a boy whose father is a high-level Nazi. The family has to live next door to Auschwitz, and to cope with that, his mom sleeps all day. The boy does not see the correlation between his father’s job and his mother’s sleeping. In a similar way, I hope, that my son does not see the correlation between the insane lengths we go for cello and my own sleeping.

I hesitate to write insane. Because I see other parents doing it all the time. I see families relocating for their kid to train for the Olympics. I see families filing bankruptcy to keep their kid at an Olympic training facility. I see parents sending their kids halfway across the world to study with a special violin teacher—while the parents remain in their home country.

I am not the only one. It’s hard to tell the kid no when their whole life is about this one thing they love doing more than anything. It’s hard to say no when everyone around that kid is saying there’s a chance for him to be THE ONE.

I am telling this to my investor. Over salmon, because under stress I order salmon because it’s always on the menu. Does it mean that I have a reading comprehension problem if I can’t read a menu in a social situation?

My investor listens in a concerned way, and I know he’s hoping this doesn’t lead to a big mess. He’s funded two of my companies and he’s seen me through a financial implosion, and divorce, and massive relocation.

“I’m okay,” I tell him. I’m hiring someone to help me deal with cello so that I can have time and focus to hire people at the company. Management takes focus and right now I can’t do that while I’m handling all the cello details.

So I hired a music student from University of Wisconsin to practice with my son twice a week. But really I don’t want to miss being with my kids right now. I don’t mind doing all the music stuff, and I’m happy to be helping my other son prepare for his bar mitzvah and his dreams of getting a science Ph.D. I just worry that the company is not moving fast enough.

But my investor says, “Quistic is profitable. You can run it as a lifestyle business until the kids are older. Just keep profits increasing by 20% a year.”

That’s enough?

“Increasing profits by 20% a year is fine.”

Wow. That blows me away. It takes so much pressure off of me. And it means I’m doing everything fine.

When I coach people who are trying to take care of kids and manage their career, they often book the coaching call to see what they can do to keep their career from flat-lining. And I tell them they are doing great. I tell them it’s an achievement to have a career you love and still have the time you want to be with your kids.

I tell those people their career doesn’t need to be growing as fast as it was before kids. It’s not a rule.

It turns out many people need a coaching call just to hear from someone they respect that they are doing fine. Their decisions are good.

On the call it is so easy for me to see they are doing fine. It’s so clear to me. But in my own life, it’s not so clear. The biggest benefit to me having investors in Quistic is not their money – I would make enough money without having investors. The biggest benefit is having someone I respect involved with the company at such a close range that he can tell me it’s okay not to grow the company at a break-neck speed, because I am growing two kids at break-neck speed, and that’s enough for right now.

44 replies
  1. Ian
    Ian says:

    Starbucks is not real coffee.

    I would ask you to ensure that your son who dreams of a Ph.D in science also devote time regularly to getting to know himself, because the three most deeply immature and un-self-aware “adults” i’ve known in my life (and it’s been a fairly long life) have had one thing in common: Ph.Ds in science.

    she who studies only those phenomena outside herself lives in ignorance of all that is of real importance. and that ignorance will eventually come knocking.

    • LisaP
      LisaP says:

      “Starbucks is not coffee”
      This. If you consistently drink ANY coffee besides Starbucks, the latter doesn’t taste right. That should tell you that they don’t have good coffee.

  2. Karin
    Karin says:

    It’s probably never a good idea to liken yourself to someone who is coping with the Holocaust.

    Good post, though.

  3. funkright
    funkright says:

    For the majority of people, across time and throughout history, your impact on those around you (family, friends, etc…) will be what carries on after you. Companies come and go, there will always be another that will do it better or different, but those personal relationships are what provide true long-lasting benefits. Work or business can wait, once basic needs are met, your friends and family often can’t.

  4. Esther
    Esther says:

    Wonderful. I’m glad you will have the mental space now to indulge in your sons’ activities and to do so guilt-free.

  5. Megan
    Megan says:

    I can’t tell you how many of your posts seem to be written specifically for me. I needed this advice. Thank you.

  6. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    A bunch of thoughts:

    1. In Indiana, anyway, the BP stations have the best coffee. It’s remarkably good.

    2. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is such a wrenching story. My older son introduced me to it. I’ll never forget it.

    3. When everybody around you is insane, and you’re going along, you tend to ignore your feelings which say “this is insane” because everybody else makes you think it must be normal. When you’re *not* going along, you think you must be the one who’s insane.

    3. Congratulations that Quistic is profitable! That is huge! Such an accomplishment. Sure wish the startup/young company that laid me off today could say the same thing.

  7. stephanie
    stephanie says:

    I read your blog in my driveway after coming home from the grocery store, where I thought about nothing but my parenting skills, or lack thereof, my career, or lack thereof, and by the time I got home I was feeling a right failure at both. Then I read your blog in the car, and at the end I screamed “Penelope, you ARE &%$#ing BRILLIANT!” And then I burst into tears and felt simultaneously triumphant.
    Thanks for this post. Amazing.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I had a blog feed problem. Which of course makes me nuts since it takes so much for me to make time to write a post. The idea that I wrote a post and it didn’t even go out on my feed — seriously it took me about 2000 extra calories on Friday to get over that news.


  8. Cristina
    Cristina says:

    I love this post. Thank you.

    Before I had kids, I (reasonably) thought that of course women couldn’t have it all, and that if I had to pick, I’d choose kids over career. Now I have a baby, and I still enjoy my career, but I wonder about the ability to grow in my career and grow as a mother at the same pace. If I were on the outside looking in, I would think I was doing great. Thanks again for the perspective.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Does it mean that I have a reading comprehension problem if I can’t read a menu in a social situation?”

    An alternative to immediately ordering salmon without relying on the menu is to ask the waiter/waitress what the daily special is. You may hear something that you like. If not, you still have salmon as a backup.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      comprehension problem?
      When you put it like that it makes me think that the part of your brain that should be processing what you read is busy doing what the prefrontal cortex ought to be doing (executive function). You’re so stressed by the situation your brain won’t function correctly. That doesn’t mean you cannot comprehend in a less stressful setting.

  10. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    Since I started ‘following’ your blog, I have seen you move to a much more peaceful place – even when you’re not at peace, you’re more at peace than you used to be. If that’s not an accomplishment, I don’t know what is.

    You are ‘doing everything fine.’

    What a great place to be.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That is so nice. Thank you for saying it. I worry. I worry a lot that I will go back to my old crazy life. And in fact I said that during the meeting with my investor and he said, “Don’t worry, you won’t go back there. I can tell.” And I think, why do I need to hear it from him? Why can’t I just decide not to go back to that crazy spot and then just trust myself?

      I don’t know. But it means a lot hearing from someone else that I’m on a good track, so thanks, Amy.


      • Amy Parmenter
        Amy Parmenter says:

        We all worry. Irrational worry can be debilitating. But, in my opinion, there are healthy doses as well.

        Another word for worry is concern. It is your concern that drives you to be better. But instead of only worrying about your business or your blog, it appears your primary concern (worry) has shifted to your kids and your partner, the farmer…who we now know as Matthew. And clearly you are at peace with the shift. The icing on the cake is that your readers, your investors…the rest of us… still find you to be ‘interesting’, which I know is important to you too. So…win, win.

  11. Irisalive
    Irisalive says:

    Socks! A whole new level of professionalism. Keep them interesting, people notice! Why settle for white when feet can help play out ‘interesting’ as our brand too. Yup, you’re fine. Hey, grab a sleep tracker device for funzy at your local mobile store (only $30). Sleep banks work with collective increments. Be proud of the nap it gets you closer to your weekly sleep goal! I sleep outside of the grocery store/dance school and capitalize on being able to have 3 hour nights (time for sex). Sanity! Whatever it takes!

  12. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    It looks as if things are going well. Congratulations!
    There are three basic kinds of coffee in the USA. (1) Good coffee, not too strong but full-bodied, flavorful, and good enough to drink and enjoy the flavor without sugar or diluents. Colombian Supremo makes good type 1 coffee. You often can get it at truck stops and convenience stores, not to mention most small-town diners. (2) Bad truck-stop coffee that has been left in the urn all day until it tastes the way cigarette ashes smell. If you taste it once you will never buy coffee at that place again. (3) Dark, bitter espresso-type coffee that has to be flavored with cream, steamed milk, flavored syrups, chocolate, and/or lots of sugar just to kill the taste. That kind of coffee can be readily identified by two facts: that they charge $5 a cup for it and that it is served by a “barista.” Starbucks sells type 3 coffee and so do most drive-through coffee stands. Hipsters love to drink that crap.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      interesting comment twist about coffee – I bite. You seem to identify a specific kind of drink with a certain group of people you for some reason do not like. In Italy the espresso type coffee can be bought anywhere and is enjoyed by the rich guy to the man cleaning streets. Sweden has a coffee culture which favors VERY strong coffee (no, no syrups despite the strength) – and it is a ritual to have coffee enjoyed by rich and poor, the secretary to the king at about 3 pm each afternoon.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        I like the bitter coffee that gives you goosebumps all straight. If I’m in the mood for a treat I go for sugary and milky. But it’s not to kill the taste.

        Which reminds me, very recently I figured out why blended alcoholic drinks are popular. It’s to mask the taste! I actually like the taste of liquor so I didn’t know the reason for the drinks.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          I totally agree – I like the unadulterated taste of coffee, espresso…. sometime with milk, never ever with sugar.

  13. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Millennial cusp with hipster rising here – felt an overwhelming urge to add that I’ve never liked Starbucks’ coffee. When we get gift cards at work I trade them for Dunkin Donuts or grocery store cards. 7-Eleven has great enough coffee for me, but the best kind is the free stuff at work.

    First time commenter (why is that not a word?), long time reader.

  14. Dave Gordon
    Dave Gordon says:

    To borrow a phrase from Robert A. Heinlein, coffee comes in five grades: Coffee, Java, Joe, Jamoke, and Carbon Remover. Starbucks specializes in grade four and below. I brew my own at home, made from a 3 pound can of the Costco house brand, using tap water, in a stove-top aluminum percolator with an egg shell in the bottom to settle the grounds. It’s only about grade three, but I get to pocket the savings.

  15. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    For all the coffee comments, I’ll make my coffee at home but I’ll buy the grounds from my favorite coffee shop. I just can’t stand anything different unless I straight shoot it.

    I count as a huge win to not have to drive very much when I need to go places. So small towns with a 15 minute commute to work is my jam!

    I try to be empathetic but I don’t get why people make such a big deal of big cities. They tend to be clusters of smaller towns. I’m not one to go out much because I got what I need (family dinners, bonfires, etc.) at home. Since my kids are little, going out a lot is more of a hassle. I don’t care much for shopping. And those who complain that small towns don’t have great libraries I think to myself “bro, do you even Internet?”

    Anyway, someone I know was recently talking poorly about the town we live in. And I think it has everything I need. And the good things big cities have to offer don’t outweigh the cons.

    But then again I remembered that I am shooting to homeschool the kids so the quality of public schools is not a concern. And if what we want is a day of museums or whatever, then we can travel to the city for a day or two and not have to give up many of the things we like about small towns.

    Maybe things will change if our kid picks up an intense practice like Penelope’s kids. But maybe they’ll be like “let’s learn to make wine!” And we’ll just rejoice and say “we live in the heart of wine country. Knock yourselves out.”

  16. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This post made me feel good. A lot of your posts freak me out – I had to take a break from reading when you were using farm/corn money to fund your business.

    This post has a degree of calm reality to your insane life. Yes, a music tutor makes sense! Let them drive to you!

    I know nothing about business growth, but 20% a year seems pretty good. Isn’t it?

    Anyway, and this is totally random, but I would like to know what I need to know when having an autistic peorson over for lunch. Is it any different than any other lunch?

  17. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    This post is one of my favorites. The inside look into running a life and a business makes me smile. It is as if we need to rethink what business looks like. My days are filled with less travel, but I often combine life and work activities – like a hike and project planning. The trick is finding your best way to combine life and your company. My coaching session with you had a great combination of validation and pragmatism. You gave me great feedback and much to consider.

  18. Charlene
    Charlene says:

    I love Cassie. I cyber stalk the heck out of her, but you are not so old that people don’t notice when you’ve gained weight. You are so old that people Cassie’s age don’t notice when you’ve gained weight. Not that that’s old and not that weight matters.

  19. Katie
    Katie says:

    Love the post. Love reading all of them.

    Qu. I’m sure someone has asked before. Re the cello lessons. Can you not sent your son with the driver and just go occasionally? Or do you have to sleep the night there too? There is probably an obvious answer. :-)

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I was wondering why there isn’t a second home in Chicago? Like a simple apartment to stay for cello and business. Maybe I’m not understanding the schedule and it would be a waste. On the surface it seems practical to me.

  20. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    20% yikes, nice to hear how the other half ‘slums’ it. Forget cello lessons, it would be the barmitzvah I’d be worried about – but maybe that’s next month’s investor chat. Have you found a way to outsource most of the details of the event itself? Ok so I’ve never even been invited to a barmitzvah myself but I’m not about to let that stop me sharing third-hand insights. My in-laws have this expression they always use ‘after the barmitzvah’. It started at their first kids barmitzvah as the event consumed everything so all non-essential todos were labelled ‘after the barmitzvah’,a phrase which went onto equally apply to weddings, new grandkid births, etc. So in that spirit I’m sure you will get to hockey-stick growth after the barmitzvah. But if you’re really lucky, life will throw you lots more ‘barmitzvahs’ and that will be OK too.

  21. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    Great article!

    I’m curious to know if the stress relief from your investor giving you permission to slow down is permanent or just temporary?

    Given your success as a serial entrepreneur, I suspect that all external pressures pale in comparison to the internal fires within.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s a good question. I definitely see myself launching more companies. But I have time after the kids leave home. I keep telling myself that. There is not an emergency here. I have lots of time for my career and relatively few years with kids at home. I keep telling myself that.


      • Dennis
        Dennis says:

        It’s an interesting topic and very personal to me. In the last six months, we’ve switched to home schooling our two boys.

        The extra time with them is amazing!

        However, I’m passionate about what I do and the business calls to me. If I spend too much time on the business, then the guilt sets in.

        I guess it all comes down to balancing your life. I wish you peace and happiness in that endeavor. If you learn any secrets along the way, please do share.

  22. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “So I have to be interesting by toeing the line between hot and quirky.”

    This word, ‘quirky’, stuck with me. There’s not too many people that use it (or it’s not used very frequently by many people). So it also stuck with me when I heard it used as a web site on the financial radio show – The Clark Howard Show. The ‘How It Works’ page at Quirky is which also includes a link to their FAQ page. It’s a fun and interesting site to explore as they do work with some big brands such as Mattel. Be careful, though, it’s a place where you can shop as well as submit ideas. Probably not doing you any favors. That’s what long timers are for.

  23. Maya
    Maya says:

    This article really spoke to me. I’m a single mother dealing with a divorce from an abusive husband, taking care of my 2-year-old and trying to keep my career from “flatlining” as Penelope says. I care about maintaining my career, partly because I love what I do, and partly because I need to support my daughter (not a cent of support from my ex). So it’s nice to realize that all things considered, I’m doing ok. I don’t have to compare myself to peers who don’t have kids — and a lot of my peers aged 30 to 40 don’t have kids. I just have to keep going.
    I love the realism of Penelope’s approach.

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