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Lunch With: The illusion of balance

Erin Rayner loves being an entrepreneur, but wonders how to fit it in with the rest of life

Lunch with … is a column for Alberta Venture. Every month, we ask a young executive to pick a person with whom he or she would like to talk business. The senior executive, if willing to act as mentor for an hour or so, gets to pick the place to eat. If you would like to participate, email Michael

Jun 7, 2013

by Michael Ganley

THE DINERS

YOUNG EXEC: Erin Rayner, owner and president of ED Marketing and Communications
HISTORY: With music and marketing diplomas (from Grant MacEwan University and NAIT), Rayner launched ED as a marketing and events planning company in 2006. Through long hours she built the company, but sacrificed too much
EMPLOYEES: None. Three regular sub-contractors (graphic designers and event assistants)
LUNCH: Grilled ham and cheese sandwich on raisin bread, house salad, ginger beer

SENIOR EXEC: Angela Armstrong, owner and president, Prime Capital Consulting
HISTORY: After spending years building National Leasing Group’s business in Alberta, Armstrong set out on her own in 2000. PCC arranges equipment leases for business.
EMPLOYEES: 7
LUNCH: Grilled chicken consommé with wheat berries, house salad, ginger beer

007_lunchwith_story
Erin Rayner and Angela Armstrong
Photograph Jason Everitt

Erin Rayner seriously doubts the possibility of being able to have it all. After building a successful business by putting in a lot of long hours, she found that her personal life – relationships, athletic and musical passions, her wish to have children – was suffering. “There was lots of travel,” she says. “I spent two years putting in 80 to 100 hours a week. The consequences of that kind of stress and work on a person are intense. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t exercising. I was only working.”

Then one day she had an epiphany. “I woke up from a nap and there was this voice in my head saying, ‘If you don’t stop this, you’re going to have cancer before you’re 40.’” Initially, she didn’t listen to that voice. She stretched things out by a week, by a month, “just until I can get through this one more project,” she says. But eventually, she listened. She cut her work back to 20 hours a week for six months and spent her newfound time trying to figure out what she really wanted.

And she found that she really did want to be a business owner. She always had. But she also wants to sing and go surfing and have a family. Rayner is still running ED Marketing (at lunch, she stresses about her biggest event of the year: 1,400 people at Northlands for the Alberta Business Hall of Fame induction ceremony), but she’s still trying to figure out how to make it all work.

To find a date for lunch, she posed a question to her Facebook friends: “If you could have lunch with ANY Alberta business-owning woman who started a successful business 10+ years ago, built it from the ground up, is married and has a family – who would it be?” Her friends responded with what she called a “shockingly small” list of qualified candidates.

One name that did come up was Angela Armstrong, the owner of Prime Capital Consulting and the married mother of two teenaged daughters.

Rayner and Armstrong both arrive at Culina restaurant, in Edmonton’s Strathcona neighbourhood, early, notebooks in hand. They greet each other warmly, quickly get pleasantries out of the way and dive into the discussion.

“Being a workaholic is the respectable addiction,” Rayner says. “If you’re addicted to work, your payoff is achievement. It’s contribution. It’s recognition. All those things are valued in our society. We recognize and support our work addicts whether they leave a wake of broken hearts and destroyed relationships and wrecked businesses and burned out employees. Or it evolves into a different addiction.”

Rayner says she has thought about a salaried job as a way toward better balance. She knows women who left the entrepreneurial world as they had families.

“The question in my head was not, ‘Do I go back to my company or do I get a job,’ but, ‘If I get a job I’ll have a higher chance of having a partner and children. If I stay on my entrepreneurial track, I may be choosing not to have that.’”

“That’s a hard thing to think about,” Armstrong says. “It seems so final and finite.”

“But I didn’t know a single woman who had a relatively successful relationship, children and a business that makes money who wasn’t also completely exhausted,” Rayner says.

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“Have you since found women like that?” Armstrong asks.

Rayner nods across the table at Armstrong, who bursts out laughing. “Write this in the magazine,” she says. “My husband and I have a relatively successful relationship!”

Armstrong says she has had her own struggles with work addiction, and they cropped up both when she was an employee and after opening her own business. “You get propped up by these rewards,” she says. She compares the situation to the moment in every Batman movie when Bruce Wayne, out of costume, is bruised and suffering. His butler, playing the role of Rayner’s epiphany, tells him he’s killing himself, but he, the superhero, must head back into the fray.

She says she started Prime Capital as a home-based business. Her husband had a nine-to-five office job, so she tried to build the flexibility into her life to take care of a lot of the stuff on the home front. She says there was a lot of back and forth negotiating duties with her husband, and that only intensified when she moved the business out of the house. “What I see more now and what I’ve experienced in my own marriage is there’s a lot of working things out,” she says. “It’s messy.”

She says at one point, she almost quit her business. “I had a moment walking around in my backyard talking with a friend who was coaching me and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I started the business to spend more time with my kids but was getting up at 3 a.m. to write emails and get things off my mind.’” At the time, she was also on the school council and volunteering and coaching soccer. Her friend/coach told her to quit. “And I said, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. I want to quit.’ She said, ‘No, no, quit everything except the things you’re complaining you don’t have enough time to do.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that. What will everyone think?’”

Rayner felt the same thing. “It felt weak,” she says. “It felt like my superhero cape had a hole in it. My inner critic said, ‘No one else gives up like this.’”

But she did stop. She didn’t know how clients would react. It made her anxious, and was harder than she expected. She had loved her work and nothing else.

“It’s humbling to have that moment where you realize you’re not what you thought you were,” Armstrong says. “It’s not that you’re not worthy – you’re just not what you believed yourself to be. You’re running after an illusory model of yourself that was about the accolades and commendations, and you start to believe the rhetoric that you’re so wonderful. What did you replace work with?”

“I got back to the things that made me, me, without work,” Rayner says. She started singing again, travelled to great surfing destinations and began rebuilding her relationships with friends and family. “I bought a tent trailer, sold my motorcycle and dedicated myself to my soccer team,” she says.

“My gosh, we have a lot in common,” Armstrong says. “I play soccer and used to have a motorcycle and I bought a tent trailer last year.”

Armstrong turns philosophical. She references the famous story about putting rocks in a jar: First put in the biggest, most important rocks like family, health, relationships. But the jar’s not full. You can put in pebbles: other important but not crucial things like work and school. Then there’s still room for sand, the small stuff, minor pleasures. But the big rocks should go in first. “My big rocks were on the sidelines for a long time,” she says. “It came down to getting to know myself, and finding the strength to say ‘No.’ Time with my family comes first: my daughter’s soccer games.” Then she says the notion of finding a perfect balance is illusory. “There is only the ability to attend to the things that are really critical at the moment. That could be family. That could be your health. You have to adapt, like a sapling in the wind.”

Rayner says she has jumped back into her company and is feeling pretty good. “I love being an entrepreneur,” she says, “and if I can’t find somebody that can love that about me, then what’s the point? Take it or leave it, this is who I am.”

Neither woman has cracked a notebook. They stand and hug as they depart. Armstrong offers to have coffee anytime and to put Rayner in touch with a couple of other female entrepreneurs. Successful ones, in every aspect of their lives. Because, she says, there are many.

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