“Life First”: How One Mom and Business Owner Redefines Work-Life Balance
Crystalee Beck is a mother of four and the founder of two businesses: Comma Copywriters and The Mama Ladder. From straddling the blue-collar world of being a flight attendant and the white-collar world of corporate marketing to working in academia, Crystalee has experienced it all. But where Crystalee ultimately found the right balance is as a double business owner working twenty hours per week. Crystalee’s unique perspective on protecting time for both work and family has brought incredible insight into what is possible for mothers in the modern age. Enjoy the full interview below, and check out the ways Crystalee is looking to support other mompreneurs with her High-Five Grant and 100 Grand Plan workshop.
Please introduce yourself and your work and motherhood journey.
My name is Crystalee Beck, and I am a wife and mother of four. I live just outside of Salt Lake City in Bountiful, Utah. I am a writer at heart and a business owner. My undergrad was in communication with a PR emphasis, and then I studied professional communication in grad school. Right out of college, I was the first graduating class in the recession. The recession hit [around] November 2008, and I graduated in April 2009, and it was really hard to get a job. I wanted something to do with writing, but it was just really difficult to apply for like 60 jobs and have none of them pan out. I ended up getting my first job with SkyWest Airlines as a content developer for flight attendant training.
For that role, I was trained as a flight attendant myself. I spent about eight months in the office, and cubicle life felt really stifling to me. I left that office role to fly the friendly skies for years, but I would be sitting in the jump seat writing essays and wanting to get paid to write. So I got a full-time job as a marketing writer at a marketing and sales company, and then I would fly on the weekends to keep my flight benefits. I did both of those for a couple of years, actually, and it was very hard. I had too much on my plate between a full-time job, part-time flying, and grad school. And then I had a mini academic career, where I finished a master’s degree and taught as an adjunct professor for two years. During that time, I was laid off from my full-time job and decided instead of going back to a corporate ladder that I wanted to create my own ladder, or start my own business to fit my family. I had two babies under age two at the time.
How do you manage your work-life balance between having four kids and running two businesses?
I don’t believe in work-life balance. Balance for me connotes the idea of a seesaw at the playground with my family and my work as equal weights on each end. And it’s just not realistic. There are some days when maybe my kids are sick and they really need my attention, and so they’re getting a lot more from me. There are other days when I have a full day of training, [and] my business needs my full attention. I’ve rejected the idea that I have to balance them. Instead, I really believe in protecting time for both of them and trusting myself in the daily triage decisions of where to spend my time. At Comma Copywriters, our top value is “Freedom: Life First,” because life is more important than what you do to make money. I always want to keep that as a mantra.
What are some of the strategies that you’ve used to make time for both work and family?
About five years ago, I was trying to figure out where to prioritize my time and my energy. I realized there are three things I want to make sure I give time for every day: “Body, Babies, Business.” When I say “body,” I’m really saying all of me—my spirit and my actual body. I’m really just saying self-care. I try to move my body every day. This morning, I went swimming. It might be going on a bike ride or a walk or a hike, but I try to have some dedicated time every day that I’m taking care of myself. And I try to do that first. I try to do it in that order: body, babies, then business.
“Babies” time for me is giving my kids (I have four between ages eight months to eight years) dedicated time that they have my full attention. They’re not competing with my computer; they know that they’re my priority. That could be as simple as doing a puzzle together, working in the garden, or going on a hike. We do lots of little field trips, whether it’s just to the park or we’ve gone to Park City or to Snow Bird. I really try to give them time in the morning—I kind of fill their cups so that they’re getting the attention they need so that by the afternoon [when] I have a babysitter from 12 to 5, Monday through Thursday, they know that they need to give me space to work.
Then I get to business, and I really focus and get things done during that time. And I’ve trained my kids to know that when it’s babysitter time, Mom needs space.
What do you offer at your business Comma Copywriters?
Comma Copywriters is a content marketing company—a team of talented writers and editors—and we help smart marketers save time and build thought leadership. There are thousands, even millions, of companies out there that know that they need to be producing really high-quality content, and so many of them need support to meet their content goals. So Comma is an excellent solution to help them have professional writing without having to add another headcount to their team.
We have 41 team members, and we’ve been in business for six years. (See our business birthday party here!) It’s been really exciting to grow quickly. Comma has been named one of the fastest growing companies in Utah two years in a row by Utah Business magazine.
As an example of what our day-to-day business looks like, [for one client] we’re writing eight blog posts a month. . . For other companies, we might do things like a white paper, which is a piece of content that they put on their website [for] a decision maker [so they can say], “Hey, we’ve got this great report on the state of the industry. Give us your email, and we’ll send you the report.” We would be the ones that wrote the report and did the research. It’s a lot of blog posts, white papers, thought leadership articles. That’s really our bread and butter.
How does Comma create a good work environment for its team, especially for those with significant family responsibilities?
I really wanted to give others what I would want as a writer. When I started Comma, [it was] just me as a solo entrepreneur. I had two little babies. The day I got my business license, I had a six-month-old and a two-year-old. I had 10 hours of babysitter time a week, and that was my work time. At this point, I’m more like 20 to 25 hours a week, which is still where I want to be. But because I’m in the same situation myself (wanting flexible work and to put my life first), I know the value of someone’s work—especially with writing.
So many workers these days want flexibility and remote work. And we really lean into the “gig worker” model, because so many writers want freedom to pick up well-paying projects that work for them. At Comma, our writers control when they work and how they work, and, I mean, legally that’s what a contractor is—you have control over your schedule. The only thing that we require is that they turn in their work on time and that it’s well done, but we really give our team the freedom to decide how they get that work done. I don’t care if they’re wearing pajamas. I don’t care when they work. We just care that it’s done well and that their work works for their life. We never pay by the hour, because it doesn’t really matter how much time it takes. It just matters that you’re using your time wisely and you’re delivering something valuable.
What have you done to nurture an open conversation around work and family life as you’ve built the culture at Comma?
I remember in my corporate ladder life, I felt like I had to kind of gauge and be careful about who I talked to about wanting to be a mom before I was pregnant. It’s a real thing and a big reason why I opted not to go back to the corporate ladder. At Comma, I have modeled for my team, and I’m very open with them that you can be your whole self. You can be the parent, you can be the professional, you can bring both to the table, and I’m cool with that. I’m always fine if you have kids that come up in the middle of a meeting. And I tell them frequently, “You do not need to apologize for that. We understand that. We get it. It’s not a big deal. It’s life first.”
That’s actually been a positive thing about COVID. I think people have gained more acceptance and understanding that people are human first, and whatever you do for money is not the most important part of who you are. Hopefully it’s changing on a societal level, but before COVID, a really damaging mentality was that work is first or that [work] has to be the most important part of your identity. [But] we’re human beings first.
What feedback have you gotten from your team members over the years?
I’ve had really great feedback over the years. Probably one of my favorite meetings that I get to attend is when we do a group interview of some potential writers who want to be on our team, and I always ask them, “What interested you in working with Comma?” And they’ll say things like, “I love that you’re a woman-owned company and you understand the different priorities that I have in my life,” or “I am a mom, and I want to be able to be there for my kids,” or whatever it is. It’s just such a passion of mine to help other mothers be able to work in a way that works for their life.
We do have some gentlemen, and honestly I would love to have more men on our team. We currently have 2 out of 41. But I would love to have more. We’re not against men; our model just really does attract women who need more flexible options.
How has this model translated into success or struggles in your business operations?
It’s a fun surprise when you give someone a long-term project and see that the level of professionalism and quality is really, really high. It’s different from having a full-time job where you’re just expected to do whatever they hand you, and it doesn’t always have to be your best. It’s just “I’m going to be paid my salary either way.” But when my team members get a contract through Comma, they know “If I do a good job here, then this contract will continue, and I will continue to be paid to do this. If I don’t do a good job, then this could not only reflect poorly on me but also on Comma.”
I have been so pleased with my team. We have such a talented team. And in six years, we’re not perfect, but it’s been so rare that we’ve ever had any kind of quality issues. . . . And I think a lot of it is because they’re contractors, and they want to keep their reputation, and they know Comma’s reputation is riding on how well they do. I put a lot of trust in my team, and they know that.
I [have] team members whom I have chosen to trust for my own sanity—because I just got to the point where I was like, “I don’t want to work 60 to 80 hours a week.” I could, and a lot of business owners do, but it’s not worth it to me. So to protect time and energy for my family, I have to let go. I have to. And over time there’s been new phases of letting go at a higher level, and it’s scary for me every time. I recently created a client success manager role, where I’m having this team member manage our relationships with clients, and it was a little scary for me! It was letting go again. But I found that there’s so much freedom on the other side of letting go.
What other programs have you implemented to build a fun culture at Comma?
We are very flexible and supportive of our team’s life goals. I invite everyone who’s hired at Comma to write out a bucket list, because I really believe you can’t get what you want in life unless you know what it is and write it down. (It’s an idea I borrowed from the company You Need a Budget). Then we provide a Bucket List Grant program to help them to check off some items!
It’s fun. I really believe if you’re going to be in business anyways, why not make the world a better place, even if it’s just for your team? Another program that we have is called Comma Cares. With every new client we work with, we send a girl to school in Mozambique. We sponsor education with our partner, Kurandza, and that’s something that we’re also really proud of. We’re a small business with big heart, and we believe in the power of words and want to help the world be a more literate place.
When you look at the development of Comma over the last six years, what are you most proud of?
I am most proud that I haven’t forgotten about why I started. The reason I started my business was to work toward financial freedom for me and my family and for me to have a fulfilling, creative outlet for myself while being there for my kids. We were named in the Fast 50 for the last two years, being one of Utah’s fastest growing companies. When I attended the awards ceremony last year, this guy in a fancy suit said, “So I saw that you call yourself a ‘mom-preneur.’ Are you still able to have time with your kids?” And I could say, “Yes, I do.” And I’m proud that I can do both, and it is possible to do both and do them both well and be really satisfied. I wouldn’t change anything about how I show up as a mom or how I show up as a business owner. Sure, if I really wanted to, I could put every bit of energy into my business, and we could be five times bigger already. But I’ve been able to do both of the things that really matter to me, and I’m really proud to be going at my own pace.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t fit everybody, and I get that. But for women who are interested in starting their own business while being with their babies, it is possible. It’s so possible.
More for Moms
We love the ways Crystalee is helping and empowering mothers. If you’re a mom looking to move into the business space, here’s Crystalee sharing some of the resources she’s has available for mom-preneurs like you!
I’m really passionate about helping other mothers in business! This resulted in creating The Mama Ladder. Along with our co-hosts at Belly Bandit, we’re hosting the High Five Grant for Moms for the sixth time in October 2022, which is the world’s first international business competition for mom entrepreneurs. I hope every mom business owner reading these words will apply! We’ve given $32,000 in grant money so far to mom-built businesses and I look forward to helping give more to ambitious women growing businesses while raising babies.
I also host a workshop called “Your 100 Grand Plan: Make Good Money While Being a Great Mom” to help women with money mindset and plans to create what they want financially. I am planning on another live workshop in January 2023 in Salt Lake City.
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.