How to build a business that fits your lifestyle

Man on his phone at a cafe

For some entrepreneurs, the most important part of a business plan isn't financing or marketing or finding more customers. It's their lifestyle.

Instead of starting a company and shaping their life around it—working as long and as hard as the business demands—they start a company to fit the kind of life they want to lead. Working this way doesn't mean slacking off, or delegating everything away. Rather, these entrepreneurs come up with creative ways to tap technology and set boundaries to do justice both to the business and their personal needs.

Like the co-founder of a booming telecom startup who ensured his company could be managed remotely, allowing him to travel for pleasure 20 days a month. Or the solo lawyer who doesn't handle court dates or even meet clients in person so that she can home-school her daughter.

Some of these lifestyle-centered businesses don't have the same booming growth they might have enjoyed otherwise. But that's a trade-off these founders are more than willing to make.

Here's a look at three entrepreneurs who have pulled off this feat and how they deal with the problems and rewards along the way.

Calling the shots from anywhere in the world

Over the past nine years, Shane Mitchell and his wife, Daisy, have been to all 50 states, over 35 countries and four continents. In 2014, they explored—among other places—Iceland, England, France, Greece, Turkey and Alaska. This year, Chile, Antarctica, Egypt and Belize are on the agenda. And in the middle of all the globe-trotting, they travel monthly to see their children and grandchildren in Houston and in Greensboro, N.C.

It sounds like a great life for people who, say, retired early or otherwise have a lot of time on their hands. But Mr. Mitchell heads Rock Solid Internet & Telephone, of San Antonio, which has seen sales grow an average of 40% a year over the past four years and did more than $3.6 million in sales in fiscal 2014.

How does he balance his work and his travel? The Internet—and careful planning. Mr. Mitchell was bitten by the travel bug years ago when he and his wife owned a travel agency. So, when he and a partner started the telecom business in 2006, he wanted to build the ability to work remotely—from anywhere in the world—into its operations. This dovetailed with their larger plans to use remote workers, including contract labor in Eastern Europe and Asia and a call center in Utah. Mr. Mitchell would be managing them at a distance anyway, so it wouldn't matter much if he were actually sitting in the office.

He says he can oversee the accounting and IT aspects of the company from anywhere in the world, speaking to employees by cellphone or Skype and supervising their work using tools like electronic whiteboards.

"So much of what I do is on the computer that it really doesn't matter where I am located as long as there is good Internet access," he says. "I also try to make use of the time-zone differences between locations as there is often an advantage to the distance. I can spend four to eight hours enjoying wherever I am, and still have the opportunity to work with staff because they are getting to work after I am done for the day or before I start. It really allows me to maximize the use of my time."

Still, mixing travel and work has brought some rough spots. A number of times, emergencies arose at home while he was on the road. While on a vacation in Greece in 2007, he had to solve a technical problem at his business in the middle of the night at the hotel office. The Internet connection was slow, and the keyboard was in Greek, so he had to hold down the function key to get English letters.

And traveling so much can be disorienting in itself. In May 2014, Mr. Mitchell and his wife were in the middle of a 20-day journey from San Antonio to North Carolina to Michigan to Vancouver to Arizona. One morning he woke up in a hotel room and asked her, "Where are we today?"

A lawyer who doesn't answer the phone

When Elizabeth Potts Weinstein's divorce was final in 2011, she was faced with a tough decision. She needed a job that would cover the cost of living in Silicon Valley. But she didn't want a career that would keep her away from her 10-year-old daughter, whom she wanted to home-school. "I am committed to spending as much time with Grace as possible, especially after she had a brain tumor when she was five," she says.

With a background in intellectual property, trademark and copyright law, Ms. Weinstein set up a practice that lets her spend the time she needs with her daughter. Focusing on helping startups get incorporated, and drafting and reviewing contracts, she works from home, makes no court appearances and does most work via email.

"I expressly disclose on my website that I dont answer the phone, don't wear a suit and don't meet clients in person," says Ms. Weinstein.

Monday to Friday, she does email and other client work starting at 5:30 a.m. and home-schools her daughter from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. She makes calls in the morning and late afternoon—while her daughter does art projects or other activities—and tackles more client work in the evening while her daughter is relaxing or after she is asleep.

Ms. Weinstein used to work on the weekends, when her ex would have their daughter, but she soon burned out. She now takes off weekends for travel and hiking, and doesn't check her email until Sunday morning, when she makes school lesson plans for the week. Two areas she hasn't figured out: "It has been difficult to fit in dating and a social life, and I still haven't found time to exercise," she says.

The setup has posed professional problems, too. "I've lost potential clients because I wouldn't answer the phone when they called, or because I wouldn't meet them in person," Ms. Weinstein says.

She has even had random people email unsolicited advice, such as: "I think you need to change your picture on LinkedIn and website because you don't look like a professional lawyer."

Still, she says, many clients "specifically state that they prefer working with me via email and Skype because it is more efficient than meeting in person. In this way, there is no wasted time spent on commuting, finding a parking space or sitting in a waiting room."

And, she adds, "since my clients are entrepreneurs who tend to work nontraditional schedules, we can both time shift, handling legal matters via email, whenever we can fit it into our respective schedules."

In 2014, the business brought in six figures in revenue, she says, but she won't be more specific. She recently hired a project manager to help systemize the business and hopes to spur growth by hiring other lawyers. "So many lawyers want alternative schedules—there's a huge untapped resource out there," she says.

Forty-hour weeks. Period.

In 2006, Morra Aarons-Mele had had enough. After years of high-pressure work for political campaigns and startups, and heading a division of a large public-relations firm, she was feeling stifled by the demand for long hours. "Rich or poor, workers are expected to place no boundaries on their time or personal life anymore," she says. "We are expected to work all the time, and I think that's nuts. And it does not lead to higher productivity."

She left her job, and after spending some time freelancing, she decided to set up a digital marketing company, Women Online, with the goal of keeping a normal schedule. Now she usually puts in about 40 hours a week, with a couple of 10-hour days and some shorter ones. And she builds in one afternoon with her children "just to hang out."

Keeping her schedule sane has meant turning down growth opportunities. "It's much sexier in a culture that idealizes the entrepreneur to be always hungry, always wanting to grow faster," she says. "I see colleagues and competitors staffing up and can feel a twinge of jealousy and insecurity. But then I have to pinch myself and remember this is a choice."

She has also kept her services specialized—clients with a social mission such as foundations and nonprofits—rather than expanding into a full-service digital-marketing or PR firm. "We know what we're good at and stick to it. We don't market ourselves, we rely on word-of-mouth, and things happen organically," Ms. Aarons-Mele says.

Every six months or so, she re-evaluates her work and life balance. If things feel skewed—too much work and not enough time with her children or vice versa—she comes up with a plan to shift things. "I just wrapped up work on a 2014 election campaign while eight months pregnant, and it was intense. I worked all the time," she says. "But this past summer, work was quiet and rather than freaking out and flying around to get new clients, I tried to drop my [baby sitter] hours down to the minimum and spend time with the boys, and with my mom. That time is so precious."

Not only do clients understand, they often ask her about work-life balance. Sometimes they also teach her a thing or two, such as the time Ms. Aarons-Mele was nervous about revealing to a big client that she was about to have a third child.

As it turns out, Ms. Aarons-Mele says, "she has three kids, and she was so excited about it, made a big fuss in front of the room, and totally normalized the fact that a busy executive could have three kids and still be extremely effective. It was great."

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