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California attorney John Hinman, foreground, with wife, Kristen, and daughter, Hattie Nee, often works around 100 hours a week in the midst of a trial, which leaves him little time to spend with family.

NEW YORK >> Sometimes family comes first.

That's the priority Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., set before becoming House speaker last week; he warned he's going to spend weekends with his wife and three children, not political fundraisers.

"I cannot and I will not give up my family," he said.

But saying "no" to a demanding work schedule is easier said than done — something some small business owners know well. When business involves inflexible deadlines, travel and unexpected crises, owners find work/life balance hard to achieve.

Putting family first can raise eyebrows. President Barack Obama has made evenings with his daughters a priority — and also was criticized for not spending more time trying to win over Republican lawmakers who opposed his policies.

But experts on entrepreneurship say setting limits, delegating and being flexible are the only ways owners can build businesses without sacrificing family life. They must choose in a given moment, day or week between family and work.

"There's no easy answer to this," says Dennis Ceru, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College. "It requires understanding and knowing what's important to you."

Hard to find balance

Attorney John Hinman knows that firsthand. He has to work 100 hours a week in the midst of a trial, leaving little time for his wife, Kristen, and their 7-month-old daughter.


Hinman, who opened his practice in Long Beach, California, two years ago, aims for more family time when his workload is lighter. He keeps weekday evenings and weekends as free of work as possible. Social events are scheduled when he has spare time.

"You plan your life around your trial," Hinman says.

A wake-up call

Although most of the work at Ken Kilpatrick's public relations firm takes place during normal business hours, sometimes a client calls at 2 a.m. with a crisis. Or at 2 p.m., forcing Kilpatrick to stay at work until midnight, forgoing an evening with his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

But Kilpatrick makes these interruptions the exception, not the norm. Earlier this year, he realized he'd spent so much time on his Philadelphia-based company, Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations, he'd missed precious time with his child.

"One day I'm sitting watching my baby on a high chair with food all over the place, and the next day, she's started kindergarten," Kilpatrick says. "All these days I've missed, and for what?"

Kilpatrick, whose company is 11 years old, decided to delegate more to his five staffers so he could leave the office after normal business hours. He's mindful of how his daughter feels when he works instead of coming home.

"A child takes a promise very seriously and the broken ones to heart," he says.

Setting priorities

Wendy Sartory Link manages a law firm and her three sons' lives by setting priorities that can shift between family and work.

Link is the managing partner of Ackerman, Link & Sartory, a law firm with 22 employees that specializes in real estate. She often runs from conferences to closings to client appointments, but at times those demands go on hold — like the afternoon last week, when one of her sons competed in a swim meet.

"His swim meet was important to him so I made it important to me," says Link, whose firm is based in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Link broke away from working with a client to attend the meet, but went back to work after making dinner.

"The kids understood on one hand that I was there and if they needed something I would address it, but they also understood Mom had to work," Link says.

Creating boundaries

Sam Levin could work 24 hours every day because his Wayne, Pennsylvania-based company has offices in Singapore, with a 12-hour time difference, and Australia, 15 hours ahead. He's in the office by 6:30 a.m. talking to far-flung employees, and works several hours after 9 p.m., when his three children are in bed. Staffers know evenings are sacred.

"There's an understanding that between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., unless there is really an extreme emergency, those four hours are my family hours," says Levin, president of MavenWire, a shipping consulting company.

Still, at times he must take a call during family time, often from a new client. The upside is those interruptions help build good relationships with clients, who won't be so anxious in the future and disturb him at home.

"Giving good service lessens the demand for interruptions the work/life balance," Levin says.