The founder making home coronavirus tests manages her work day with a 2-minute email rule and open time for 'serendipity' while scaling a company and parenting a 14-month-old

  • In early March, just as the coronavirus pandemic reached the US, Julia Cheek saw a unique opportunity for her at-home health testing startup Everlywell to help with the crisis. 
  • By May 16, the FDA authorized emergency use of Everlywell's at-home sample collection kit — which is then sent to specific labs for diagnostic testing.
  • Here's how Cheek balances a vital business, onboarding a team remotely, and parenting a 14-month-old while her company is in "hyper scale" mode. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In early March, just as the coronavirus pandemic reached the US, Julia Cheek saw a unique opportunity for her at-home health testing startup Everlywell. 

Cheek and her team worked rapidly to create a Covid test while simultaneously coordinating with the US government to get the necessary approval for consumer distribution. By May 16, the FDA authorized emergency use of Everlywell's at-home sample collection kit — which is then sent to a lab for diagnostic testing.

Now, the five-year-old company sells testing kits through its website for $109 that involve an online screening, a nasal swab, and results in 72 hours with a telehealth consultant available to walk clients through their results. What's more, Everlywell is planning to raise new funding that would value the startup at more than $1 billion, according to Bloomberg. 

Cheek isn't just running a vital company during the pandemic, she's also scaling her startup, onboarding a team remotely, and parenting a 14-month-old. The key to getting it all done — both personally and professionally — is establishing times of the day that are devoted to her family, meetings, and emails. Drawing boundaries and protecting certain chunks of the day also keeps Cheek present with her son and husband, she said. 

Here's how Cheek organizes everything she has to accomplish in the hours between breakfast and Netflix. 

Morning family time and lots of caretaking support enable working moms to do what they do.

Cheek is the mother of a 14-month-old and insists on keeping her mornings devoted to family. She typically wakes up around 6:30 a.m. — her son "is my alarm," she said — and cares for him. 

She will quickly check her email first thing in the morning but saves responding until later. "The good news about having a 14-month-old is they either take your phone from you or they don't want you on your phone," she said. 

Oftentimes, Cheek and her son will make breakfast then join her husband for a walk with the family's two dogs. Once her childcare provider arrives, Cheek quickly gets ready for work. 

Cheek's parents relocated from Dallas to Austin during the pandemic, and her nanny was deemed an essential worker and followed social distancing protocol so she could continue working for the family. 

"With the madness of work and leaning into responding to the pandemic, I don't know if I would have been able to do my job without that support," Cheek said, noting how privileged she feels to have that option. "It's such an important element in enabling women in the workforce."

Amid back-to-back meetings, Cheek blocks off "serendipity" time and makes sure her team doesn't burn out.

Ideally, Cheek would divide her day into chunks: meetings in the morning, uninterrupted time in the afternoon to answer emails and think creatively, and time for what she calls "serendipity," which is when she can take calls with people who want to speak last-minute. She prefers to have this time in the afternoon, after her to-do list is accomplished. 

In order to stay in touch with her staff in real time, Cheek tries to leave room in her daily schedule to respond to items that pop up during the day and has an "open door" policy for all employees.

"I want everyone to know they can come to me with feedback, criticisms, ideas," she said. "It's all printed in our welcome book." 

A 20-minute lunch break, 15-minute coffee break, and walking meetings have made her a better leader.

Cheek takes a 20-minute lunch break every day to regroup. Since she doesn't snack during the day, she opts for hardy meals packed with protein, vegetables, and carbs — a Chipotle bowl, sushi, or poke are some of her favorite meals. 

Cheek is also a fan of scheduled coffee breaks, especially as she works from home. She tries to take a 15-minute break in the mid-afternoon for a coffee outside, but found it difficult as Everlywell scaled and Austin's 110-degree heat hit during the summer. 

"It's really having the self discipline to schedule it because it's a commitment that you've made, just like another meeting," Cheek said. "But I think it makes me a better leader."

While Cheek typically starts her day with a morning walk, she tries to incorporate more exercise into her day by taking one-on-one calls while she walks around her neighborhood. She aims for two miles a day, not for the workout but for the mental clarity and chance to recover from "some postpartum things," she said. 

"When you become a new parent, you have a mindset and priority shift," Cheek said. "It's also been empathy-building for me since a lot of team members have kids."

Employee trust, engagement, and morale is more important than ever.

Cheek hired two-thirds of her staff virtually and is running Everlywell as it grows quickly which presents a huge challenge for building a culture that empowers employees, she said. "I think we're getting better at it," she said. "I'm really digging into how I can be a great leader in this environment and make sure people feel supported."

To achieve that, Cheek and her entire team meet several times a week to welcome new hires, discuss upcoming initiatives, and celebrate successes, sometimes incorporating costumes to keep the mood light, Cheek noted. Cheek is also wary of burnout and encourages her team to take time off as the company grows.

What's more, Cheek says Everlywell is listening "very closely" to staff as everyone copes with working from home. That includes surveys, company-wide Q&As, and anonymous feedback solicitation. "If people are stressed about their lives, they can't do their best work," Cheek said. "It's good business sense but also good human sense to take care of your team."

Everlywell is also offering employees memberships to the meditation app Headspace, mindfullness and stress workshops, and had previously hosted optional yoga breaks. 

The '2-minute rule' helps tame her inbox.

To tackle her inbox, she implements the two-minute rule, which advises people to answer an email if it will take less than two minutes and save it for later if it will take longer.

Cheek will respond to the emails that are easy to answer and save the rest for the afternoon or evening, when she has more time to process the content and respond. 

Cheek admits she doesn't answer every email daily, but insists on working through her messages every day. 

 

She's learned to follow her natural productivity schedule.

Cheek does try to protect certain hours of her day so she can be with her family but understands that can result in late-night work.

"Part of the benefit of being an entrepreneur is my work is pretty integrated with my life," Cheek said. "I know how I work best and then I adapt around it."

Finding a work-life balance during the pandemic has been difficult, Cheek admits. She finds the small rituals, like breakfast with her family or Saturday afternoons in the park, have been grounding during the chaos. 

While she strives to check-in with herself frequently to prevent burnout, she asks her staff to do the same thing and ask for what they need. 

And she keeps a reading list to stay unwind and stretch her mind.

Cheek typically reads before going to sleep between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. as a way to unwind.

She recently completed "Untamed" by Glennon Doyle — a memoir that explores the role of women in society and families — and "High Management Output" by Andrew S. Grove — a business book that review's the former chairman and CEO of Intel's approach to starting and running a company.

She's also started "The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett, which explores race and identity in the US.

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