Why this, and why now?
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of my business, LY Copywriting. So, I felt it was a good time to look back and reflect on the last decade. In that time, I’ve gone from freelancer to mum of one, to small business owner and mum of two, and then to agency owner.
I wanted to write a piece highlighting the particular challenges of growing an agency as a mum of two small children. Whilst there are working Dads who deserve a voice, and women who would have loved to have been a mum, but it wasn’t to be for whatever reason, for a personal piece, I can only speak about what I’ve seen and where I’ve been.
Sharing the often unshareable
Once I had the idea for this article and mentioned it in passing to a few people, I soon realised that the appetite for this article was almost overwhelming.
What started as a way to document the last decade quickly blossomed into what I’ll hope you’ll agree is a powerful piece about the highs and lows, as well as the wins and losses, not just in business but in life. I can’t thank the lovely ladies who shared their stories with me enough. So here are just some snippets of what it’s like to build an agency as a mum in marketing…
Back to the beginning
Fast-forward through university, a few years living in London and redundancy from a full-service agency in Norwich and I realised freelance life was calling. Redundancy can often be the catalyst for people ‘going it alone’, but I believe that so many people’s careers are also defined by a single sliding doors moment.
For me, it was the death of my grandad. We were close, he was fighting fit until the day he died and the shock and grief, not just at the time but over the coming months, quite frankly, floored me. So, I decided that freelancing felt like a way to work, earn and take some time to move at my own pace. This was all at a time way before working from home was the norm, especially for a usually extrovert twenty-something fairly fresh from the buzz of London and the social side of the agency scene.
I’ve asked a few other people if they felt their career has been influenced by a single event, happy, sad, strange or unpredicted. Rebecca Lewis Smith of Fountain Partnership, who I think is one of the brightest stars on the Norwich agency circuit, reflects that the catalyst can be meeting the right person at the right time. She shares “We’re a yin and yang partnership. Marcus, my co-founder (who also happens to be my partner) knows where we want to go, and I put the steps in place to get us there.” And get them there she did, as Fountain Partnership is now a global digital marketing agency working with household names.
I soon caught the bug of being my own boss and couldn’t see myself returning to a full-time office-based role. I’d called it LY Copywriting, but it was barely a business in those first weeks and months. I was doing bits and pieces for more and more clients, then over time started subcontracting to other talented writers, one turned into two, two in three and so on. I’d gone from no business and no plan, and definitely no business plan, to starting to build a small copywriting business – and I was hooked.
Waiting and ovulating
I’d always known I wanted children one day, and after getting married in 2015 I soon turned my attention to starting a family. As an impatient person, I was fairly discouraged and frustrated that I didn’t fall pregnant straight away and found myself walking past pushchairs on the pavement and noticing pregnant women everywhere – on the telly, in town and even in my own social circles. But after what felt like a long year of trying, I was lucky enough to fall pregnant and, (morning sickness out of the window of moving cars aside), enjoyed a healthy pregnancy with my son.
Me in the final weeks of my pregnancy in 2017 with my son, Hugo
Medication and dedication
This led me to wonder about agency owners’ journeys to becoming a mum and the impact it had on their work, from the ability to focus when it was often elsewhere, and what can at times feel like an obsession with getting pregnant.
The challenges some people have to overcome to achieve the thing that many may take for granted can’t be understated, not only when it comes to both falling pregnant, but carrying to full term. Kelly Molson, the unstoppable force behind and founder of Rubber Cheese shared the heartbreaking and traumatic time she and her partner had in their effort to welcome a child. “It was a long and traumatic journey for us. We tried for eight and a half years to have a baby. We had multiple miscarriages, multiple rounds of IVF and lost twins at 17 weeks.”
Throughout all this Kelly was running and growing Rubber Cheese and admits that “sometimes I wrongly put the agency ahead of my own well-being and looking back I know I didn’t take enough time off after some of the losses. I felt like if I can’t be good enough at this, then maybe I can be good at that. The effect on your self-esteem is incredibly challenging.” Thankfully Kelly is now mum to a happy and healthy daughter called Edie.
Helen Rudd, of Prominent PR, was also generous enough to share her story. “I had a miscarriage in late 2018, and in the summer of 2019, I started fertility treatment. We were lucky to fall pregnant in November of that year. My colleague had a miscarriage in the spring of 2020; I was pregnant at that time, but I’d been through the horrors of a miscarriage so was able to support her through it, albeit over Zoom in lockdown! In summer 2021 we took a decision as a team to join the Miscarriage Association and commit to being a responsible employer when it came to this most traumatic of events, and we signed their pledge. Luckily, we both have healthy little ones now but creating a safe environment for mums-to-be has become a huge part of our ethos as an agency.”
Helen adds, “My team knew I was ducking out for appointments, and it was really important to me that the team knew what was happening at home and were there for me.” Helen, fortunately, did fall pregnant but as she had a baby during lockdown, what should have been a really special time was slightly marred by solo scans and giving birth without her partner. But, with the memories of lockdown life fading, Helen is now enjoying juggling work with looking after her daughter, Kennedi.
I’ll be honest – I thought I’d have a baby and then spend the next few years in a baby bubble of bliss. But I found it hard to completely let one version of myself, the mum-self, take over my work-self and set aside the business I’d slowly but surely started to build and that had also become a big part of who I am. So, after a lot of the never-to-be-underestimated mum guilt, I accepted that wanting to work was just part of who I am and what makes me tick, so working mum it was.
Hugo at around 4 weeks old in July 2017
It was just two weeks after having my son that I sent my first work email. I was far from Karren Brady who famously went back to work after four days, but nap times soon meant I’d be reaching for the laptop and when my little boy was six months old, he’d go to my parents or in-laws for a few hours a time so I could work without Peppa bloody Pig in the background.
I’ve since learned that this desire to return to work was shared with many other agency owners. Fountain’s Rebecca revealed “I was uncontactable from the business for 3 months, luckily as my partner was my co-founder, I was still kept in the loop, but I remember breastfeeding on a V-pillow whilst in an important meeting fairly early on. I also remember feeling guilty all the time; I felt like I wasn’t doing enough for the business. I felt guilty when I was working for not being solely focused on my son then I felt guilty when I was with my son for not working.”
When speaking with the women I interviewed for this article, I found there was a similar theme when it came to the length of maternity leave. Prominent PR’s Helen shared that her maternity leave was just over 4 months, whilst Kelly of Rubber Cheese shared that “I didn’t feel like I could take a huge mat leave so I took three months. I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”
Maternity in lockdown
Maternity itself is a strange time for an agency owner, but maternity leave in lockdown was a whole new kettle of fingerlings (baby fish). After I welcomed my little girl in the peak pandemic month of May 2020, I was navigating nappies and a level of sleep deprivation that must be a form of torture somewhere in the world. Because of the chaos caused by COVID-19, my business all but fell off the face of a cliff and I was down to about 20% of my previous turnover. However, as this coincided with having another baby, it did mean a forced but welcome form of maternity leave.
Lucy at just a few weeks old in June 2020
For Claire Hutchings, the fierce and fabulous founder of Chime Agency, the pandemic also coincided with her maternity leave but painted a very different picture, “I was made redundant in the middle of my maternity leave. There were a few of us who were made redundant, interestingly, perhaps, there were two of us that were on mat leave. It was also mid-pandemic and my husband had been diagnosed with MS in that same month.”
Fast-forward through the dark days of Boris’ 5 pm announcements, and when the world slowly started to bounce back, my little girl started nursery a few days a week when she was 15 months. This, along with help from family, meant I could get stuck back into my business, but at this point, I still viewed it as a business rather than an agency. But what makes an agency, what’s the difference and where’s the tipping point?
Do people set out to start an agency, or like me does it evolve into one? Claire H shares “I started freelancing in the autumn of 2020. I never had any intention of employing anyone. But I got so busy that by January 2022 I started outsourcing to other people and by March I realised that actually, this is scalable. So, in the April I took on two people part-time, then another one in September and now I’ve got a team of five.”
Kelly openly admits “I set up on a whim. Me and my now co-founder and I were both unsatisfied with the jobs we were in so we just said, “let’s give it a go for a year”, and it evolved from there”. Four years on and Rubber Cheese is a fully-fledged, not to mention award-winning agency working with some of the biggest and best visitor attractions around the country.
Similarly, with an annual turnover and client list that rivals agencies in the likes of London, borne has helped put Norwich’s agency scene on the map. Its founder Carole Osborne is not only one of the most impressive female founders for miles around, but a role model to many – including me. This is, of course, because of the business and team she’s built, but mainly because she’s done so as a single parent with two daughters in tow. Carole shares why and how borne came to be, “I initially set up on my own when I had my first daughter. This was because I wanted to work when she was asleep and be with her the rest of the time. Within 6 weeks of cold calling, I picked up my first big client and started to look for a freelance creative to partner with.” In a few short years, Carole turned one client into many more and built an ambitious and hugely successful agency.
The superbly-sassy Jem Bevan reveals that she originally set up SocialJems, the social media training and marketing agency, as a result of a different set of personal circumstances, “my mum had a stroke and could no longer help with childcare so I needed to rethink how I was working”.
She talks about how she embraced being a working parent, “for me, it’s about switching your mindset and seeing being a mum as a superpower, not a hindrance when it comes to your ability to deliver. We’re masters of the juggle and we always want every minute to count. That doesn’t mean not stopping for a chit-chat, but it removes the meetings-about-a-meeting and the layers of faff that can be added.”
Rebecca reveals she started Foundation alongside three other founders in the middle of the recession of 2008/09. “When we started, we had one retainer, but we started putting ourselves out there and networking and we evolved into an agency. We did write business plans in the early days, but we didn’t actually follow them!”
Helen reveals she was somewhat of a reluctant business owner initially, “My dad had always run his own businesses and I saw the stress that comes with it so I never thought I’d end up going down that path.” But, as life has a habit of doing, Helen went on to set up Prominent PR after the agency she was working with closed and she was encouraged by her previous colleagues to set up on her own.
Claire England of the up-and-coming Social Beans shares her own struggles “I was a single parent for almost seven years, and we faced some personal challenges. My youngest is now going down a less than desirable path, falling in with the wrong crowd and so on. Both these things mean that I’ve regularly had to go into school to liaise with teachers and I needed the flexibility to do this.”
Mum guilt is real
I don’t think any article on being a working mum can skip past the subject of mum guilt. In fact, the word guilt came up somewhere along the way when talking to all the ladies I spoke to for this article. But why do us working mums feel a sense of guilt that perhaps (and I use perhaps to ward off any backlash from the many committed dads out there) working dads don’t feel to the same extent? I wholeheartedly believe that women have the right to want to work. However, I’m also aware that this desire to carve out a career comes with different levels of guilt for different people, but even in small amounts – it’s there, lurking in the background blighting every day or week spent working.
In theory, owning my business affords me certain freedoms, with friends often telling me things like ‘you’re the boss so just take the day off’ but, like many others out there, I find myself unable to walk away from an unfinished to-do list, replying to one last email and checking LinkedIn one last time. I could take an afternoon off for a facial, start late after a swim, or extend my weekend by a day, but I can hand on heart say I’ve never done any of those things. For me, being my own boss means that I can’t help but feel that any time spent away from my children needs to be spent in a way that justifies that time apart.
And it turns out I’m not alone. Claire H revealed “For me, it’s easier to go to work than being a stay-at-home mum. But that comes with ‘Mum guilt’. The rhetoric is that you can have it all, but you can’t have all of everything and you can’t be all things to all people. Having a business is like another child, and when you’re with one you feel like you’re neglecting the other.”
Finding female founders
I expected to find lots of depressing stats on the lack of female-founded agencies and to have to look hard to find those in a similar position. From the ladies I spoke to, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are a rising number of agencies owned and started by women.
Does this mean there are more of us than 10 years ago? Or are female founders consciously or unconsciously championing and filling their networks with other female founders?
When asked how many of the agency founders you know are female, Kelly reveals “I made a real effort to get to know female agency owners and I’d say 70% of those have children too” whilst Jem proudly replied, “75% of the agency owners I know are female.” Whilst Kelly’s found many of her peers have children, Rebecca reveals only around 25% are female with children and Helen says that whilst around 75% are female-owned, about half have children.
This is a really small snapshot of the female founders around the country, but I still think it’s encouraging to see that there’s a sense of women in business supporting other women in business and that the next generation will get a sense that it’s possible to build a business whilst being a parent. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.
Transparent about parenting
I’ll admit that not so long ago if a client asked if I was available for a call and I knew I’d be doing the nursery or school run, taking either to swimming lessons or a whole host of other taxi-style tasks, I’d say I already had a meeting booked for fear of not looking professional. I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t committed and that, for prospective clients, I wouldn’t have the time to service them should I win the business.
Now, my out-of-office will more proudly point out that I’m not available (and possibly now even overshare); that I’ll be playing snakes and ladders over tea and toast during half term, or we’re visiting an aquarium so their email will be met with an auto-reply featuring fish emojis.
I now realise that if clients don’t want to work with me because I’ve got kids that come first, then then we’re probably not the agency for them. This is a sentiment shared by Jem, “When I worked in sales, I was told that it’s not professional to reveal much about your personal life.
Nowadays, I tell people if I’m poorly or if I’m unavailable and why. It’s part of my brand and when you’re trying to build a personal brand, you need to show people the good, the bad and the ugly. I find it makes me more relatable and people buy into me and my brand.”
Carole shared that from her first client, “I was very clear with this client that I had a baby daughter and could only work with them if I could work around her. Martha attended her first client meeting when she was nine months old and has since been in creative presentations to holiday companies, board meetings at an investment bank in London and interviewed most of my team, usually dressed as something from Disney with her younger sister Elena.” Carole revealed that their go-to question would usually be “What do you like most about my mum and borne?” Carole also adds “Personally I’ve found that as long as I’ve always been open with clients and my team about my need for flexibility around my children it often leads to much better partnerships.”
Challenges that come with children
There was a common thread that ran through the answers and input I found when preparing for this article and that’s, as a mum and agency owner there are never enough hours in the day or days in the week!
But whilst we share many collective challenges around childcare and more, some individual hurdles make what we’ve achieved all the more impressive. Rebecca shared her experiences raising a child with autism and the challenges this brings, from homeschooling as a result of struggles with the mainstream school system to the sleepless nights that are a permanent fixture for some parents of children with autism. She also shares “When we realised that a mainstream school wasn’t going to offer the level of support we needed for our son, I set about securing him a place at a specialist school which, with lengthy and complex EHCP applications, almost became a full-time job in itself.”
She adds, “This followed a year of homeschooling before COVID whilst also being MD of Fountain until 2020. When you’ve got a child with autism you have to plan everything, and I had to work really hard to make sure our son got the support he needs. Luckily I had a fantastic support system in the shape of my husband Marcus and the other founders of Fountain”
Kelly also touched upon the planning and preparation that comes with being a parent, “there’s no room for spontaneity or change when children are involved. You’re constantly juggling and have to be regimented.” When it comes to work, she adds “I hate missing opportunities, but I know I’ll regret missing time with my daughter more than I’ll regret a professional opportunity.” One of the biggest challenges Kelly faced was the journey to becoming a mum. She revealed “I felt like IVF was a stigma” and this brings up a wider conversation around the challenge to fall pregnant in the first place and the impact this can have on someone’s personal and professional life.
Claire H shares her challenges from the early days and the perceived flexibility of being your own boss, “The perception is that when you’re self-employed you can work around your family but in reality, with freelancing, if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. If you’re employed, then you can take time off and still take home the same each month. But when you work for yourself, if the kids are sick, you can’t work so you don’t earn.”
Personally, I’ve found one of the most frustrating parts of building an agency is having to miss out on networking opportunities. These are often held in the evenings, clashing with the kid’s swimming lessons, sports activities or just being able to be home to put them to bed and spend that quality book-reading, nonsense-talking time that happens before kids’ bedtimes.
Claire E shares “It’s not really feasible for me to leave my sons with the challenges we have at home, so I do a lot of networking on LinkedIn as face-to-face networking isn’t an option.” Whilst Jem reveals her solution, “social media is my networking”. As powerful as LinkedIn can be, I can’t help but feel that showing your face at in-person events is an effective way to build connections that could turn into clients and that as parents we can be penalised for not being available for evening networking events or the crack-of-dawn but childcare-clashing breakfast events.
Practice what you preach
I wanted to offer roles with true flexibility around the demands of being a working parent. If you work 9-5 three days a week, you’re still missing 3 drop-offs and pick-ups. So, if you want, and only if you want, to still do most of the drop-offs or pick-ups, then I think it’s important to offer a way of working where it’s not only possible but actually preferable to spread the hours over the week. That may mean working 20 hours but over four days or whatever works for them. From nativity plays to sports days, I’m all about making sure work doesn’t get in the way of the moments that matter for parents. Being the boss means leading by example, so if I’m ducking out early to watch my son be a pterodactyl and flap around his school hall, then the rest of the team should get to work around theirs too.
The flexible nature of the roles I’ve offered as I’ve grown the agency means that I’ve attracted some brilliant working mums, looking for a way to use their grey matter but still be there for the people who matter. Similarly, Claire H reveals, “We’re an all-female team with only a few of us that have kids at home. This wasn’t deliberate, they’re all fierce and brilliant and we’d welcome anyone who shares our same mindset.”
Helen says “For the first 7 years we were female only, but not through a deliberate choice. I just find that female teams attract female teams. But the next three hires in a row were male and it changed the culture positively. We’re now a team of 10, with 4 of us being working mums.”
Carole shares “When I set borne up, I had no idea what it meant to ‘create a culture’, but setting up a business while I was also a mum meant that I had an understanding of the environment people needed to be able to flourish while living their lives.”
Loving agency life
People talk of climbing metaphorical mountains, but I think my path has been more like a pyramid. It’s taken just weeks to sprightly sprint up some steps and then has taken months, if not years, to crawl up others. I’ve sat on some, I’ve skipped past others and sometimes even taken a step back for a while.
However, slowly but surely, my career has gone from freelancer to small but ambitious content marketing agency almost solely thanks to recommendations and referrals. Today, we’re a team of 6, work in the office a few days a week then work from literally anywhere else the rest of the time – whether it’s the beach, a bench or even the bath (not all together).
All hands were on deck for moving day to our new office in February 2023
Looking to the future
I’m not looking to become a 50-staff-strong agency with offices in London, Tokyo, New York or wherever the latest trending place is to have an office. Whether success is a certain turnover, profits, or the number of bums on seats, success looks different for everyone.
That said, we’ve got big plans for the business, to work with bigger clients, grow the team to 10-12 and stay focused on offering truly flexible roles and be rewarded by the loyalty this brings.
I’ve come to realise that it’s OK to be ambitious and that being professionally ambitious, AND a good mum isn’t mutually exclusive. It’s about quality, not quantity.
A ‘sign’ of things to come (installed in April 2023)
Leaving a legacy
Finally, this brings me to the subject of legacy as an agency owner. What’s the end goal? Close, sell or pass down? I might not need to decide now but it’s at the back of my mind whenever I make a bigger business decision, and this seems to be shared by other agency founders.
Rebecca shares her thoughts on how she’ll leave a legacy, “We’ve set up a leadership team who lead the business. Together we’re building something that delivers excellent work and results from happy people.” Even with the many challenges Rebecca has faced over the years when asked if she’d do it all again, she replied: “Yes, because of the way I can now support my son and the freedom that being a founder has given me – I don’t need anyone’s permission to leave at 2.30 pm to pick him up.”
Claire H shares her thoughts on the future, “the short to medium-term goal and my 3-year plan is that when my youngest daughter starts school, I can be a breadwinner so that my husband can take a step back for his health.” Longer term, Claire H says it’s the legacy she leaves with her daughter that she thinks about, “I want them to take their own path in life and I want them to see a powerful mum that’s in charge of her own destiny with a great work ethic. And I want them to know that off the back of bad stuff, you can build something amazing.”
Helen, however, says she’s a “live in the present kinda girl” and there’s something to be said about living in the moment and enjoying the wins for what they are rather than being too focused on what’s next.
For me, will my tenacious toddler want to take over when she’s older? She certainly seems to have almost impenetrable negotiation skills and a way with words. Or perhaps my empathetic and emotionally intelligent five-year-old son will grow up to take LY Copywriting Ltd into the future. Perhaps neither will show the slightest bit of interest. And that’s OK too. Perhaps my legacy won’t be the business itself but giving them the belief that they can do anything they set their minds to. The only ceilings they need to smash are the ones they set for themselves and whatever they want to do, I hope I’ll have shown them that you can not only build something from nothing, but build something special.
Finally, thank you
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this article. Thank you also to everyone who has helped me along the way, from the very early days to just yesterday. You’re all pieces of the LY Copywriting puzzle and I’ll be forever grateful for your support, advice and – when times have felt particularly tough – encouragement and ego boosts!
My work and my business are incredibly important to me and have become a huge part of who I am. So here’s to another 10 years of building the sort of agency that, when I’m old and grey, I can say that, as well as my two children, I made something that mattered. And here’s hoping that when I’m even older and greyer, I’ll be able to sit back and say, in the slightly paraphrased words of mid-nineties emo-slash-grunge band Green Day…
“For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.
Was something unpredictable, but in the end, was right.
I had the time of my life.”