THE BLOG

Building Mumsnet - From the Dotcom Crash to a Sustainable Business

11/10/2015 23:46 BST | Updated 11/10/2016 10:12 BST

As the CEO of a business started by, run by and (mostly) staffed by women - a fairly rare thing in tech - I get regular requests for advice on starting up and getting on. Mumsnet, in internet terms, is a rather slow developer; we're fifteen-and-a-half (the half is very important, as all teenagers know) and in the first few years, our current monthly totals of seven and a half million users and seventy million page views would have felt like a very odd dream.

It's hard not to feel a tiny bit fraudulent when giving advice; as Mumsnet's early business trajectory was so - frankly - flat, I'd be hard pushed to genuinely recommend that anyone try to emulate it. That said, it worked - and while our story is very much a slow-burner, it also features things like dotcom crashes, working out of back bedrooms, and very small children; in other words, elements that an awful lot of women will have to contend with in the search for their own sustainable businesses, large or small.

The idea for Mumsnet came about following a disastrous family holiday; my twin daughters had just turned one, and we all needed a bit of R'n'R. Sadly we chose the wrong destination, in the wrong time zone, at the wrong resort with, frankly, the wrong children. If only, I thought, we could have sense-checked our decision before we shelled out a small fortune. What if there were an online network of parents, some of whom would already have worked out that that particular resort wasn't remotely child-friendly, and that toddlers and jetlag are a really bad mix?

And what if you could also tap into that hard-earned parental wisdom about more than just holiday destinations? What about teething, and sleep and schools and mothers-in-law? Once home I checked out the competition, and found a plethora of parenting websites, but none with the real experts - other parents - at their heart. A bruising trawl for investment funds allowed me to quickly collect the full set of ways in which money men can say 'thanks, but no'. (Some of them kindly offered me posts in their own outfits; others suggested the idea was great, but not with me at the helm.) I wasn't helped by the fact that the dotcom bubble was well and truly bursting and some shiny new internet brands (anyone remember Boo.com?) were toppling like nine-pins.

So with a small amount of seed investment from a good friend, I retreated to my back bedroom with a new business plan, and more 'organic' approach. Not having to worry about investors' ROI was an unexpected and significant bonus, allowing us to prioritise our users ahead of making any money. Though it took years before we were of sufficient scale to attract big brands to advertise, nonetheless the site flourished as new users found their way to it in droves, mostly through word of mouth and some helpful press attention. And because we had so few costs, we were able to plough on despite the absence of any real revenue. What matters so often in business (as in life perhaps) is not so much the strength of your ideas, but the strength of your resolution to persevere when the going gets tough.

So what have I learned?

1. Being a successful businesswoman has nothing to do with looking like a model, and random people's opinions about you personally are neither here nor there. There's a shortage of women at the top of the tech industry, and sexist abuse from online trolls is just one of the reasons. Another is our collective failure to get younger girls interested in the tech side; it took me ages to appreciate that hard coding is an incredibly creative tool. (Not that girls can't necessarily get interested in hard coding for its own sake, of course.)

2. If you want to run your own business, you need to like hard work. Remember Debbie Allen's speech in the opening credits of Fame? It's like that, but without leg-warmers. Or fame.

3. Be clear about what's important, and - unless the answer is 'cash' - don't be pushed around too much by your bottom line. If you can cover your costs and pay staff on time, you're doing OK. Success is a long-term project, and decisions that maximise your profits today could be undermining your business's fundamental reasons for existing.

4. At some point you may need to throw caution to the wind, so try to recognise that time when it comes. In retrospect - and because of our shaky start with the dotcom bubble - I was over-cautious when it was time to expand.

5. Listen to users and pivot if necessary. Your first iteration may or may not be the real deal; as Mumsnet users always say about birth plans, 'don't get too attached'. The web means immediate and constant feedback; this can feel challenging (spot the euphemism) but try to see it as an amazing free focus group - so long as the people you're listening to are your core audience.

Justine Roberts was recently named as one of the fifty most inspiring women in the European technology sector by Inspiring Fifty. Inspiring Fifty is a pan-European programme that identifies, encourages, develops and showcases women in leadership positions within the technology community. The aim is to inspire a new generation of female leaders and entrepreneurs across Europe and indeed worldwide, leading the charge to affect meaningful and durable change.