Justine Roberts is the Founder of Mumsnet.com. She created the site in 1999 as a forum for parents to swap ideas and views. It is now the UK's biggest network for parents, generating 55 million page views and 10 million visits per month. I caught up Justine to talk about how she manages to run such a successful site, whilst juggling family life.
How Did the idea for Mumsnet Come About?
The idea for Mumsnet came from my first trip abroad with my nearly-one-year-old twins at a resort that was billed as family-friendly, but which turned out to be the wrong destination in every possible way. All the parents there rued their choice of holiday and it made me think about how useful it would be to be able to tap the wisdom of people who had been on the trip before or people who had made better choices. The Internet seemed like the ideal place to do that and if we were tapping into wisdom on holidays we could also ask about all the other stuff parents have to negotiate but are untrained for. When I returned from holiday back in '99 I immediately started work on the site.
How Much Has the site Grown Over the Last Few Years?
Hugely - we've been going for fourteen years and have pretty much doubled our audience every year. When I conceived the idea the internet bubble was in full swing and it was all about land grab and burn rate but a few months later that bubble had well and truly burst. Advertising rates plummeted and a lot of investors got burned. There was no hope of investment so we had no choice but to grow organically by word-of-mouth. Mumsnet now has 55 million hits a month and five million monthly unique visitors.
Is Now a Good Time for Mothers to Start a Business?
Well it all depends on your own circumstances but if you've got a killer idea, a good business plan and are willing to work hard any time can be a good time. The trick is to make sure your business addresses a real need. If it's going to be useful or solve a problem then go for it. Starting your own venture can mean greater control over some of the issues which are currently facing parents in the workplace. A lot of Mumsnetters find the lack of flexibility and family friendliness of employers a real obstacle to work - it's something we are addressing in our Family Friendly programme in which we work with employers to improve their polices and service to parents. By working for yourself, you're guaranteed a boss who understands that, ultimately, family comes first. That said, it throws up a whole host of other challenges most notably that you never really clock off!
What Are the Biggest Challenges Faced by Mum-prenuers?
Possibly the name mum-prenuers, which always make me cringe. We need to come up with a new name... But, joking aside, the struggle for balance is a constant test, and I don't mean the elusive work/life balance ideal - everyone wants that - I'm talking about the balance at home which is necessary for mums to be able to have a fair shot at their professional goals. All the evidence from Mumsnet surveys suggests it's the mothers who are making the playdates and thinking about the homework and worrying about when the plumber will call. I think that's often the case, even in relationships where the mother is working as many hours as fathers. What's needed is a shift in the culture - women are more judged than fathers - little Johnny turns up for the day without his lunch, no one will turn around and say what a terrible father he's got. They'll look to the mother.
How Can They Overcome This?
By keeping the lines of communication open with your partner to make sure there's a reasonable divide of jobs. In business we talk a lot about staying focused and flexible and responding to feedback - it's the same at home. A lot of the time you can't predict what's around the corner, so you need to know you can go back to the drawing board and say, 'Ok, this isn't working', or 'we need to get better at this.'
What Has Been your Biggest Challenge to Date?
Probably the fact that we launched Mumsnet just as the internet bubble burst and then the subsequent lack of faith in the web generally - both from investors and the wider media. It was hard to keep going when there seemed little hope of ever earning a buck but luckily it quickly became apparent that Mumsnet was proving a lifeline for many, who kindly took the time to write and tell me so, so whilst it wasn't immediately profitable there was clearly something in the idea.
Do You Feel There is Enough Support for Mum-prenuers?
I don't think banks in the past have been particularly supportive - the best support I had was from other internet entrepreneurs, who've always gone out of their way to share information and advice, I've found.
You Have Four Children. How Old are They and How Do You Plan Your Work Around Them?
I have twin girls who are 15, and two boys aged seven and ten. Any free time I do get I like to spend with my family. I'm pretty good at vegging out on the sofa with my kids and watching the football.
What Advice Would You Give to Mothers Who Want to Start their Own Business?
Try to choose something you're passionate about and be prepared to work hard - there aren't many successful people I know who are workshy. Do your research, know your competition and look for a USP. Then make sure you listen to your audience/customers and keep listening. At Mumsnet, I try never to have more than a six-12 month plan for that reason, it's important to be flexible and respond to our audience's concerns and needs. You could also go to your local library and ask the information desk for a leaflet about what advice is available to would-be entrepreneurs. You may find they refer you to Business Link (which is the Government's Small Business Service) or to a locally run organisation like an arm of the council or your regional development agency. These sorts of organisations often put on workshops or see people at drop-ins and can be invaluable resources. Talk to as many people as possible and as someone's grandma once said, remember you've two ears, one mouth - use in that order.