Starting a business on Maternity Leave: The First Year
Wow, it’s been a year now since I finished my maternity leave with Jude and took a massive punt on setting up on my own. Thought I’d write about the highs and lows, because Jeeze have there been some. Even just for my own amusement / nostalgia.
TAKING THE LEAP
When Jude was about 4 months old I suddenly needed to do something other than mumming but I knew I didn’t want go back to commuting and full time work yet, he was still breastfeeding every 2 hours on the dot FFS. So I set up this blog. This has actually been a great outlet for design for me. It kept my foot in the door with interiors and more importantly helped my brain engage with something other than pureed food and 'Little Baby Bum' (if you know, you know). Four months later, when he was around 8 months old, I grew a pair of the proverbial and set up Studio Fortnum, my interior design company. I kind of just knew that if I didn't do it then, I never would. I also think the blog was the main thing that helped me gain confidence to do this – I love you and I owe you bloggy.
I actually didn’t even intend to start a company – I know that kind of goes against this entire post, but really I just wanted to design again. I missed it, I love it, I needed it in my life. I remember at some baby massage class going for a coffee with the other women and for the first time in what seemed like an eternity one girl asked a group of us ‘so what do you all DO?’ I was literally dumbfounded. Someone asking something other than how my labour went / how he’s sleeping / feeding / what schedule I’m on. What a complete hero for recognising the human in us (we’re still good mates). Sure, a break and a change of pace was nice for a while and I love my son to bits but man, I was so lost with my sole identity being ‘mum’. Kudos to you full-timers. Really, really bravo. Legends.
Love you - but needed some 'me' back (snapped fresh from an all-nighter)
Before I even got clients I set up the boring shiz like registering a company on Companies House, a business banking account (I went with my existing bank which made things pretty easy) and insurance (I just used one of those online comparison things to find the right deal) I did this at nap times and evenings as I didn’t have any childcare. I set up a web domain, email address, logo (I just designed my own in 10 mins, I guess one of the benefits of starting a creative company is that you can do that stuff for free), email signature etc too. These things cost me a bit of upfront cash sure, but I would always have had to pay for it somewhere along the line and in retrospect it was a good shout to get this done ahead of starting properly because as soon as I hit the ground running I had sweet FA time to do any admin. I think I gave myself a float of £500 and it went far in that first few months.
NOT OVERTHINKING IT
Am I in LOVE with my company name? Erm no. Sure it’s ok, but I don’t lie there at night smug about how cool it is. I think the small things like logos, names and aesthetics can hold you back, sometimes you need to just pull the trigger and get the hell on with it. You can always change these things later and tbh, no one really gives a sh*t.
ACCEPTING WHEN I NEEDED HELP
It took me 3-4 months to realise I needed an extra pair of hands. I know this seems absolutely crazy and Diva-like, I am defs no Mariah and after ten years I’m still the person on my hands and knees cleaning the floor before an install; I think you need to physically and metaphorically stay grounded (no pun intended there, lols) to understand a business. People work on their own for years and years and get much further than I have but in all honesty, yes I am an experienced designer and Creative director, but I know my skillset and I am not hot on technical drawings anymore, it would actually be uneconomical for me to do them. To run this business I knew there was a massive gap and I either needed to accept that I’d have to scale it to fit that or hire the right person to be able to say yes to the jobs coming my way.
I don’t want a huge corporate company with loads of staff, I don’t want to make millions, obvi that would be cool but weirdly money has never been the main driver for me – I’d so much rather work with lovely, trusting clients on a nice job than be micro managed on a huge job with massive fees. I don’t want to win awards (again would be sick but not my main purpose), I don’t need a swanky office or a sweet set of company wheels. I want to create, design and style cool spaces for cool people* while making enough money to keep the company and my household running and spending time with this little dude. *Top lesson of the year; work for people you 'get'
Jude on a "set' on a photo shoot with me
I think this is the thing that holds people back. I was lucky in that it didn’t matter too much for me in the first few months because I will still living off the money I’d saved to get me through mat-leave. Also credit where credit is due, Josh, my partner was an absolute ledge in that he encouraged me to do it based on the fact we could survive on his salary for a few months if we needed to. We’re by NO means minted, we’ve worked so hard these last 6 years, him holding down an office job AND running his own company and I’ve worked pretty solid hours in industry from the week after I graduated. No gap yaaars for us, plus we were really lucky with the sale of our first flat that we skimped and saved to afford and do up –wanna just clarify that there is no ‘bank of mum and dad’ over ‘ere. There is however a pretty epic 'playgroup of mum and dad' and both our parents have been just incredible with childcare which has saved us so many times. We are so lucky.
Clients did trickle through after I found my balls again and actually TOLD people that I had a company and I was available for hire! My first client was a referral from a friend. Man those were the glory days, he was an epic client who paid on time, trusted me and let me get on with it and for that reason got such a great project at brilliant value. Yeah I was on 24/7 whastapp call / SOS visits and it wasn't my style but I enjoyed it so that was fine. Since then I would say 90% my clients have come from Instagram. Thank YOU Insty. I really had to let go of the cringe factor on Instagram, I just kind of write what I want, when I want and try never to overthink it. I might not be the most professional instagrammer ever (maybe the least) but tbh I don't really mind.
I have maybe had 30 odd clients over the year, these have ranged from bigger jobs to a few weeks work and on the whole I have been SO lucky with who I’ve worked with, so much so that some I now consider friends and I am truly so so thankful. Obviously you can’t get all the luck all the time and there have been a couple of projects that have drained my energy so much it’s actually had a pretty horrible effect on my general wellbeing. And when it's your own company you just can't switch off from this. I’ve learnt a LOT of lessons from these, the most important is to trust my gut, I heard alarm bells at the beginning of both of these projects but overrode them which I definitely should not have done. And yeah. I lost a decent amount of money as well as plenty of sleepless nights. Lame.
Not to sound completely arrogant but I liked to think of myself as pretty dynamic person pre being a business owner. But WOW. You need to be seriously dynamic to hit all the notes when you go solo. I’m a creative, legals and finances are the opposite end of the spectrum. Doing my bookkeeping I guess, is like an accountant trying to design their own website and making it look slick. It’s so far away from my decade of business dealings. Queue my next point;
SPECULATE TO ACCUMULATE
Things I’ve spent on; a full time designer (Hannah) and a laptop for her along with Photoshop and Sketchup applications (can’t afford CAD, yet), a basic office space close to my house (using my house was a no-go because of the 5 months of extension build we did concurrently - so wise for my mental health, not), an accountant. Yeah these are big ticket items, I know that. I had to justify each of these by bringing in fees that covered them before I signed on the dotted line. So for example, when I knew I had the funds to cover a salary for 3 months I looked for help and hired someone. Things I haven’t spent on are; PR or marketing, branding like business cards/ websites, any kind of awards or directory placement, trade shows or trips, training or erm, giving myself a decent salary.
Office from the day I saw it to now (with a lot of help from parents and Josh) so proud of this!
You will probs end up paying someone more to look after your child than you are making / paying yourself sometimes. I certainly did / am some months. Yes, it can be bloody demoralising but I guess I always knew this was one of the main risks, giving up a stable salary to see if I can do it alone. I knew I couldn’t afford full time childcare (also I did want to have a day or two off a week with Jude, that was kind of the whole other purpose of going solo) so looked into a nanny-share with the hope it would be more flexible. Some elements have been amazing, we love the nanny, she does more activities with Jude in the three days a week than we do in a month (ha!) but the drop-off commute takes me up to two hours a day and it’s always at the other family’s house (I intended to work at home but then the extension etc made it impossible). So after a full year it’s time for him to go to nursery. He’s so ready and I am too now. I think this buffer year of 3 days a week with a nanny has, on the whole worked really well for everyone. But hells I will NOT miss that commute.
Collecting Jude from the Nanny is my fave part of the day
Many, many, many.
I’m honestly not sure whether it’s because I’m a woman in business, the sole (female) director of a company or whether it’s just because I’m a start-up and nothing to do with gender, that I’ve hit hurdles in the road (ahemmm.. being paid) I’ve produced much better work these last 12 months than I ever have before at fair fees, yet having worked as a Creative Director for 9 years now and practising in exactly the same way, the above are the only things I can eliminate these ‘struggles’ down to. I have recently had a pretty horrible experience of not being paid for work i've done and the main lessons i've learnt are; t&c's are key and do not agree to ANYTHING over the phone. Silly me.
BEING A WORKING MUM
Harder than anything I’ve ever done before. FACT. And I’ve given birth on my bedroom floor without any pain relief. I’ve studied a degree in Architecture (no words for how mentally and emotionally challenging that little bitch of a BA was) but this is something else. It really is blood, sweat and tears (oh and a lot of regurgitated food stains). I worked the most ridic hours to begin with, between naps (when all I wanted to do was watch shit TV or try and nap) contending with sleep deprivation has also been hard, Jude is legit the worlds' worst sleeper. Took him 14 months to do 8-5am ONCE. He's slept through (which means no night-time milk) 15 times in 20 months now, we actually have a tally. As soon as we got Jude down at 7pm I’d open up my laptop and start working the night shift until around midnight for months and months.
Jude 4 months old when we shot my house (pre any legit childcare)
BUT I get to run my own diary, there’s no boss. I have / am working on some brilliant projects and it's tested my creativity in a really positive way. If I don’t want to take a project on, I don’t. If traffic is hell and I’m an hour late to my desk, I don’t have to explain. If I want to pick Jude up early and go for pizza I can. If I create some cool work I get the credit (wtf?!). I decide the PR strategy (actual lols that there might even be a strategy), I am the voice of the company and i'm actually really proud of the work we've produced so far. Ultimately it has been a LOT of highs and lows but, yeah, it’s been worth it. If you're thinking about it - GO FOR IT!
Insta life (above)
Real life (below)