Welcome to our new series of blog posts where we’ll be sharing the stories of women who have taken a new direction in life. First up, we’ve got an interview with Jane who talks to us about why setting up her own business, Grapeviners, was the best way for her to get the work-life balance she craved.
Please introduce yourself to our readers:
Hi, I’m Jane, I live in St Albans (previously London, originally from Leicester) with my husband, four-year-old son, two-year-old daughter and our third baby is due in a few weeks. For the last two years I have run my own word-of-mouth marketing agency.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was always a ‘B’ grade student, pretty average. But I apparently showed a flair for business as early as 3 years old. Both my parents have their own businesses and I always had a sense that one day I would too, but never really knew what it would be. While studying for my BA in Public Relations, I set up Big Bash Events and PR as a way to generate the work I needed for my portfolio. In my final year I developed a Freshers Bible, written by students for students. I got a university to distribute one copy of ‘Fresh Faced’ to every Fresher and I sold advertising space. It was a sound model but needed to be rolled out nationally with a team of ad sales reps and I just wasn’t ready for that. My final ‘student’ business was an online and print yearbook idea (pre-Facebook it made more sense, I promise!) But again, it was a bigger commitment than I was ready for. I then realised I ought to learn how to actually work in the real world, rather than cooking up ideas in my bedroom! So I worked in PR and marketing agencies in Loughborough, then London, for eight years. It was the best thing I ever did. I quickly realised how little I knew! Roll forward to my thirties, my son was tiny and I wanted to work part time in a stimulating job but achieve a work-life balance. So I started as a freelancer. Then when my daughter was born I took the plunge and started my own company.
So now you run your own business. Can you tell us more about what it is you do?
My current business is Grapeviners Ltd, a word of mouth marketing agency. Research shows that personal recommendations play a key role in purchase decisions; with word of mouth marketing generating more sales than paid advertising and achieving higher retention rates. So at Grapeviners our job is to find the right people – those with higher than average power to persuade. We give these people an experience of businesses and products so they become advocates and brand champions; they then talk to the people they know and help spread the word. I also work with clients who provide services and want to create more awareness of what they do, like Anglian Water who hired me to get women talking about whether they flush tampons down the toilet (did you know you shouldn’t?!)…and Families Online, a parenting website, which produces hyper-local, crowd-sourced content through an army of wonderful parents we call the Families Squad.
What are the best things about running your own business?
Having my own business was the only way I could see to earn well, in a stimulating job, working around my children. I couldn’t see a London agency being able to give me that. Plus I love the thrill of winning business and having satisfied clients. The work is wonderfully creative. It allows me to work around school hours, and I’m much more productive without days full of meetings or commuting. With your own business you get to decide what you do and don’t do. If you feel ethically uncomfortable with a client you have the choice to stop working with them. If you want to take a day off, mostly you can (although you rarely do!). The money can be great when business is booming, but you have to be prepared for the bad times too. For me the flexibility to work around all the school assemblies, cake sales, and kids sick days, is the ultimate goal. For now I’m managing that, but it comes at a price.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in running your own business?
There have been several. The biggest issue is how to grow without taking on too much risk. This time last year I was busy enough to have a full-time freelancer. This year business is much quieter. It’s hard to know how much business you’ll have; how much extra resource you might need; or even to find the time to win new business when you’re busy doing work for existing clients. Having a baby when you own a company has also been a big challenge. Forward planning, new business growth, what to do while you’re off – it’s a minefield. Many people run a mile when they see your bump, which has made it hard at a time where I need to earn more not less. Another thing is that I don’t have any colleagues; there’s no one to bounce ideas off. Or if I’m employing someone then I am their boss. It changes the dynamic. It means you have to make tough calls by yourself and seek advice elsewhere. They say it’s lonely at the top, and while I’m hardly running an empire, I certainly know what they mean. Luckily if I’m having a difficult day, my husband is great at seeing situations clearly and knows how to help guide me through. The kids smiles go a long way too. But in truth I think you have to be able to pull yourself through the tough times, otherwise you’ll never last.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My day starts around 6.30am with a wake-up from the kids usually. Then it’s a mission to get everyone fed, cleaned, dressed and out of the door for the nursery and school run. I’m back home by 9am ready to start work. I work until the 3pm school pick-up deadline; which means I have to be very focused to ensure I get everything done in time. I am mostly based in our home office which allows me to focus but does get a little lonely. From 3pm it’s pick up the kids; maybe a playdate/swimming lesson etc. and then kids tea, bath, bed. After having my dinner, I mostly flop in front of the telly with my husband, before falling asleep on the sofa . Before this pregnancy I would go out several evenings a week but these days I can’t cut it!
How do you juggle work/family/time for yourself?
Luckily I have a very supportive husband who breaks his back to be home around 6pm. When I’m not pregnant I play hockey twice a week. It keeps me fit, gets me out on my own and it’s remarkably therapeutic to hit a ball really hard! I am a sociable person, so crave interaction with friends. Conveniently my husband has a greater need for alone time so it lends us a good balance of me going out several times a week. I get around 6 hours a day with my kids even on a working day which is a real gift. I also get Fridays with my daughter which I love. Our weekends are very family focussed. My parents and mother-in-law are not local but are great at having the kids for a weekend so my husband and I can get some quality time together. That’s so important. My parents are divorced, and my mum gave me the sage advice to look after your marriage above all else. Kids are happy when their parents are happy. Keep happy in your relationship and you’re on the right track. She’s a wise woman.
If you were to give someone who is thinking about starting their own business some advice, what would it be?
Go for it, but if something’s not working don’t be afraid to make changes quickly. Know your long game.
If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about life, what would it be?
Be true to yourself. If it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. If it does, think it through then do it.
What book did you last read – and would you recommend it?
I have just finished re-reading the Clifton Chronicles series by Jeffery Archer. I don’t like the man, but the books are amazing, I read (well, listened to) seven audiobooks in a month. Highly, highly recommend.
Can you tell us one thing that you do to help you feel happy or healthy?
I have regular massages or reflexology. It gives me headspace, forces me to relax and leaves me feeling amazing. It’s a bit of an extravagance but I’m not much into fashion or gadgets, so this is my treat.
Finally, are there any women that you’d like to give a shout out to…
There are many but a few that spring to mind are:
- Morwenna Ellis – Absolute Research: She’s also working around 3 small kids and knocking it out of the park.
- Sophie Daranyi – ex-Haygarth CEO: one of my first bosses and still my inspiration and mentor.
- Jen Bull – copywriter: best copywriter in town folks, I almost don’t want to tell you all so she’s available for my work.