Mum's the word - StartupSmart

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Last weekend, a host of mothers who have started their own businesses, better known as "mumpreneurs", gathered in Sydney for the 2011 AusMumpreneur of the Year Awards.

They represented start-ups with offerings as diverse as baby products, stationery and jewellery, underlining the increasing clout of mumpreneurs within Australia's small business landscape.

A study conducted at the Queensland University of Technology in 2010 found that just under half of all small-scale business start-ups in Australia were founded by women.

When it comes to starting up their own ventures, women do so at twice the rate of men, according to BankWest research released last June.

Julia Bickerstaff, founder of consultancy the Business Bakery says that starting a business is now a "proper alternative" to going back to work for a lot of mothers

"Because of the internet and with so many mums doing it, a lot of support structures are in place," she says.

Bickerstaff is keen to point out that the trend isn't just a reaction against the rigidness of modern corporate life.

"It's a lot more positive than that," she insists.

"Lots of women want to set up own businesses and can identify gaps in the market. Now it's actually possible to do it."

"That wasn't a possibility 25 years ago – it was hard to figure out how to get things made and how to sell them."

"It was all very onerous and involved a lot of travel. Now, you can sit in your home and organise for something to be manufactured in China to sell in America."

Bickerstaff says the most common mistake made by mumpreneurs is that of "starting a business someone else is already doing very well and not being different enough."

Bickerstaff says that many mum are setting up online retail businesses, which can be hard to maintain given how price-sensitive they are. This is particularly the case if a business only sells one thing.

StartupSmart caught up with a few of the winners of the AusMumpreneur awards to ask them what lessons they would pass on to other mothers thinking of starting their own business.

Babes in Arms, founded by Anita Lincolne-Lomax six years ago, won the Mumpreneur of the year award.

It specialises in baby-wearing products – baby slings and other carriers that allow mothers to hold their baby hands-free.

How did you decide on your business idea?

At the time I was running an architectural practice with my husband. We had our first daughter Tilly and I found it harder and harder to take my child with me on site.

When Tilly was six or seven-months-old I discovered what is now a flagship product called the Ergo baby carrier.

It was a really "ah-ha" moment in my parenting journey. Suddenly I could wear her on my front, hip or back.

No other carrier offered that flexibility, or that ergonomic weight distribution to my hips. Suddenly I could hold her for long periods of times, and parenting got a lot more fun.

Everywhere I went everyone asked where I got this product from. So I started to develop a relationship with manufacturers. It was serendipitous timing – they were looking for an Australian distributor.

I naively thought I could do the job – I didn't realise the potential. I envisioned a micro-distribution, through mothers' groups and the like.

However, our business grew about 190% in that first year. It was a very steep, wild ride, especially given I was moving from a service-based to product-based.

My husband had to press the pause button on his architectural career, to come on and help me. He's never been released. We're still working together.

What challenges did you face when you were starting up?

The main challenges for us from a business perspective were moving from service- to product-based industry.

It just requires a very different business acumen. I really made sure that as we grew we kept surrounding ourselves with people who were more knowledgeable than us.

We kept employing business mentors who had specialist experience in areas where we needed some help. We found it short-cut a lot of the steps you otherwise would have to learn.

That was on a professional level. The other challenge was a cultural challenge. The culture of parenting in Australia is very much pram-dominated.

We don't have a strong tradition of baby-wearing in this country. The reliance on the pram really dismissed the need for a lot of parents for baby-slings and carriers.

That's why we've promoted the educational side of our business – it's not just about hands-free, but about emotional and neurological benefits that come from nurturing your child in your embrace as you get on with your day.

Thirdly, and lastly, it's been a real personal challenge for me as a mum of three and soon to be four young children.

The eldest is seven, and the youngest is two, and I've got another due in a month. Juggling the children and business requires a team effort, and having that rare combination of strict timeframes and boundaries but also being flexibility, because kids bring an element of the unknown and the unexpected.

What tips would you give other mums looking at starting a business?

I think the thing that I've learnt is that there's a big gulf between an idea and a reality.

It's very easy to dream up businesses, and to long for the flexibility that people assume comes with running your own business. Bu, it's a lot of hard work and it takes all the energy and all the courage you have to bring a business idea to life.

It's really critical to plan well and to have realistic expectations. Write a thorough business plan and have really detailed goals. It's also really important to surround yourself with good advice.

It's really important to delegate. As a mum you are time-poor. Delegating to people who are more competent or have more experience than you will be really important. So you can focus just on what you are good at.

You also need to make a deliberate and conscious effort to achieve balance in your life. Put up clear divide between yourself and your work – turn off the phone when you go to the park with the kids. Honour your children when you're with them.

And celebrate your achievements. We always want to be further ahead in our business plans, but acknowledge little plateaus and moments that come in a business, the same way you should with your children.

Lisa O'Keefe and Stacey Clayton sell personalised hand-stamped silver and gold jewellery. They employ a team of women who are, like them, geographically isolated.

Their company, Koolamen Designs, won the rising star award at the AusMumpreneur awards.

How did you decide on your business idea?

In 2007 we saw a stamped piece of jewellery overseas and fell in love with it. We thought it was a beautiful piece. After buying one, we realised there was nothing like it in Australia.

Sophie was expecting her first baby and I was expecting my second at the time. Both of us were going on maternity leave, so we had that opportunity of so-called free time.

We didn't have the pressure of nine to five. We used our baby bonuses as our initial start-up capital.

What challenges did you face when you were starting up?

We live 450 kilometres apart. That in itself created a few issues. I use a radio-phone – mobile phone services aren't good. We use satellite internet to be online, which isn't as fast as broadband.

Also, Stacey and I aren't retailers. I have an agricultural science background, and Sophie was in finance. Learning the online retail world was a challenge. Four years ago was it was relatively new.

It took us nine months to get off the ground – we always say it was our other baby. Then we started to exhibit at a couple of small shows.

We went to an agricultural fare in Broken Hill where our pieces were really well received. It was then that we thought, "Yes, we can do this". That was 15 months after the initial idea.

Our aim initially was to pay for our groceries each week. We thought that if we didn't have to put the kids in day care, and we could pay our groceries, that would be fine. For the first little while we never really expected it to become what it is now. However, it did take a long time.

What tips would you give other mums looking at starting a business?

One of the most important things that we found was to find a successful business person, someone that doesn't feel threatened and is willing to share their knowledge.

We had a fantastic mentor through the early days, and who we still now ask business questions of. A mentor is really important.

You also need a business plan which is always evolving, which you need to revisit all the time.

And to have your family, husband and parents, everyone supporting you. That's what makes it all possible.

Rhian Allen, founder of, was the winner of both the Customer Service People's Choice Award and the Emerging Mumpreneur award.

Her business offers a program to help new mothers lose their baby weight, through exercise, nutritional products, motivational contact, recipes and support.

How did you decide on your business idea?

I was previously working in media. I had been in media and marketing for 12 years, in a pretty full-on role.

For the last two years I knew I wanted to do something different. I had an interest and passion for health and nutrition, so I always had that in the back of my mind.

I started doing a university course in nutrition over two years. Then I became pregnant. I started thinking about how I was meeting lots of mums who had put on weight.

That really started me thinking about how people eat during pregnancy. A lot of people take it as a free for all to eat everything – mothers weren't focusing on the right food.

That got me thinking about how difficult it is for people to lose weight. I did more and more research and realised there was nothing on the market for post-pregnancy weight loss in a holistic way.

Doctors and midwives don't focus on it, they have enough on their plate. It seemed incredible that mums don't have that support post-pregnancy.

I was really educated in the area, but most people don't understand what they needed to do.

I did more research and found that people were interested. As soon as I knew there was a need for that, I didn't sleep, I just worked.

I can't believe it, I worked 20 hours a day just getting stuff done. I had a vision, and it was just a case of putting that into action.

There was a huge amount to get done, as you can imagine. I had three months before my baby was born, when I knew it would get worse, so I was trying to get as much done before the baby was born.

What challenges did you face when you were starting up?

Time was a big challenge. Another was suppliers – having to rely on a number of different people to do things. I found that especially with the web, where getting people to do things on time was virtually impossible.

I quickly managed my own expectations as I learned it would never get done when they said. I think in the web space, there is so much demand that all companies out there want to say yes to every job, but whether they can fulfil it all is a different matter.

And I made mistakes – I used people I shouldn't have used. The biggest lesson or challenge was getting the right SEO people.

I used the wrong SEO company at the beginning, which caused a huge amount of stress. I paid more money to get the right people on board, and that was really worth it.

But I think time's been the biggest thing. For any kind of business, it's never ending. It never stops.

The most important thing is to prioritise every single day. You could end up working constantly. I can't work all the time.

Sometimes I don't get everything done, but I make sure I get the most important things done.

What tips would you give other mums looking at starting a business?

I think they should definitely get a budget. A lot of people think they don't need a start-up budget, but you do. You absolutely do.

The most important thing is to establish how much you've got. Then you can work out your key objectives and how to achieve them.

It doesn't matter how important your idea is, without money, you can smoke that. Even "free" things will need money. Even press releases cost money.

Secondly, make sure you have a good web designer and a good website. It's a reflection of your business, and there are so many non-professional websites out there.

Also, invest in SEO. It is expensive, and a lot of people say it's cheating, they don't want to do it, but it's just so crucial.

In 12 months' time, if you invested in SEO, you're really going to be reaping the rewards.

Lastly, be passionate about what you do. Believe in your product. Have a genuine interest, because if you don't you're not going to enjoy it.

Gayle Williams founded I Will Invitations, a business selling invitations and accessories for weddings, children's events and other functions.

The invitations are assembled by her and her team. She won Best Service Business in the awards.

How did you decide on your business idea?

I was a schoolteacher and got cancer, so I had to quit that job. I looked around for something I had training for and was able to do, and this was it.

What challenges did you face when you were starting up?

The health aspects of it was quite a big thing for me. I found it really hard initially with juggling being a mother, trying to be the best I can at that, and trying to juggle a successful business.

The time I can devote to my business has come from a really supporting family and a wonderful husband. My girls are growing up and they help too.

What tips would you give other mums looking at starting a business?

Do it. You'll never know otherwise, you'll always die wondering. The worst thing can happen is something doesn't work and you have to start again.

05 Sep, 2011

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