Last week I was asked to be part of a panel discussion to encourage women to get back into business after taking a career break. We can all appreciate the difficulty couples face when they decide to have children or take some time out of work- it’s a painful choice sometimes between furthering your career or taking a step back, and often its enforced because of childcare issues and other financial or physical constraints.

There were some really inspiring women on the panel (I did feel like a bit of a fraud!). Guest speaker Tracy Garrad, who will be marking a year since taking up her role as the head of Tunbridge Well’s biggest employer, Axa PPP,  talking about her career within financial services and how she got to the position she is in now, with an amazing story about having a female mentor believe in her and give her a break at a cross roads in her life.

The panel was made up of myself and three other wonderful ladies:

Claire Burroughs, managing director of Ansacom, which manages incoming phone answering and live chat services for more than 300 businesses across the UK. She started her business after a a divorce with two young children and a mission to break away from some awful bosses!!

Debbie Harris is the managing director of Autumna, a national website which supports self-funding families understand and find care. She is also a committed campaigner to changing political and social attitudes to later-life care solutions. Inspired by personal experience, Debbie decided to create this platform as a mother and a niece while managing family life.

Finally Amanda Redman who after 22 years she then opted for a complete career change, accepting redundancy and retraining to run her own business as a financial planner. She decided she wanted more control of her life and career and took the decision to make the career change.

As you can imagine, it was fairly daunting to be included as part of this panel but my place on the panel was to represent a woman with a very young family, who made the decision to plough ahead with creating a business while I was pregnant with number 3.

I thought id share my answers with you in case it resonates or helps in anyway. I can also highly recommend the meet up called ‘Make it Your business’. They meet bi-annually and it’s a wonderful group of incredibly encouraging women who are there to support your journey.

  1. Why set up a business when pregnant with No 3?

A bit of madness and a lot of hormones! It genuinely didn’t even occur to me that I should take being pregnant into consideration. It helped that it was baby number three, and I knew what was about to hit me. Tom and I sat down and talked a lot about the year ahead and how it was going to be hard and emotionally draining, so we were prepared. It was mainly about timing. Having talked about and planned the business for a few years, the space drew us in and felt right, so we went for it. I don’t think there is ever a right time to start a business, and in hindsight possibly waiting a year might have been sensible, but I am thankful that we live in an age where having children doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams or ambitions. No one bats an eyelid if you turn up on site with a baby strapped to you.

  1. What is your vision for the business?

We started OfficeTribe because we recognised there was a gap in the market in Tunbridge Wells for small businesses and individuals being run from home, coffee shops or uninspiring spaces. Where you work and who you work with matters. Both for your mental health but also because if you surround yourself with others on the same journey as you, you will do greater things. We had a vision to create an inspiring coworking space that offered more than a desk. Flexible, bright, accommodating and supportive. We have permanent desks, office space and hotdesk options to allow for all work preferences.

The tribe element of the brand is about collaboration and community. It should help you grow and support you and your business.

We offer regular networking, workshops and Growth Labs as well as local discounts to complementary businesses.

The concept has been proved- almost filling up in just 6 months. There is a clearly an appetite for what we have created in other small urban areas. I would like to grow the events and support side of the business while we have a steady expansion plan for other small towns to support a bigger and ever improving ‘Tribe’.  However, finding the right space is crucial.

  1. What are the key challenges you have faced – and have they been the same as the ones you anticipated?

There are always challenges setting up a business for the first time, and what we have learned is not to become too bogged down in ridged ideas but be flexible with the challenges you face.

The world has changed in terms of how you connect with your potential customers and we possibly placed too much budget in the wrong areas. Social media has been a massive learning curve! We are a small self-funded start up, so it’s been a one-man marketing and branding journey so far.  We have also realised that we are not particularly technology minded but we are learning all the time and have worked out how to partner with the experts.

We thought that filling the desks would be a challenge but that is not the case. The biggest challenge we overcame was finding the right space. Having worked in large coworking spaces in London we had a vision of what ours should look like. No. 16 Mount Pleasant doesn’t necessarily fit that bill, but by being flexible and creative we have created a space that has been really well received. Something we thought was a negative has turned out to be a positive- smaller rooms which allow for groups of hotdesks, dedicated desks and offices have really encouraged the community spirit and atmosphere of having ‘colleagues’ to prosper. Interesting collaborations happen this way 😉

  1. What about juggling a very young family and running your own business, how does that work?

I don’t necessarily think that running your own business poses any greater struggle than any working parent. Some days you win and some days you lose. Time and childcare are no working parents friend and its a constant juggle. Somethings have got to give- some weeks the washing piles up and the kids get fishfingers two days in a row- but the next week you’ll make a banging stew!

There are, of course, frustrations. I can’t always work at the pace I’d like to, and I’ve had to cancel an event because I couldn’t give it the attention it needed because of several weeks of illness.

My business coach, Emma Jefferys, gave me a brilliant quote recently; “you can do anything, not everything.”

Being self-employed has so many benefits. I can make it to all my children’s shows and stay at home with them when they are sick; I also don’t have to commute unless I want to. Technology helps (as does CBeebies) – I called into a meeting last week when I couldn’t be there in person. Most people are incredibly supportive and understanding of the juggle – I have only ever come across one man who didn’t give me a break. Ultimately people wish you well and want you to succeed.

Compartmentalising is probably my biggest challenge- learning to separate work with life- my husband is probably rolling his eyes at me because he constantly tells me to get off my phone. It’s something I need to keep working at and accept that I’m not super woman, no one is.

  1. What would your message be to other women thinking about becoming their own bosses?

Just do it, don’t over think it. It’s always possible- however you do it. If you have an idea you believe in, give it a try. Otherwise you will spend the rest of your life regretting not trying. There are always excuses and hurdles to overcome but when you do it you will realise that most people are willing you to succeed and there is an amazing network of people out here to support you along the way.

Surround yourself with the right team of people who will give you honest and helpful feedback and embrace failure and be flexible- you are constantly learning from mistakes along the way.