In the second part of our guest blog by Lauren Yaxley of LY Copywriting Limited, she looks at the challenges of maternity leave during a lockdown, highlighting the impact of the pandemic on businesses and personal lives.

Lauren draws on the experiences of various agency owners, discussing how some unintentionally evolved their businesses into agencies while juggling the demands of parenthood, and emphasises the importance of transparency and support among female founders in the industry.

Maternity in lockdown

Maternity itself is a strange time for an agency owner, but maternity leave in lockdown was a whole new kettle of fingerlings (baby fish).

After I welcomed my little girl in the peak pandemic month of May 2020, I was navigating nappies and a level of sleep deprivation that must be a form of torture somewhere in the world.

Because of the chaos caused by COVID-19, my business all but fell off the face of a cliff and I was down to about 20% of my previous turnover.

However, as this coincided with having another baby, it did mean a forced but welcome form of maternity leave.

Lucy at a few weeks old

Lucy at just a few weeks old in June 2020

For Claire Hutchings, the fierce and fabulous founder of Chime Agency, the pandemic also coincided with her maternity leave but painted a very different picture,

“I was made redundant in the middle of my maternity leave. There were a few of us who were made redundant, interestingly, perhaps, there were two of us that were on mat leave. It was also mid-pandemic and my husband had been diagnosed with MS in that same month.”

Accidental Agency

Fast-forward through the dark days of Boris’ 5 pm announcements, and when the world slowly started to bounce back, my little girl started nursery a few days a week when she was 15 months. This, along with help from family, meant I could get stuck back into my business, but at this point, I still viewed it as a business rather than an agency.

But what makes an agency, what’s the difference and where’s the tipping point? Do people set out to start an agency, or like me does it evolve into one?

Claire H shares”

“I started freelancing in the autumn of 2020. I never had any intention of employing anyone. But I got so busy that by January 2022 I started outsourcing to other people and by March I realised that actually, this is scalable. So, in the April I took on two people part-time, then another one in September and now I’ve got a team of five.”

Kelly openly admits:

“I set up on a whim. Me and my now co-founder and I were both unsatisfied with the jobs we were in so we just said, “let’s give it a go for a year”, and it evolved from there”.

Four years on and Rubber Cheese is a fully-fledged, not to mention award-winning agency, working with some of the biggest and best visitor attractions around the country.

Similarly, with an annual turnover and client list that rivals agencies in the likes of London, borne has helped put Norwich’s agency scene on the map. Its founder Carole Osborne is not only one of the most impressive female founders for miles around, but a role model to many – including me.

This is, of course, because of the business and team she’s built, but mainly because she’s done so as a single parent with two daughters in tow. Carole shares why and how borne came to be:

“I initially set up on my own when I had my first daughter. This was because I wanted to work when she was asleep and be with her the rest of the time. Within 6 weeks of cold calling, I picked up my first big client and started to look for a freelance creative to partner with.”

In a few short years, Carole turned one client into many more and built an ambitious and hugely successful agency.

The superbly-sassy Jem Bevan reveals that she originally set up SocialJems, the social media training and marketing agency, as a result of a different set of personal circumstances:

“My mum had a stroke and could no longer help with childcare so I needed to rethink how I was working”.

She talks about how she embraced being a working parent:

“For me, it’s about switching your mindset and seeing being a mum as a superpower, not a hindrance when it comes to your ability to deliver. We’re masters of the juggle and we always want every minute to count. That doesn’t mean not stopping for a chit-chat, but it removes the meetings-about-a-meeting and the layers of faff that can be added.”

Rebecca reveals she started Foundation alongside three other founders in the middle of the recession of 2008/09:

“When we started, we had one retainer, but we started putting ourselves out there and networking and we evolved into an agency. We did write business plans in the early days, but we didn’t actually follow them!”

Helen reveals she was somewhat of a reluctant business owner initially:

“My dad had always run his own businesses and I saw the stress that comes with it so I never thought I’d end up going down that path.”

But, as life has a habit of doing, Helen went on to set up Prominent PR after the agency she was working with closed and she was encouraged by her previous colleagues to set up on her own.

Claire England of the up-and-coming Social Beans shares her own struggles:

“I was a single parent for almost seven years, and we faced some personal challenges. My youngest is now going down a less-than-desirable path, falling in with the wrong crowd and so on. Both these things mean that I’ve regularly had to go into school to liaise with teachers and I needed the flexibility to do this.”

Mum guilt is real

I don’t think any article on being a working mum can skip past the subject of mum guilt. In fact, the word guilt came up somewhere along the way when talking to all the ladies I spoke to for this article.

But why do us working mums feel a sense of guilt that perhaps (and I use perhaps to ward off any backlash from the many committed dads out there) working dads don’t feel to the same extent? I wholeheartedly believe that women have the right to want to work.

However, I’m also aware that this desire to carve out a career comes with different levels of guilt for different people, but even in small amounts – it’s there, lurking in the background blighting every day or week spent working.

In theory, owning my business affords me certain freedoms, with friends often telling me things like ‘you’re the boss so just take the day off’ but, like many others out there, I find myself unable to walk away from an unfinished to-do list, replying to one last email and checking LinkedIn one last time. I could take an afternoon off for a facial, start late after a swim, or extend my weekend by a day, but I can hand-on-heart say I’ve never done any of those things.

For me, being my own boss means that I can’t help but feel that any time spent away from my children needs to be spent in a way that justifies that time apart.

And it turns out I’m not alone. Claire H revealed:

“For me, it’s easier to go to work than being a stay-at-home mum. But that comes with ‘Mum guilt’. The rhetoric is that you can have it all, but you can’t have all of everything and you can’t be all things to all people. Having a business is like another child, and when you’re with one you feel like you’re neglecting the other.”

Finding female founders

I expected to find lots of depressing stats on the lack of female-founded agencies and to have to look hard to find those in a similar position. From the ladies I spoke to, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are a rising number of agencies owned and started by women.

Does this mean there are more of us than 10 years ago? Or are female founders consciously or unconsciously championing and filling their networks with other female founders?

When asked how many of the agency founders you know are female, Kelly reveals:

“I made a real effort to get to know female agency owners and I’d say 70% of those have children too.”

Whilst Jem proudly replied:

“75% of the agency owners I know are female.”

Whilst Kelly’s found many of her peers have children, Rebecca reveals only around 25% are female with children and Helen says that whilst around 75% are female-owned, about half have children.

This is a really small snapshot of the female founders around the country, but I still think it’s encouraging to see that there’s a sense of women in business supporting other women in business and that the next generation will get a sense that it’s possible to build a business whilst being a parent. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.

Transparent about parenting

I’ll admit that not so long ago if a client asked if I was available for a call and I knew I’d be doing the nursery or school run, taking either to swimming lessons or a whole host of other taxi-style tasks, I’d say I already had a meeting booked for fear of not looking professional. I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t committed and that, for prospective clients, I wouldn’t have the time to service them should I win the business.

Now, my out-of-office will more proudly point out that I’m not available (and possibly now even overshare); that I’ll be playing snakes and ladders over tea and toast during half term, or we’re visiting an aquarium so their email will be met with an auto-reply featuring fish emojis.

I now realise that if clients don’t want to work with me because I’ve got kids that come first, then then we’re probably not the agency for them. This is a sentiment shared by Jem:

“When I worked in sales, I was told that it’s not professional to reveal much about your personal life.

Nowadays, I tell people if I’m poorly or if I’m unavailable and why. It’s part of my brand and when you’re trying to build a personal brand, you need to show people the good, the bad and the ugly. I find it makes me more relatable and people buy into me and my brand.”

Carole shared that from her first client:

“I was very clear with this client that I had a baby daughter and could only work with them if I could work around her. Martha attended her first client meeting when she was nine months old and has since been in creative presentations to holiday companies, board meetings at an investment bank in London and interviewed most of my team, usually dressed as something from Disney with her younger sister Elena.”

Carole revealed that their go-to question would usually be:

“What do you like most about my mum and borne?”

Carole also adds:

“Personally I’ve found that as long as I’ve always been open with clients and my team about my need for flexibility around my children it often leads to much better partnerships.”

Next week, in the final part of the blog, Lauren explores the challenges faced by working parents, focusing on the experiences of agency owners who juggle parenthood with running their businesses.

To read part one of the blog, click here

Lauren Yaxley started LY Copywriting Ltd. in 2013 and it’s grown from a full-time freelancing career for one, into a growing copywriting and content marketing business for 8 (and counting).

Coming from an agency background, and having worked in marketing roles for the Home Office and blue chip companies, Lauren channelled her passion for writing into a freelancing career, initially offering copywriting and content marketing services to businesses in and around Norfolk.

6 years on and she now work with a team of seriously talented content marketers, providing copywriting, blogging, social media management services, and more, to brands across the UK and around the world.

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