Mumpreneurs in a growth frame of mind
The ‘mumpreneur’ phenomenon evolved as a way for women to combine a fulfilling family life with a career – and now Enterprise Ireland wants to get these innovators to think about expanding their businesses
WHEN LULU O’Sullivan was setting up her online gifts company GiftsDirect.comsome 23 years ago, the term “mumpreneur” hadn’t yet been coined, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have applied to her.
While she has four children, she has always seen herself as a fully fledged entrepreneur, and has put the time and effort into growing and developing her business. Even if there have been some sacrifices along the way.
“There are disadvantages and advantages – a disadvantage is that you’re not outside school gate every day and you have to accept that. But if there’s an important school play or a child needs to be brought to the doctor, you can do it,” she says, adding: “There are ways around it if you really want to do it, but you need to think of all these things.”
While the concept of mothers trying to run businesses from their homes at the same time as rearing their children has been around a long time – the late Anita Roddick of The Body Shop is a frequently cited example – the term “mumpreneur” is a new edition to the business lexicon. Indeed, it only entered the Collins English dictionary last year, but there is a groundswell of support behind the movement.
While O’Sullivan has managed to successfully combine both business and family life, it’s not always a straightforward decision for other women.
“I think one of the reasons why women don’t stay in business as long as men do, is that they get overwhelmed and think ‘there’s no way Ill manage to do both’,” she says.
And the statistics back her up. According to Paula Fitzsimons, national director of Going for Growth, a support programme for women who are serious about growing their business, men are two-and-a-half times more likely to be an entrepreneur than women, and this figure hasn’t really changed over the past number of years.
Enterprise Ireland supports about 95 “high-potential start-ups” each year, but according to Julie Sinammon, executive director of global business development, less than 10 per cent of these are female.
This is in line with Fitzsimons’ assertion that there are nine men for every one woman who see themselves as fully fledged entrepreneurs with an aspiration to grow their business. So while women are setting up businesses in significant numbers, it is often for lifestyle reasons, sometimes to try and accommodate both a career and a semi-stay-at-home role.
After all, when faced with an hour commute each way, tired children at either end of the day and a diminishing pay check each month after childcare and rising tax costs are taken into account, the attractions of packing it all in to become a mumpreneur are self-evident. Working from home at hours that suit yourself – and more importantly your family – while at the same time fulfilling your career goals and generating an income; this is a very attractive prospect for many women.
For Mairead Kelly, who trains and advises mumpreneurs through her Cutehoney website, a major factor behind the growth in mumpreneurs is the rising cost of childcare. At a time when salaries are going down and taxes going up, childcare costs are holding steady, which makes fitting in work around your children’s schedules a lot more attractive.
Lorna Sixsmith set up her online interior design store, Garendenny Lane, in 2008 with this approach. “It was partly to keep my brain active, and because I wanted to be there for them (her children). But it was also because my husband is a dairy farmer, and it’s handy being here otherwise it could be isolating for him,” she notes, adding that an advantage of her approach is that she can grow the business at a slow pace.
“Any business, if you’re starting from scratch, can be taken better if it grows slowly; everyone makes mistakes in first year, and taking it slowly gives you more time to reflect and prevent expensive mistakes,” she says.
It also allows her to be flexible. When the demand for interiors fell in line with the economy, Sixsmith turned her attention to offering training in social media.
But while most of the time it “might be the best of both worlds”, there are downsides, as Sixsmith concedes.
“There are times when I think it would be easier to have a job,” she says. “I didn’t look at it through rose-tinted glasses. I was fairly realistic about it, but it can be difficult when I’m ill and my appointments book is full.”
For Fitzsimons, it this lack of back-up that can short-change women, leaving them exposed, if they need to take time off to have a baby for example.
“You can take the time off, but the problem is that your clients and customers won’t hang about. If a woman grows a business, however, then the business will operate even if she’s not operating it herself,” she says.
Indeed, while the concept of a lifestyle business is appealing, it’s rarely a reality, notes Lulu O’Sullivan, who now employs 20 full-time staff, as well as an additional 45 people at Christmas.
“I think if you want to create it, you really have to give it your full-time attention. And full-time very often isnt nine-to-five, she says, adding that for her, November and Christmas are really the peak times.
And while running a business can get easier as the children get older, this brings with it its own challenges. “I’m doing more activities with the children as they get older, and by the time you get back from activities and get them to bed, it could be nine o’clock. Two years ago that would have been at 7.30,” says Sixsmith.
Now, in order to grow the number of women building sustainable international focused businesses, Enterprise Ireland is currently taking applications for its Female Entrepreneurship Competitive Feasibility Fund, which has 250,000 to invest in female entrepreneurs. Already, Sinnamon notes that they have had “quite a number of inquiries” but key to success will be having a business plan that is based on growing your company. And that might involve a change in perspective.
“It’s about trying to get people into a growth phase of mind. You don’t work any harder when you have a bigger business; you work smarter so that other people can cover if necessary for you,” says Fitzsimons, adding that motherhood and growing a business does not have to be “an either/or” situation.
And while we have yet to see a “dadpreneur”, with the recession and the growing number of men taking on the main caring role, perhaps it’s a movement that will gain pace.