Mum’s the word

Set up to give parents a forum for sharing advice and experience, Mumsnet now attracts 4.5 million unique users and hosts a book club, celebrity web chats, events and even short courses. CEO and Co-founder Justine Roberts shares her insight.

In the nearly 14 years since Mumsnet launched, the website has built a presence so strong that – whether you have children or not – you can’t help but be aware of its influence. Alongside its hugely popular forums and webchats with everyone from David Cameron to David Beckham, CEO Justine Roberts is growing several ‘offline’ projects, including the Mumsnet Academy and a range of events and conferences.

Flexible business plan

The idea for Mumsnet came to Roberts during a disastrous family holiday, when she identified a gap in the market for an online resource and forum for parents to share their experience and advice. She founded the site on her return, buoyed by the dotcom boom. “I drew up a business plan which was completely unrealistic, with lots of revenue coming from e-commerce,” she explains. “Originally, my plan was to get an office and hire lots of people, but pretty much as soon as we launched, the dotcom bubble burst and the idea of raising money went out the window.

“This meant a complete change of tack, instead running the site from my back bedroom, with pretty much no costs at all. It became a case of growing the company organically and seeing where we could get it to over time.”

Early engagement

Despite this initial setback, interest in the site began to build from the outset. “While commercially Mumsnet was not a success for quite a long time, the model of keeping costs low and letting the business scale up without marketing spend was correct. Most of our objectives at this stage were about growing the size of the community. We had no shareholders, so no demand to meet revenue targets – and I feel this allowed us to gain scale in a sustainable way.”

What has also driven the growth of Mumsnet has been keeping the end user in mind in each decision made, from content to advertising. Says Roberts: “Everything we do is heavily guided by the users. The content is peppered with user-generated advice, which sets us apart from other parenting magazines and websites. We’ve tapped into the wisdom of a large – and smart – crowd, which has specific knowledge and can provide a range of answers to questions.

“It’s about constantly engaging users of the site – it’s not a top-down approach – it’s a collaboration. People feel ownership of Mumsnet because of this, recognising that they have a say. For instance, we don’t use advertisers which aren’t accepted by the community – we measure everything against our core value of making parents lives easier and, if the advertiser doesn’t fit with this ethos, then we won’t use them.”

Branching out

Mumsnet currently attracts 4.5 million unique users per month and employs 80 people, not including a string of 200-plus local editors who operate under a franchise model, running their own local version of the Mumsnet site, selling their own advertising and keeping the revenue.

Alongside the no-holds-barred forums, Mumsnet’s live webchats have gained a reputation for putting high profile people at the mercy of the Mumsnet membership’s Jeremy Paxman style questioning (Gordon Brown’s notorious ‘Biscuitgate’ experience, for instance). The company is also branching out into new endeavours, Roberts continues. “We launched Gransnet in 2011, so are building on this and we are also focused on expanding the Mumsnet Academy and its range of off-line short courses. Alongside this, we are running events and conferences, such as Blogfest on 9 November to share thought-leadership and skills. The courses we run are very diverse, ranging from building career confidence, online business and social media to academic courses such as the history of women in Britain.”

Work-life balance

Roberts is in a unique position to comment on the issues facing women in business, being a business leader herself, but also speaking directly to the Mumsnet membership, many of whom are women attempting to balance their working and home lives. Mumsnet has conducted its own research into this area and Roberts is of the view that this country remains off-kilter when it comes to equal opportunity. “Unless companies begin to give male employees the same benefits they give female employees in terms of parental leave, the decision of who to hire and promote can never be equal.

“Many of our members have told us that they have found it difficult to get back into a career after having children. Although we’ve obviously come a long way in gender equality in the workplace, at home I don’t think we can say the same. Our evidence shows that working women are still picking up the bulk of domestic tasks around the children, doing most of the organising and cooking and interaction with the school – even if they work full-time. It’s the mothers who are feeling guilty about falling short and who are taking on the burden of responsibility.”

Mumsnet has been successful because it has provided a supportive environment for these mums to express a range of views about issues they face in their day-to-day lives. It has successfully harnessed the power of giving women a collective voice.

5 business lessons

  1. If you want to start a business, make sure there is something useful and unique about your proposal – it should be filling a need
  2. Listen to your audience – be shaped by them and keep listening to and engaging with them as you grow
  3. Keep an eye on costs – keep them as low as possible and don’t ever let them spiral out of control
  4. Be flexible on your business plan – go with plan C or D – definitely not A
  5. Hire ‘can do’ people – Julian Metcalfe who founded Pret a Manger said “you can teach anyone to make coffee, but you can’t teach a sad person to be happy”

For more information, visit: www.mumsnet.com/blogfest

You can find out more about Mumsnet Academy courses and events at: www.mumsnet.com/academy

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK