#SoftwareStartup #MobilityAsAService #FemaleFounder #SoloEntrepreneur #bootstrapping #MaternityLeave #breastfeeding #childcare #mentoring
What inspired you to start your own company?
I worked with a number of start-ups in Cambridge, including a female-led start-up (‘Sparrow’, with Vivian Chan as CEO), which demonstrated that female entrepreneurs could indeed make it in tech. I was deeply inspired by their successes and also learned much from their mistakes and failures. I was in particular inspired by Rahul Vohra's start-up Rapportive whose business plan was submitted to the CUE competition when I was president. His idea was incredibly simple, just a software plug-in for G-Mail (Google's email service). He executed his plan incredibly fast and his start-up was sold to LinkedIn for several millions just 18 months later. His success made entrepreneurship look easy. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of these successful entrepreneurs from the Cambridge ecosystem. After all Rahul Vohra had been president of Cambridge University Entrepreneurs just three years before myself so I was already doing my best to follow suit :). My start-up's focus emerged from a close collaboration with one of the professors from Cambridge University as part of a wider government funded smart-city initiative in Milton Keynes. Our goal was to alleviate traffic congestion, and we sought to achieve this by creating and introducing a journey-planning application that utilises real-time bus data, as well as vision AI to detect various road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and cars. We also developed a parking app since the search for parking spots is a major contributor to inner city congestion.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered along your journey?
I was offered an influential role, including a good amount of share-options, in one of the more established start-ups I had worked for. But I felt more inspired to shape the initial idea rather than tweaking an existing idea that had already been launched. However, finding a co-founder posed a challenge, and as a result, I launched the business as a solo entrepreneur and gradually built a team of employees and contractors around myself. For about two years I worked with a very talented software engineer and thanks to his great input we started winning more and more contract work in the smart-city and mobility domain. Unfortunately, he sustained a significant injury following a car accident and had to stop work. Given the ongoing contractual commitments we had at the time, it was a real challenge to replace him at short notice. Despite this initial set-back we were successful in securing more contracts and the start-up continued growing from just myself (after my colleagues departure due to the car accident) to five full-time staff within one year without any external investment.
Then the time came when I had to take some time out for the birth of my first child. It had been a challenge to replace myself, and even-though my absence was brief and temporary, the remainder of the team struggled in my absence. My business partner, whom I had hired to replace my colleague after the accident, turned out not to be as good a fit as I had hoped and he decided to leave the start-up four months after I gave birth. Once again, I was faced with having to replace a critical person as quickly as possible due to the time sensitive ongoing contractual agreements with our customers. When nobody suitable was found I persuaded my husband to join. At that point he had taken shared parental leave to look after our son. We were lucky to find a great nursery and he quit his secure and better paid job to join my start-up as CTO. While this wasn't an ideal situation for us as a family, it allowed my start-up to meet all our ongoing contractual obligations and we successfully launched our bus app MotionMap in 2018 in Cambridge.
I was really proud of my team's achievement and grateful to all our customers who had supported and invested in us. We had defied the odds and gotten to this point. Today, we still receive a monthly revenue stream for maintaining MotionMap. That’s almost five years after its launch.
The most useful advice I received from other entrepreneurs was often about the moments when they felt the most vulnerable. What I was lacking was advice from a female entrepreneur that started a family at the same time as running a start-up, including the unique challenges that this creates.
With that in mind, I'd like to share my experience of breastfeeding my son before and after I returned to work. It was a challenge right from the start so I visited numerous breastfeeding clinics. I spent several years in the male dominated tech and entrepreneurial environment and suddenly finding myself surrounded by lots of exposed boobs and babies was quite a culture shock. After six weeks of consistent practice we eventually got the hang of it but the real challenge was to keep going once I returned to work shortly thereafter. A consistent schedule is necessary, since skipping feeds or failing to express milk, would permanently reduced the milk supply and can also cause serious infections in the mother. At the office, I arranged a private room where I could express milk. It was more challenging when travelling to meet our customers. On those days it wasn't always possible to stick to a consistent schedule or express 'on the go' during train journeys for instance.
While I experienced these blissful moments with my son, the competitive start-up environment felt less kind at times. Around the same time when MotionMap was launched in Cambridge, a competitor launched a similar app in Birmingham. They had received a couple of millions of investment and had a much bigger team and executed much faster than us. When they launched their product we realised that theirs was better than ours and it was too similar and too close for us to simply ignore it.
At that point we made the decision to stop growing the company and only continued supporting our existing customers. This decision led to staff redundancies which is never pleasant. Our competitor, MaaS Global, carried on growing, doing great work on a global scale, and to date they have raised more than 65 million euros. Of course, I was disappointed that we had been overtaken, but at the same time I felt strengthened in my belief that there had been a genuine opportunity in the market. While our innovation had not been disruptive on a technological level the market and our competitors proved that there is a genuine opportunity for disruptive innovation on the service level, ie. mobility-as-a-service.
The decision to stop growing the start-up was a relatively easy choice since my son was struggling at nursery at that point in time. He had had a fantastic first year at nursery with absolutely wonderful staff. Sadly, both his key workers subsequently left his nursery leaving the nursery understaffed. The temporary staff that now took care of him changed almost on a daily basis. Being looked after by strangers on most days eventually caused him to cry for hours and we decided that we had to find another nursery that offered more consistency. The choices in our vicinity were very limited at the time so we accepted a place at a great nursery, but it was only part-time. Therefore, I was glad to take the opportunity to reduce my working hours to help my son flourish once again.
It had been a challenge to balance the demands of motherhood in the competitive start-up ecosystem. I can say with certainty that it would have been easier to grow my start-up with an undivided focus. Looking back, I wish I had received more advice specific to women entrepreneurs, as there are many additional challenges when trying to juggle motherhood and a career as a founder.
Do you have any advice for female entrepreneurs?
My advice would be to build a support system around you - a group of trusted people that help you with the right advice as well as on a practical or financial level. This could be your spouse, family, friends, a nanny, co-founders, even your staff and in terms of advice, ideally other female entrepreneurs who went through similar challenges.
The traditional nursery system doesn't provide sufficiently long or flexible hours to cover the hours that a co-founder of an early stage start-up might typically work. This is in particular true if your role involves some travel. So you'll likely need someone else to cover some of the nursery drop-offs and pick-ups. And frequent travel in general might make breastfeeding difficult or impossible. The nursery system in the UK went through a number of policy changes that had structural effects on the care provided. When I first became a mum nurseries were incredibly expensive but it had initially been easy to find a full-time place. This subsequently changed due to the underfunding of nurseries and the opening hours became increasingly restrictive. To the point where a lot of nurseries opening hours don't match up to core working hours in most workplaces and are also often closed outside of term time, too.
While on maternity or parental leave a female founder really needs to trust their co-founder(s) and staff. Not only will they need to represent her interests while she is absent but they also need to have the right skills to be able to do so. There is also no extra ‘maternity pay’ beyond the statutory pay unless the start-up is already financially established enough to provide such benefits. In contrast, women in larger organisations are often provided with lucrative maternity packages!
The female founders with children that I am aware of, including myself, have tended toward shorter maternity leaves. This could be due to the fact that it can be difficult to replace a founder. This also raises the question if one wants to miss out on a lot of the early moments of a child's life due to an early return to work and intense work load. Or if one can handle the physical and psychological pressures of this intense lifestyle. This is a personal decision every mum needs to make for herself. I was content while my husband took shared parental leave but less so when neither of us were able to look after our son full-time.
Of course there is the obvious argument that a female founder could delay having children. It certainly helps to delay to the point in time when the start-up is more established. Unfortunately, this is no silver bullet either because this may lead to numerous medical drawbacks for the mother and child. The list of prenatal and pregnancy conditions that are more likely to occur after the age of 35 can be intimidating.
Do you have any recommended resources?
There are a multitude of decisions that need to be weighed up when considering founding a start-up and starting a family. I participated in a number of great programmes for entrepreneurs, including the Accelerate Cambridge programme from the Cambridge Judge Business School, but during my journey I never came across any advice or mentoring on juggling parenthood and start-ups. Therefore, I am happy to speak to any founder who would like to benefit from my experience and advice on this matter and my social media handles are below.
With regard to breastfeeding, I used three different kinds of breast pumps, that helped me at the various stages: a Madela electric pump in the first few weeks, followed by a Haakaa silicon manual pump and the wonderfully discreet Elvie breast pump.
CUE aims to educate and encourage students to consider entrepreneurial careers, and is renowned for hosting some of the most successful student-run business creation competitions in the world.