I caught up with Nikki Cochrane (pictured right with Co-Founder Kathryn Tyler) a flexible working evangelist, a passionate digital marketing specialist and one half of Digital Mums. Nikki’s resourcefulness, drive and fresh thinking make her a natural fit for my regular Village People series about people who have left secure corporate jobs to do something completely different. We discuss business mentors, raising investment and the realities of running a successful start up.
With the shortage of flexible working options, spiralling childcare costs and long commutes confronting a lot of families these days, it comes as no surprise to me that Digital Mums has been a huge success since its launch just under 2 years ago. The idea is simple yet inspired – recruit and train mothers in social media management and provide them with on the job training through placements with companies that are looking for online community managers.
The beauty of this programme is that it attracts highly qualified, motivated women who want to work from home and matches them with companies that can see the benefits of a flexible working arrangement.
What did you do before Digital Mums? How did your background help with setting up the business?
I worked for M&C Saatchi. Working there immersed me in the world of digital marketing and that’s where I got my passion for social media. Because I was working directly for the founders David Kershaw and Jeremy Sinclair, I had a great insight into what it takes to run a successful organisation. This combination 100% helped prepare me for setting up Digital Mums.
How long did it take to get Digital Mums off the ground? Did you source any external funding?
We launched the business in September 2013. It took us four months to get a working prototype together and then another seven months to test and pilot it to the point where we could actually charge for it. It then took us another four months to get our team to the point where we had the capacity to make the business sustainable.
We received £50,000 worth of investment last year from the Big Issue Invest, a social impact funder. This allowed myself, my co-founder Kathryn and Richard our Head of Growth to all focus full-time on Digital Mums (we were all working in other full or part-time up to that point).
What have been your 3 key business learnings since setting up Digital Mums?
1. Build your community before you need it. Before we had any sort of product or service to sell to anyone, we set up social media accounts and started proactively building a community around our vision of what we wanted Digital Mums to be. By the time we were ready to sell anything, we already had a pool of people to reach out to. Doing this can sometimes feel like a frivolous waste of time, but it pays off massively in the medium and long term.
2. Always test and validate your ideas. Just because your friends think your idea is amazing doesn’t mean anybody else will, or that they’ll pay for it. Before we bring anything to market, we validate the idea, adapt and pivot where necessary, prototype it and then pilot it at a lower price to work out the kinks. It’s intensive, but it means that we achieve product / market fit relatively quickly and efficiently.
3. Do not underestimate how time intensive it is to pitch for investment. Business modelling, pitch practicing, investor meetings – these take up a lot of time. If you miscalculate, you could potentially compromise the day-to-day running of your business, which could spell disaster when you’re still a young organisation.
What have been the biggest challenges for you since launch?
The biggest challenge we’ve faced was definitely the phase before we received investment. We were working mental hours and weren’t at the point where we could pay ourselves. It was challenging, but it led to our first round of investment. Hustling pays off.
Do you have any business mentors?
Plenty. Alex Dunsdon from The Bakery, Dom Baker who I worked with at M&C Saatchi to name but a few.
But special mention has to go to our financial advisor Tracy Balachandran. We were matched with her as part of being part of the Big Issue Invest CSV programme, which connects you with business mentors from the corporate world. She was so invested in us from the beginning and made an incredible impact to our business with her financial expertise, which is definitely not mine or Kathryn’s strong suit!
What kind of companies / organisations do students get to train and work with?
We have an extensive network in the social enterprise / charity space so a lot of our Programme Partners and clients come from there. But it really varies – everyone needs to be on social media these days so the breadth of businesses that get in touch with us on a daily basis reflects this. If you want a look at some of the individual, you can check a few of them out on here (although it’s by no means an exhaustive list).
What are the benefits to small businesses in collaborating with Digital Mums?
When it comes to hiring for social media, small businesses have two problems – recruitment agencies offer high-quality candidates, but they’re very expensive and candidates generally want full-time work and freelancing marketplaces have reasonably priced, flexible workers, but their quality is patchy at best.
By coming through us, small businesses get high-calibre staff, with their quality guaranteed by having completed and passed our rigorous six month Live Learning Programme.
However, we charge a fraction of the price of recruitment agencies do. And because women with families often want low numbers of hours – usually between 5-15 hours per week – small businesses have access to an extremely flexible worker that can fit around how much they can afford. Nobody else can match the amazing quality of our candidates when compared with our price and flexibility. That’s the main reason why we’ve had such traction to date.
What have Digital Mums graduates gone on to do after the 20 week course?
Some stay on with the Programme Partners they worked with during their Live Learning Programme. Many others start their own social media businesses to offer their services to clients that better suit their career goals. Others get matched by us to businesses looking for social media support. And obviously not everyone is looking for work, but rather just to up-skill and get digitally-savvy.
Have you got a work life balance?
I have to hold my hand up and admit that my work life balance is pretty poor at the moment. We’re currently in the midst of pitching for a second round of investment, which is a full-time job in itself. However, we’re still too small and our team too busy to have mine and Kathryn’s day-to-day duties fulfilled by others. Something has to give and for us at the moment it’s our work / life balances.
On the flexibility side of things, I have it great though. I often work from home when I need a bit of quiet and focus.
And once we secure our second round of investment my work / life balance will definitely improve (a bit at least!).
What is the best aspect of your job?
Our incredible community. The gratification that comes from knowing we’re changing people’s lives is extremely motivating for me. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re running a business. But speaking to our Digital Mums – whether they’re graduated, in training or applying to our Programme – always gives me a lot of energy.
You’ve talked about watching your own mum struggle with single handedly raising a family and working full time. Do you think it’s easier for working mums these days?
In terms of the potential career options for work, it’s definitely better nowadays. However, overall things haven’t improved as much as we’d like to think.
As of a couple years ago, female unemployment had risen to a 25-year-high. A report by The Fawcett Society found that almost three times as many women as men become long-term unemployed over the recession. And women with families are massively discriminated against in modern business culture, with 60,000 women a year forced out of their jobs because of being pregnant in this country.
High childcare costs, exorbitant commuting prices and a lack of decent flexible roles are all very much a reality. All of these are major challenges for mums who balancing work and home life.
What does your mum think of your success?
My mum is incredibly proud of me and one of our biggest fans!