Paul MacKenzie-Cummins and Kara Buffrey from Clearly PR & Marketing Communications recently interviewed the Founder and Chief Executive of Mumsnet. Justine Roberts was about to address the Cardiff Business Club and we were granted a great opportunity to speak with her beforehand to get her insights on her fantastic business and her journey to the top of her industry.
Here’s what she had to say.
Mumset is fast-approaching 20 years, but what prompted you to launch the business in the first place?
It was right at the end of 1999, I started after a botched family holiday, we went to the wrong resort, the wrong destination, the wrong time zone, wrong children. It was our first holiday as parents, so we really made every mistake you could make.
To the extent that jet lag meant they were getting up at two in the morning and expecting their breakfast, your basic stuff that now I would know and if I had Mumsnet I would have known then. We made every mistake, the resort was rubbish, all the parents were moaning about their choice – and that was the moment, my lightbulb moment.
If we could tap into that experience of people who knew that under 5s and jetlag didn’t mix, as well as all the other stuff like how to negotiate sleep, teething, mother in law’s – that could be something.
It was at that time the internet was just taking off and it seemed like the perfect platform for a network…one that was what we needed and would to tap into the wisdom of others.
Few people, if anyone, were doing what you were doing and it was an interesting time during those early days of the internet?
When we started it was the boom then very swiftly afterwards it was the bust. The weird thing about Mumsnet was, whilst it took off for being useful and attractive to users, it took at least five years to have any kind of semblance of a business that could generate any kind of revenue.
We were a bit before our time really and I certainly didn’t raise any money, which turned out to be a good thing. Had we raised money we would have had a high cost base which was too early, four years before Facebook, six years before Twitter. We would have just spent a lot of money, had no revenues and gone bust.
Was there a turning point when people started to take more notice?
We had around three turning points really, we quiet grew our community and it became quite big, then David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party and he went off on paternity leave straight away.
He was looking for something to do that signified how modern and new he was when he came back from leave. He came to us and said I would like to engage with your users and do a web chat so that was the first step.
Then we got sued by a famous parenting author, they really tried to shut us down and we had an ongoing legal battle with her. We became a core celebre for freedom of speech on the internet because she didn’t like some of the things that were said about her.
She wrote a book called contented little baby that said that your baby would sleep through the night and be perfect and it worked for some. But it didn’t work for everyone so actually one of our users referred to her as a fart faced rolley fluff poo. For that she tried to get us shut down. It seems bizarre now because in this day and age that would mean nothing compared to what is said on Twitter.
In the end we had to ban all mention of her on our forum which blew the whole thing up because it was like you can’t talk about Jose Mourinho on a football forum. We led the news and that bought lots more visitors.
Finally, Facebook and Twitter arrived and suddenly the business world decided there was something in this social web thing. They got a little less nervous about engaging and we started seeing people wanting to advertise. This all happened around 2006.
When did you realise that you were beginning to make an impact – the forum has become a platform for championing certain campaigns?
Yes, we have and I think the big thing for us was the 2010 election which became christened the Mumsnet election because we were inundated with prime ministers, leaders of the opposition and senior ministers who wanted to do a web chat.
It was really the first election where they used social media and the women’s vote was viewed as crucial because it’s always viewed as less tribal and more floating.
This mantle of the Mumsnet election meant we had the ear of all the parties and their manifesto writers would literally come up to us and ask, what do you want in the manifesto? There was this Mumsnet vote that was up for grabs.
At that point, we realised we had a real amount of influence and we hadn’t begun as a campaigning organisation, but it made us think we ought too. We started doing campaigns and specifically ones about things our audience really cared about.
We started looking at miscarriage care which was very patchy throughout the country and we have subsequently done campaigns around premature sexualisation of young girls, we did a rape myth campaign called we believe you as well as others.
At the moment we are working with the NHS on postnatal care reform so that’s been an ongoing thing, but it wasn’t what we started out to do. It became an obvious thing.
The media landscape has changed markedly since the days when you were a journalist, how do you keep Mumsnet relevant, front of mind and heard above the increasingly audible noise?
I think what we have is a 24/7 focus group full of brilliant women that create fresher new material every day, in that sense it’s rather a good business model. We find that if you Google quite random things you often get a Mumsnet response to that because they really are answering the questions of the day and if you like the barometer of the way the female population is feeling.
Our audience keeps us relevant then we have to work quite hard on technology and platform. Keeping up with all of the very well-funded start-ups that are popping up in our direction.
Have you ever gotten things wrong – perhaps misjudged your audience?
We [redesigned our website] and thought we had done a greatly improved and enhanced user experience. Our users thought differently and turned around to ask, “Why have you changed the wallpaper in our living rooms without even asking?”
They made us put it back again and we learned a lot about taking people through a journey and listening and engaging without just changing it up without asking. That was a big learning curve.
Mumsnet has been in the media recently, especially with some comment of the LGBT+ community. It’s hard to control what people are saying because it is an open forum, so how do you decide that you need to step in and put some moderation in there?
We have had a team of paid moderators from the get go which is unusual actually. We spent a lot more on moderation than say Twitter. But we are post-moderators which means we don’t pre-vet comments made on the website, we look at them when they are reported to us, we also believe very strongly in the power of discussion to air different points of view and to reach resolutions.
In the world of filter bubbles its quite important that we stick to one of our core values which is discussing things, in the end is the only way to reach a compromise and make parents lives easier.
There is a genuine debate I think to be had where much needed new rights for people and trans people batter up against rights of women who have been hard run by things like domestic violence refuges and access to those.
The idea that you can just self-identify can be quite scary to some women who have gone through some things like that. So, I think there is a genuine discussion to be had and what we are committed to is a civil discussion and freedom of speech.
When we will moderate is when that civility is gone and ultimately, they can’t be on Mumsnet. It’s hard and it takes an awful lot of resources but it’s something we are committed to – freedom of speech.
You have had a lot of people on Mumsnet, David Cameron, David Beckham, Meryl Streep, Hilary Clinton, is there anyone missing from that list that you would really like to be on there?
There is an obvious omission in the political sphere in our current prime minister who has been noticeably absent from a number of venues. We would be delighted to have her, but I’ve noticed she’s not visited Cardiff business club even.
We would love to have her on and I think in terms of hero’s I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of them now. Meryl Streep is one, Hilary Clinton and Idris Elba, let’s not forget him. I would love to have Michelle Obama, she would be amazing, the pope would be quite interesting. We’ve definitely still got a Wishlist.
Of all the things you’ve done learnt and seen, what are the key things you’ve learnt? When speaking to female or male entrepreneurs starting out, what are the key messages that you would pass onto them?
There are a few, I think there’s more than one way to grow a business, you don’t necessarily need a lot of money. You can go a little bit more at your own pace and you need to figure out whether, for the business that your starting, what the right model is for that, not just down the track of venture funded. It seems to be that model of kissing a lot of frogs and hoping one succeeds. I think that would be a lesson.
I think if you’re a female and a mother you’re going to have a lot on your plate. I don’t want to be sexist but the stats all show it’s the mothers that pick up the bulk of the responsibility around domestics. Working mothers do that too so my advice would be to embrace the chaos, give up perfection and work out what’s really important and let the rest slide.
Offer people who work for you flexibility and they’ll give it back to you in spades most definitely. Finally, always wear trainers because if you’re late you can run, it doubles as fitness as well you save on your gym membership and high heels give you bunions.