It was never meant to be a business. When Sally Haslewood set up the Harrogate Mumbler Facebook group in 2011, she was looking for friendship from like-minded new mums.
The chartered surveyor and mother-of-two girls had moved back to her hometown after 12 years of living away and needed friends to tell her who hosted the best baby classes and which restaurants would tolerate screaming toddlers.
“My experience of Harrogate from 20 years previous was nightclubs, boys and bars,” she says. “Fast forward to one toddler and a brand new baby, I needed to know where the playgroups were and make some friends with kids the same age.”
While on maternity leave with her second daughter, Haslewood set up a Facebook group with just a handful of people she knew as a place to share advice and the best places to get ice cream.
Ten years later, Harrogate Mumbler has grown into a franchise business with 19 Mumbler websites around the UK, which make their money from local advertising.
Haslewood works with four freelancers to run Mumbler HQ.
The Harrogate Mumbler website receives about 250,000 visitors a month and last year had 2.4m hits.
It has 180,000 followers, primarily on Facebook but also Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.
“The first year was unbelievable,” Haslewood says. “We went from me and three or four friends to 1,000 parents.”
As local businesses started benefiting from recommendations from the group’s members, Haslewood began to realise she could turn her hobby into a business.
“A couple of things came together at the same time,” she says. “First of all, my maternity leave was due to come to an end and I was supposed to be going back to my previous job as a chartered surveyor for the civil service.
“Our Harrogate office had closed while I was on maternity leave and I didn’t want to commute to other offices in Leeds or York.
“I’d worked out that once I’d paid for commuting and childcare, the difference between me working and not working was £400.
“At the same time I was being approached by businesses who wanted to work with me more because they were getting a lot of business from my Mumbler followers.”
In November 2012, Haslewood set up a dedicated Mumbler website to create a permanent place for the information that her Facebook followers were sharing and sold advertising to trusted local businesses.
“We don’t just accept advertising from anybody, it’s got to be businesses that have really got something good to offer the local community,” she says.
Mumbler also hosts events such as family fun days and parent meet-ups, not all of which are revenue-generating.
A couple of years after starting Mumbler, Haslewood decided to test the franchise model using her sister in York and a friend of a friend in Hull.
“We use the same principles across the business. It’s all about community first and creating something really valuable for parents, and the business follows,” she says.
She adds: “It’s about getting the right person and I train them and make sure they know how to build their own community. I’ve got fabulous franchisees now and they’re all parents in their local community. While they’ve replicated what I’ve done initially, they’ve also brought loads of new ideas to the company and I definitely learn as much from them as they do from me.”
Fourteen of the 19 franchises are in Yorkshire. There are also sites in Norwich, Manchester, and Oxford.
Haslewood, whose daughters are now 10 and 12, is now plotting a strategic move to the North West with her sights set on Lancashire and Cheshire. She is launching a big franchise recruitment campaign in September.
“We need people with sales and marketing experience,” she says. “People who really want to build a business but appreciate the flexibility of what we’re offering. It’s usually parents who’ve been in the corporate world but now want to create something for themselves.”
The Mumbler community has provided much needed help and support to parents during the pandemic but from a business point of view it hasn’t been easy.
“A lot of our advertisers were attractions and classes and playgroups so we lost those overnight, which was difficult,” Haslewood says. “We refocused our efforts on thinking ‘what do parents actually need at the moment? Most of that was anything that could be delivered to their house and also information about what they could do to keep the kids busy.”
From a user perspective, Mumbler has never been busier with parents desperate for information about how to make life as easy as they possibly could during the pandemic.
“It was a case of finding out locally where the walks were or ideas to occupy children at home and putting all the information into one place to try and make family life easier.”
The next phase of Mumbler’s growth also includes working with larger companies across multiple Mumbler sites.
“We’ve been working with some really big companies, like Worcester Bosch and the publisher Nosey Crow over the past 18 months. While individually each of the franchises is small, as a collective we’ve got huge buying power and connection with parents on the ground,” she says.
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