The kitchen table entrepreneurs

Lucy Philips with her daughter Belle under a pile of cushions  she makes at home.
Lucy Philips with her daughter Belle under a pile of cushions she makes at home.
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With low start up costs and a huge amount of flexibility, it’s no wonder there’s been a rise in the number of women running businesses from the kitchen table. Lucy Oates reports.

Laura Smith was carving out a successful career in London as a childrenswear designer. However, after six years she faced a choice - stay in the capital and sacrifice quality of life or move out and hope the work would follow.

The 36-year-old chose the latter and returned home to Yorkshire where set up her own label Sherbet Lion while still working freelance for her London-based clients. Now based in Howden and selling online, it’s been a steep learning curve, but one without regrets.

“I’m not sure it’s easier than being employed by someone, but it’s certainly more rewarding,” she says. “Work is constantly on your mind, but you do have a higher level of flexibility. There’s no particular structure; you have to be prepared to work long hours, weekends and evenings in the busy periods, and make the most of the quiet times, which is not always easy.”

Now that she has a two-year-old son, George, and is expecting her second child, Laura finds there’s other benefits to being self-employed. “If George is poorly and I need to take time off to be with him, I have that option. Hopefully it will pay dividends when he starts school as I’ll able to take and collect him.”

Laura is not alone. During the last five years the number of British people classed as self-employed has risen by 15 per cent to a record high of 4.3m, which means that one in every seven workers now run their own business. According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, more than half of the 573,000 people who joined the ranks of the self-employed between 2008 and 2013 were women.

The effects of the economic downturn of 2008 were undoubtedly a major factor, but for many women self-employment is a lifestyle choice. It’s a chance to express their creativity and take back greater control over their working hours. By launching businesses from their kitchen tables, they manage to keep the start-up costs and overheads low.

Lucy Phillips, from Eastrington, was recently inspired to launch a new business venture that she can fit around caring for her two-year-old daughter, Belle. Under the banner Lucy Joy Creations, she produces a range of handcrafted textile gifts, which she sells locally and through the online store Etsy.

“I’d chosen to stay at home with Belle as my husband works away during the week, but when she began attending the local pre-school a couple of mornings a week, I knew I wanted something else to come home to - other than the washing. At the moment, I work during the evenings but, once Belle is three and has three full days at preschool, I’m hoping to be able to dedicate a lot more time to my venture. Being able to fit my business around my family will be a big advantage if it takes off.”

Laura and Lucy represent a new breed of multi-tasking, self-employed mothers who’ve been dubbed ‘mumpreneurs’. The term was officially added to the Collins English dictionary in 2011 and it’s thought that there are now more than 300,000 women in the UK who fit into this category.

Like Rebecca Aspin, who in 2009 launched Sell My Wedding, an online marketplace where brides can sell on items from their weddings, when she was pregnant with her first son, many start their businesses while on maternity leave

“I was on a temporary contract at the time,” says the 34-year-old. “I knew that I wouldn’t get any maternity support from my employer. It gave me the motivation to launch my business idea, whilst working flexibly around my son.”

Rebecca continues to develop her business in between doing the school run and spending time with her youngest son, George (10 months), and also fits in a part-time job in the NHS.

By launching business ventures from home, costs are kept to a minimum; MumpreneurUK, a website set up to support entrepreneurial parents, estimates the average start-up cost is just £500. Despite this, mumpreneurs contribute a massive £7.4bn to the UK economy each year.

Working with a friend, Kirsten Barnitt, from Howden set up Boutique and Breakfast, an online guide to boutique-style accommodation, with an investment of just £500.

The mum of two says: “We knew that running some sort of a website was the way forward because we have children and it was something we could work on in the evenings or whenever we had time, rather than having to be available during office hours.

“We kept costs low by doing as much of the planning, copy-writing and design work ourselves. We brought in an expert to build the website but, because we were clear about what we wanted and had done a lot of the ground work, we managed to stay within budget.

“The fact that we kept costs low meant that we were making a profit in just 11 months. As the business grows, we’re able to invest more into it, both financially and in terms of the amount of time we put in, especially now that our children are a little older.”

Alexia Swirkowski, from Oakwood near Leeds, adopted an innovative approach to raising the money she needed to get her business venture off the ground. Using the crowd funding website Kickstarter, she persuaded dozens of strangers to each invest a small amount towards the cost of producing her range of wrapping paper and notepads.

Alexia, who launched her surface design business Alexia Claire in 2010 during her second year of university, now works from a studio at her home creating quirky wildlife-inspired illustrations, for a range of stationery and paper products, including notepads, planners and wrapping paper. Alexia’s work has featured in British Vogue magazine, and, as a winner of the 2013 Filofax Cover Story competition, two of her designs have been reproduced worldwide.

Alexia works part-time as a graphic designer, but always knew that she wanted to run her own business and hopes that she’ll soon be able to focus on it full-time: “I graduated into one of the toughest jobs markets ever, but was able to establish Alexia Claire while I found a graphic design job. You get a real buzz from selling something you’ve created.”

With youth unemployment levels soaring, Alexia is not alone in opting to take matters into her own hands. However, for some women, launching their own business represents a move away from their established career and is an opportunity to pursue a lifelong interest or goal.

Amanda Wragg, who works from her home in the Pennines, enjoyed a successful career in television production for more than 30 years before establishing herself as a freelance food writer and linking up with a friend to launch Squidbeak, an online guide to the best places to eat, drink and stay in Yorkshire.

She said: “I’ve never been happier. I love being the architect of my own time, it’s immensely rewarding.”