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Meet the mumpreneurs: Women who changed their careers to start businesses inspired by their children

What is it like to juggle looking after the kids and running a successful company? Stephanie Bell finds out

By Stephanie Bell

When the big baby brands line up for a place at Belfast's first major parenting exhibition in the Odyssey Arena this weekend it's heartening to know that on display alongside them will be a range of products and services from local mums who have all launched successful companies.

Mumpreneurs are a growing force in the start-up sector and in Northern Ireland we have our fair share of enterprising women who are juggling looking after their children with running successful companies started from their kitchen tables. Soaring childcare costs and work/life balance challenges have encouraged more mums to take the risk and give up their careers in favour of being their own boss.

Easy and free access to promoting their new companies through social media has also helped to encourage the rise in the numbers of mumpreneurs.

As the Pregnancy and Baby Fair comes to Northern Ireland this weekend for the very first time we talked to three local mums whose children were the inspiration for their new businesses and who haven't looked back since taking the chance of giving up secure full-time jobs to go it alone.

'I could bring my son to work every day'

Amy West Hurst (42), from Bangor, launched a franchise of the successful Water Babies which, in just four years, has mushroomed into a seven day a week programme in 13 pools. Amy, a former swimming instructor, is married to Charlie (43), a builder, and they have three children, Zoe (6), Emma (3) and Leo (1). She says:

About four-and-a-half years ago when my eldest girl was 18 months old, I first discovered Water Babies. As a previous swimming teacher for children aged four-plus I was blown away by what Water Babies could do at such a young age and I just had to get involved.

I had Zoe in the water from when she was about two weeks old and had been teaching her what I could as a swimming instructor.

When I saw the Water Babies she was not at their level. Seeing their confidence in the water I felt I just had to learn how to do that. Most of the babies were swimming at two years of age.

I rang the owner in England and made enquiries and spent the next six months setting up the finance to buy the franchise and then I did my training, which meant being away from home for three weeks, which was the hardest bit of all as I had never been separated from Zoe before.

I spent 12 months setting up my own Water Babies swim school, while also preparing for the addition of our second little girl. Being a working mum has to be one of the hardest things that you can do and I found being a Water Babies teaching mum really did have some major advantages - where else can you get to swim with your little ones while also being at work?

Also, as it is a very parent and baby-focused industry, it meant that, armed with my sling when my little boy came along a year later, I was able to bring him to work with me up until he was almost seven months old.

Being your own boss does have some great advantages in terms of being able to be flexible, especially when your little ones need you, but what many people don't appreciate is how hard it can be trying to juggle - but I just suppose that's what makes it such fun.

Four years on and the business has grown and I have classes in 13 pools in North Down and Belfast, right out to Newcastle and Lisburn. I employ four teachers and two admin staff and it just keeps growing and growing.

It is hard setting up your own business but head office was a great support to me in marketing and accounting and other things that I was not used to doing.

I work hard but when I am not at work I am with my children 100%; it is a seasonal job so I get to spend the summer and Christmas and all of the holidays with them."

'The business lets me spend time with my boys'

Kirsty McCollum, from Banbridge, was enjoying a high profile career in property finance when she decided to team up with a friend and launch the now thriving baby bib company Jack and Jillaroo.

Along with her partner Cath Court, who is married to rugby star Tom Court, the girls have turned baby bibs into a fashion accessory selling online across the world as well as in shops throughout the province and now also in the UK. Kirsty (29) is married to Ross (32), who works in property management, and they have two children, Teddie (3) and Will (1). She says:

I completed a property degree and worked in the property sector and I still do some work in this area. My business partner Cath started Jack and Jillaroo when her eldest was three by just making and selling the odd bib to friends.

With her husband being a rugby player she found she had a lot of time on her hands and wanted to do something with it.

I was her top customer when I had my first boy. I tried and tested every dribble bib in the market, but Cath's were always the best.

We met for a coffee one day in the summer of 2013 to catch up and I asked her why she wasn't selling her bibs through a website. She told me she was no good at the business side and I offered to do that side and develop the company, so over a cup of coffee we set up Jack and Jillaroo.

We launched the company in October and Cath continues to make the bibs while I do the orders and promote the company.

Cath designs and makes all of our bibs by hand. They are all made using funky fabrics and are designed to match everyday outfits so that they can work day to day.

Cath is from Australia and had sourced organic bamboo cotton there which makes our bibs unique. It is able to absorb moisture and we use it in the middle of our bibs so that both sides have the same fashionable fabric with the bamboo cotton in the middle to keep the baby dry.

We pick the fabrics together and thank goodness we have the same taste. And even though I have two boys, I love girly fabrics, too.

We both spend about 20 to 30 hours working a week and the company is going really well now. We spent the first year building the brand and we are now selling in eight shops in Northern Ireland and one in the UK.

Going forward we hope to expand our range of products and will soon be stocking baby leggings and swaddle blankets. We are also focusing on expanding across the UK.

I couldn't imagine how I would have coped with two young children if I had kept my full-time job and not launched the business.

I take my hat off to parents who have to leave home around 7am and not see their kids again maybe until six or seven that night because of their jobs, full credit to them.

The business has allowed me to spend time with the boys which I know I wouldn't have been able to if I had been working full-time for someone else.

We do have our stressful days when there are a lot of orders but it is worth it, and now with doing the parenting fair this weekend we hope to show our products to a new audience and grow the business even more.

It is a risk but for any mum considering it I would say as long as you are prepared to work hard then you should go for it.

My advice would be to try and keep your job going for as long as you can and work on the side until you get the business built up.

Also run your ideas past family and friends who will give you an honest opinion. It can be done and the rewards are great."

'It was very scary giving up a salary'

Nicola Smyth (40), from Bangor, runs her own online baby footwear company, called Little Shoos, from home. Nicola is married to Allister (41), a telecoms engineer, and they have three children, Euan (8), Jake (6) and Melissa (3). She says:

I studied for an MSc in PR Advertising and Communications at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown and began a career in public relations working for an agency and then in-house for a charity.

I decided to go freelance after my first child and continued to work part-time until my third child Melissa was born.

My work involved organising events so there were a lot of early starts, evening and weekend work and it was getting, harder and harder to juggle my career in PR with three young children. My dad and my brother both run their own business in building supplies and I would have helped out when I was at school so I understood the mechanics of running your own business and dad was always very encouraging.

I had the idea for my company Little Shoos after a friend had bought me a pair of leather baby shoes as a gift for my second son from her holiday in France.

I loved them so much I wanted a pair for my daughter when she was born, but I couldn't buy them locally so that gave me the idea of looking into the possibility of selling them myself.

I did a lot of research and probably spent a year sourcing suppliers, prices and going through legal procedures like checking British Standards before Little Shoos was born. It was very scary giving up a salary to launch a business and thankfully Allister was very supportive.

Initially, I sold the shoes to friends and at mum and tots groups, and then at local fairs.

Little Shoos are made from genuine soft leather, designed to be kind to growing feet in a variety of cute designs. They have a non-slip sole and, best of all, they don't fall off.

I didn't want a shop as that would restrict me and the idea was to be able to work from home so I started on Facebook and it grew steadily. I knew I needed to spread my wings and I set up a do-it-yourself website which was easy through the e-commerce company Shopify.

By chance I then won a competition on Twitter for free web design and got this company in England to spend a few hours on my website for free.

I gave up my job two years ago and it is only in the past year I have really put my heart and soul into the company.

It's really a proper business now and I have a steady flow of orders, mainly locally, in Ireland and the UK, and I hope to expand on that and do some advertising internationally.

I work in the mornings and then take the afternoon off with the kids. I can collect them from school and do homeworks, and then go back to working in the evening packing orders. It can be hard work, but when you are doing it for yourself you don't mind.

I am not earning the equivalent to my PR salary yet, but it buys us a holiday every year and the nice things, and pays for the kids' after-school clubs. I get to pick my kids up from the school gates every day and do their homework. You feel really in touch with them and everything they are doing and it helps them to feel secure that I am there for them. At the same time they get to see mummy running her own business and hopefully they will realise that it is something they can do as well.

The beauty of Little Shoos is that it fits nicely around our home life and I love it.

I'm looking forward to meeting parents at the pregnancy and baby fair this weekend to show off my new spring range."

One stop shop for new parents

Belfast will this weekend play host to its first Pregnancy & Baby Fair.

The event, which runs on tomorrow and Sunday in the Odyssey Arena, offers mums, dads and parents-to-be the chance to buy the latest in pregnancy and baby products from leading and local brands, while also accessing free pregnancy advice and early childhood parenting tips from a host of experts.

Now in its fifth year, the Pregnancy and Baby Fair is Ireland's longest running and foremost exhibition for all things baby-related and organisers are excited to reach out to Northern Ireland. Behind the event are Claire Finnan (34) and Jennifer Shaw (30), managing directors of Huggy Bloom Enterprises Ltd which first came to national prominence on RTE show Dragons Den.

Their appearance on the show created television history as Claire and Jennifer became the first ever candidates to secure backing from all five Dragons.

Their exciting exhibition idea, the Pregnancy & Baby Fair, was phenomenally successful to the extent that Huggy Bloom Enterprises was able to buy out all five Dragons in 2010.

With footfall in excess of 23,000 people at the recent Dublin event, the girls want to continue to build on their success by bringing it to Northern Ireland.

Claire Finnan says: "We have spent years gathering feedback and viewpoints from all parents, and expectant parents, that attend our events and have found that people are not only seeking to get a great bargain, but equally want advice about sleeping, nutrition, safety, health and exercise and much more.

"With this in mind, we will have an expert panel on hand to do just that."

With dedicated children's entertainers and play areas to keep the little ones entertained, parents can gain exclusive access to over 50 retailers and exhibitors, discounts, special offers and competition prizes.

Tickets cost £7.50 and are available from the Odyssey Box Office and at the door.

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