Redefining success: From stressed out business mum to thriving creative coach
I walked away from my multiple 6-figure content agency to be a creative coach. Here’s why:
Have you always wanted to have your Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman moment. You know, when she casually walks in the store with the rude assistants and says: “Big mistake, HUGE!” Me too.
In 2010 I was running the gauntlet that is new motherhood and dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic birth, a serious infection and emergency C section.
No ante natal class can prepare you for the realities and extreme emotions that happens in that crazy-hard first year. I loved motherhood but I was plagued by ongoing infections and dizziness. It took its toll on me physically and emotionally.
I had flexible working during my pregnancy, I moved back to York from London and commuted when necessary. So when my employer didn’t offer me the same flexibility post maternity leave I was disappointed. But I’d like to say ALL THANKS to them looking back. A little setback spurred me on to a new path, that would ultimately lead me towards my destiny.
2010: The year my first baby and my fledgling business were born
2010 was a big year for me. It started in January with the birth of Jemima, deep in the winter snow. My waters broke just outside M&S (yep I just missed the £50 voucher) and what followed were worrying days waiting for a labour that never happened.
Instead I got admitted to hospital and contracted a serious infection during labour. But she arrived, we both survived and so started that crazy year. I got married to my husband in September of that year and by November I had registered my new business, White Horse Digital.
Encouraged by my husband (still my biggest cheerleader), I set up as a freelance content and social media writer and “expert”. I was also blogging at this point and finding clients happened easily. In my first few months I landed a boutique hotel brand, I ran a Twitter campaign for the National TV Awards and a built Wordpress sites and blogs for a few local York businesses.
One of my big beliefs is that we are a product of our experience, and that everything we do leads us to our ultimate destination. But, I do wonder what would have happened if I had sat and planned out that business in the way I have this second time around.
We kind of fell into being an “agency” after I grew it to a point that my husband could quit his job to work with me. A few weeks short of having our second baby Flora, we realised that if he quit and worked with me, we could juggle that, the baby and our two-year old between us. We rented a shared workspace, won more business, and took on an employee.
The highs: Winning big brand contracts
I pitched for (and won) the contract to produce a luxury, high-end magazine for Jumeirah which led us into a HUGE pitch in Singapore for a Unilever brand, Lux, to produce all their online editorial content. I have no idea how, but I (along with my friend who was living in Singapore) rocked up, pitched for AND WON the account. We beat global agencies to win it. It was unreal and most definitely a high point.
We soon grew to seven full-time and three part-time employees. People with mortgages and pensions that were dependent on us. We grew a reputation for luxury brands and won a big contract with Wedgwood & Waterford Crystal, running collabs with the biggest influencers and bloggers out there.
I used to wake up at 4am and work all the hours possible. That’s what “success” had been conditioned in my brain to look like.
Looking back, I’m certain the stress contributed to the big shock of getting diagnosed with breast cancer.
The lows: The breast cancer & grief bit
On the 19th October (my husbands birthday) my world was sent into the craziest spin you can imagine.
My mum was super-sick with aggressive Non Hodgkins lymphoma that had returned and wasn’t responding to treatment. She’d also just had a heart attack. I’m an only child and my dad died previously so this was enough to take in.
You can imagine my shock when I found a lump in my breast. After an agonising wait it turned out to be Grade 3 breast cancer that had spread to my lymph. I needed every treatment there was: a mastectomy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiotherapy.
Sometimes, my treatment was on the same day as my mum, who was in and out of hospital every week with all the infections, pneumonia and extremely low blood pressure. Watching her deteriorate so rapidly was horrendous in all ways. The relief I think she felt when the hospital admitted there was nothing else they could do and suggested she go into the hospice was obvious. I was with her when she passed away; a profoundly traumatic experience made worse by having to go straight from the hospice to have my own chemotherapy treatment.
To put it mildly AF I was a wreck!
Mentally, emotionally and physically.
On the outside I was OK. I kept working throughout (because I had a business turning over more than 300k a year). But inside a light had gone out. I was going through the motions. I was grieving HARD for my beautiful mum, looking after my young girls and not sure where my life was going.
When my husband suggested moving abroad to heal in the sunshine I quite literally jumped at the chance. It was the fastest yes I’ve ever said.
I felt so bad for the team and business but I had to do something to save myself.
So we walked away, left it all behind, rented out our house and moved to Barcelona. A city of palm trees and sunshine and good times. A place where we would meet incredible friends and have the experience of a lifetime.
Although I took a massive break from my real life and work life, it was pivotal in shaping my new business. I walked along the beach every day, listening to podcasts and it was thanks to these podcasts that I started REALLY thinking about what my heart wanted to do.
This time I knew there was no hurry, no financial pressure and no doing something that I didn’t love.
I found my own North Star to guide me
I worked through in detail and wrote down what I loved to do. I wrote up the process I went through into this free workbook – you can do the same! Download Finding Your North Star (you’re welcome).
80s movies, mountains and riding my bike featured heavily. But also all the C’s: conversation, culture, content – my passions. I also dug into my talents (energising people, storytelling and communication) and my life and work experience.
The next step was to figure out how I package this up and add value to other people. The lightbulb moment was when I realised the convergence of all of these: To coach other creatives. It felt so clear! Rooted in who I am and it would take me to exactly where I wanted to be: Running a beautiful, profitable and sustainable business from anywhere in the world we choose to be.
Going through this process, and then subsequently working with my coach Jen Carrington, who has inspired me in many ways – go listen to her podcasts Make It Happen and Letters From a Hopeful Creative with Sara Tasker.
Figuring out what I wanted
I soon figured out three things that were important to me:
Choosing to work with people over businesses.
I never enjoyed the “business” part of my first business. I wanted to break down all my experience and use it to speak to humans in a human language. It’s that simple.
Discovering that I could use ALL my skills to transform other people’s actual lives was a revelation and pretty much underpins everything I do now.
Grow a brand not just a business.
For me, numbers (whether profit, followers or something else) don’t matter. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m rubbish at maths but either way, but it’s not the bottom line that floats my boat.
What I do want to do is to grow a brand. Something cool, with a purpose. Something that can be broader than the business I have now, something that gives back to charity. I don’t know yet how it will evolve but thats the beauty of it all. To create something that feels uniquely me, but that is very much about serving my people and my audience.
To have a business that works with, not against, my lifestyle.
That traditional agency model is founded on long days, tight deadlines, big money and nights out. I always used to think the London agency I worked for was just a modern day factory of ideas. Then I ran my own business and realised that to meet the time zones, the deadlines, the emails sent by clients at 2am, I had no choice but to put those hours in.
But when I examined and redefined success, it didn’t look like high stress. To me, it looked like doing something valuable, authentic, creative and honest.
And because I love to travel, I wanted it to be a freedom business that I could do anywhere in the world. And I can.
It’s only when I look back like this that I realise just how far I’ve come. I’m so excited and happy to be helping amazing women (and some men!) plant and grow something that they are crazily in love with.
When we dream big, plan smart and then work with heart, the magic will follow. Do you agree? Have you ever walked away from success and redefined it on your own terms?
The lead image is by Kelly Back @ Tantrum Photography.
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