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The kitchen table tycoons

Judi Bevan says that new technology has at last created real liberation for women — by enabling them to run successful businesses from home

23 November 2006

8:39 AM

23 November 2006

8:39 AM

Judi Bevan says that new technology has at last created real liberation for women — by enabling them to run successful businesses from home

Kitchen table tycoons — the new buzz phrase to describe women who set up their own businesses from home — now account for £4.4 billion of sales a year, according to Professor Tim Leunig at the London School of Economics. Their numbers are rising rapidly; research by Barclays Bank showed that women started a fifth of all new businesses this year compared with just 13 per cent in 1996.

Technology has done for women what Germaine Greer’s rhetoric never could — delivered them genuine autonomy over their own livelihoods. Ten years ago, when my career-minded friends had children, they would soldier back to work a few months after giving birth, squeezing themselves wearily on to trains and buses after disrupted nights. Detailed menus and timetables of activities were left with nannies. They would stagger back through the door ten or 12 hours later for ‘quality time’. Or they would persuade their employer to let them work part-time, surrendering much of their pension and other benefits in the process.

Today, many of my friends have quit their jobs and used the experience gained in successful careers to become these kitchen table tycoons, running their own businesses from home, or close by, with the help of the internet. The chance to become seriously rich like Julie Pankhurst, the founder of Friends Reunited, is clearly a spur, but the main attractions are autonomy and flexib-ility. Women who head their own businesses can kiss office politics goodbye and set their own working hours. They have the freedom to down tools to watch a rugby match or a carol service. Night owls can work while the children sleep.

‘You are mistress of your own time and success or failure depends entirely on you,’ says Liv O’Hanlon, who runs her herbal skincare company from deepest Somerset. Kitchen table tycoonery is not, on the whole, a young woman’s game, for although energy is important, the real key to success is to have some skills to bring to a new business. Nearly two thirds of this growing band are over 30 years old, according to the LSE. Many had their babies late and were already in their forties when they started their companies. Intriguingly, three quarters of women start their businesses before their first child is two years old.

At the extreme end of this scale is Rebecca Jay, a former advertising executive who produces the Dodo Pad family organiser beloved of the gentry and billed as the antidote to the electronic age. She took her first order from Fortnum & Mason while breastfeeding her son, James, then six weeks old. ‘I was sitting at the kitchen table with him on my lap while writing down the order. I remember putting the pen down and thinking, “anything is possible”.’ Since then, through brand development skills honed at Saatchi & Saatchi and Lewis Moberly, she has turned a diary featuring an extinct bird into a viable brand with a fast-growing following. Sales have now passed the £300,000 mark and there are 23 different Dodo Pad lines from cookery books to Christmas organisers, selling in John Lewis, WH Smith and by mail order as well as in Fortnum’s.

Sally Preston, a former food technologist with Marks & Spencer, started making organic frozen baby food after her own baby was born in 2002, when she realised there was a gap in the market. Now her company, Babylicious, has sales of more than £2 million and is the biggest producer of what is admittedly a niche product in Europe.

Shirley Soskin and Kate Grussing, who started a specialist headhunting firm, Sapphire Partners, in 2004, did things slightly differently. When Soskin adopted her two daughters from China eight years ago, she sold her first business, Clarion, a consumer public relations company, and lived off the proceeds while she looked around for a new business area. Her American partner, Grussing, had held senior jobs at Morgan Stanley, McKinsey and JP Morgan but, after having four children, she wanted more control over her life and saw the opportunity for a headhunting firm aimed mainly at women who had taken a career break. The idea was to specialise in interim management jobs such as covering for maternity leave or sudden illness. Her knowledge of the recruitment needs of big companies and Soskin’s marketing flair have enabled them to build a list of more than 15 blue-chip clients including Disney, John Lewis and Lehman Brothers.

Sapphire deals with people, so a central London office is vital, but for many small businesses the internet has made location less relevant. Rebecca Jay, who has the misfortune to be my sister-in-law, moved from north London to north Cornwall four years ago and initially travelled up to London every three weeks. Once she had succeeded in her vigorous campaign to get broadband to Cornwall, however, she moved the entire business, now employing four people, to a small office five minutes drive from her cottage.

O’Hanlon, a former journalist with two school-age sons, moved from Lambeth to a house called Great Elm in Somerset three years ago. ‘I stood in the walled garden and felt I wanted to do something with such a fantastic place,’ she recalls. Joining forces with a medical herbalist, she began mixing skincare lotions and potions out of herbs in her garden, literally on her kitchen table. Manufacture has now moved to a dedicated laboratory and she employs part-time help. Named the Great Elm Physick Garden, the company has developed a range of products — 22 and counting. These have won several awards already and O’Hanlon is working on celebrity endorsements — so far, Sebastian Faulks and Henry Porter admit to using the men’s shaving oil. Her greatest problems were the headache and cost of setting up the website, which is her main sales outlet.

One of the advantages of being older is that there is more likely to be some seed capital available. O’Hanlon used the money left over from selling her London house and buying in Somerset. Jay used some savings from her Saatchi days and Soskin dipped into the money from selling her first business. None of them, however, has been keen to borrow because they see that as the slippery slope towards losing their hard-won autonomy.

Sadly, none of the women I have spoken to have had any benefit from government grants or expertise. In fact, their experience in that area has been wholly negative. ‘The red tape is far worse now than it was when I set up my first business,’ says Soskin. O’Hanlon approached the DTI Small Business Service but found dealing with it so time-consuming that it was cheaper not to bother. Jay had a similar experience with the DTI’s Business Link, which supposedly offers ‘practical help for small businesses’. ‘I found I knew much more than they did and spending time with them cost me money,’ she says. The big four clearing banks have proved almost as bad. ‘They are process-driven and if you do not tick all their boxes, they cannot cope,’ says Jay, who switched to the Bank of Scotland and has not looked back.

In order to succeed, married women need a husband or partner who will support them and do a fair share of the childcare. O’Hanlon’s husband, the journalist Charles Nevin, works mainly from home and can hold the fort when she is away at trade fairs. Like Jay’s husband, Trevor Hough, he is also an accomplished cook. A competitive alpha-male does not make the best partner for a woman building her own business.

Like all entrepreneurs, this new generation of business mothers possesses exceptional energy, not to mention drive and intense self-discipline. They work as hard or harder than they did in their earlier careers with big organisations but the job satisfaction is infinitely greater. The women’s liberation movement in t
he Sixties and Seventies portrayed itself as anti-capitalist. Today, technology has liberated women by helping them to become as capitalist as any of their male counterparts.

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