Why isn't there more Flexible Childcare? 4 women who are forging a new path in flexible childcare with co-working spaces

Flexible working and flexible childcare is having a moment. From campaigns from people like Mother Pukka #flexappeal (check out her brilliant flash mob footage here and look out for an interview on how the campaign will evolve over the next year) and TimeWise (Hire me My Way campaign), there is a drive to get companies to reconsider their restrictive working practices and embrace an outlook that, in particular, will prevent the massive loss to these industries of talented women with children who no longer see their roles as tenable.

However, alongside the drive for more flexible working for parents looking for an appropriate work life balance, there is already a huge growth in parents working flexibly, yet childcare hasn't quite caught up. The UK is on the verge of a mobile working tipping point, where there are more of us working away from the office than based behind a desk (The Work Foundation, 2016). It's predicted that by 2020 over 70% of us will be working flexibly (The Work Foundation); and the only rising sectors of workers are those who are self employed or temporary employees (Ian Brinkley, May 2016).

Finding a solution for childcare in a market where 49% of parents living as a couple both work (The Modern Families Index) is an ongoing challenge, but in London there are a number of women breaking the childcare mould. Finding solutions that provide flexibility around work space, and childcare; and a departure from the fixed hour model that most nurseries provide are: Elizabeth Moody from Officreche in Brighton; Shazia Mustafa from Third Door in Putney; Ann Nkune from Bloomsbury Beginnings; and Leo Wood from PlayPen (as well as her established workspaces Winkley Studios and Cook Street).

What I found interesting about all of these women, as is the way with a lot of female entrepreneurs, is that they took on the start up of these businesses to meet their own need, and often at pretty inopportune moments. There were a number of examples of doing up premises heavily pregnant, paintbrush in hand, but that's often how female entrepreneurs roll. Throw caution to the wind, and drive things with passion, enthusiasm, and a fair amount of risk taking along the way. Read on to find out more about their stories.

Elizabeth Moody-Stuart, Officreche, Brighton

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How did Officreche come to life?

I've had lots of different hats on in my career. I worked for The Art Newspaper, as a writer and editor, but quit in 2001 to write a novel. I wanted a lucrative part-time job so I wouldn't starve, so I built up a portfolio of skills, write, editing, and doing things like facilitating sessions for management consultants.

The idea for Officreche came when my daughter Iris was 6 months old. I'm not the type of person who, when they have something big and relatively natural coming up, does a lot of research around it. I come from a big family, and just assumed it would work. What I didn't do was work through the logistics of how having a kid would work with working in a portfolio manner, so I had to palm off Iris on my mother, or a friend, or a paid nursery. I couldn't quite believe that you had to pay for the same amount of hours each week, for every week of the year, and I hated the idea (1) because I'm relatively thrifty and (2) when you've had a baby - if it goes well, you feel like you can do anything, and your mind changes - you have a pull for your child, but you also want to be a freelance mother in your own right.

I came up with the idea and wrote a brief for the software to enable it to happen, as I realised that you wouldn't want to be manually dealing with people calling and asking for different hours - you'd have to have a PhD in maths. We tendered 3 different developers, and got someone to do it who have been amazing.

Then we needed to find some premises. I found an amazing property in Kemptown, but was beaten to renting it by Brighton College. I was a bit demoralised by that. I needed to find a friendly landlord who would take the risk, and that's what I found.

I had a mentor, who runs The Works, who had always wanted to do this kind of business, and he spotted this building. It was an ex-nursery. We negotiated a two year rent free period from the landlord, as I'd paid for the renovations. We got squatted before we even opened the doors though! Luckily, I managed to negotiate with them, and got them out within a weekend.

I carried on writing, facilitating for companies like Cap Gemini, KPMG, and other people who had set up their own businesses, and I honed it down to those jobs and Officreche. But in Spring last year, I decided to see if Officreche could work as a business properly and focus on that alone.

What interests me about Officreche is the fact that modern families need it. A huge proportion of parents with dependent children work flexibly. Our lifestyle changes mean there is a need to juggle childcare, and balance it with a fulfilling working life, whilst minimising guilt.

The reasons why this business is a success are recruitment and retention - so, the staff, the bespoke software that enables you to do it, private investment which has given me the freedom, and the emotional support that I have had.

How does the model work?

We have a basic number of fixed spaces that we offer; but, then you can do as little as you like, even 2 hours, but you then have to do that regularly, as you have to spend the time to settle the child.

The best financial deal is to buy a subscription of at least 10 hours a week. You can use them at any time, and you can store them up. You can even book your kid in that morning if there is space. When I designed the business, I got rid of all the things that hacked me off about childcare, so if your kid is sick, as long as we know within 48 hours, you can cancel the hours, and use them later. 

What kind of people do you have using Officreche?

It's brilliant as it's so varied. 2/3 of our families just use the flexible childcare, and not the flexible childcare with co-working (which was a massive learning for me as well). For the co-working space, we have lawyers, architects, entrepreneurs, a cookery business, a midwife, massage therapists, and life coaches.

It's mostly women, I'd love more men to come here though.

What about the dad side of it - all the businesses I've interviewed have talked about wanting Dads involved, but the reality is that they're more skewed to mums?

I'm just as welcoming to anyone, and love having fathers in here. This type of childcare will make it easier for fathers to take more of a role and there are more fathers taking on full time childcare now. However, there is a genetic bias towards your mother because you've been held in her for 9 months, and likely to have been breast fed by her. That means that the father has to catch up on that bit. It's not to say that they can't, but it takes quite an open minded and emotionally intelligent mother to allow it to happen.

Why do you think there hasn't been more facilities like this opening up?

There aren't massive margins in the nursery business, and it's not a sector that has really attracted entrepreneurs. The wages and pay in childcare isn't good at all. If you have a mind that is entrepreneurial, with an idea in childcare, you're still unlikely to run a nursery. Or, you're developing it for your own need, but then the space and time in which you need it is only actually about 5 years. If I hadn't found a property, my idea probably would have died off.

How do you see the business evolving?

Next steps would be expanding to Bristol, and East London as locations. You need a property, ideally with outdoor space, and you need an equivalent of me there to run it, and to recruit the staff to provide it. Nurseries aren't a big money spinner, the only way you make money is to have a big chain; and likewise with co-working spaces, you need the multiplier. But, it's not a simple thing to do, because the demographic and space is different each time.

I'm happy to get to the stage where I can license, white-label or give my expertise, but I'm wary of ruining my brand.

The time when someone needs this kind of childcare is actually really small. What I'm looking at in terms of marketing at the moment is getting people in before they get pregnant, and then want to stay. 

To find out more about Officreche, check out their site at www.officreche.com or follow them on Instagram @officreche

Shazia Mustafa, Third Door, Putney

How did Third Door come to life?

I worked with the BBC for Radio 5 Live, in audience research, focusing on how to reach our target market more effectively. I left the BBC to set up a business in 2006, but I had no idea how to make money out of it, and there wasn't much business support back then. I started at Nokia afterwards, as a brand research manager, and then got pregnant with my daughter, and had her at the end of 2007. Everything had changed for me from the second she was born. My career went out the window and I was in love with this little girl. But, when I thought about it more, I decided I didn't want to stop working as I'd worked too hard to get to this stage.

I brainstormed ideas about what I could do instead with a friend of mine. We both had children who were a few months old, and we were finding it impossible to get anything done. We were pushing our buggies through the park to get them to sleep and to get some time to ourselves. I remember thinking 'wouldn't it be great if we could just go somewhere to work uninterrupted, but they're near enough that they can be cared for'. A few days later I received an email from Springwise, which showcases ideas from around the world and one of them was co-working, crèche and yoga all in one place in San Francisco - a similar idea to the one I was talking about. We started to research the trends around co-working (a new concept in 2008); the fact that more people were remote working and setting up their own businesses to work around children, and that there was a gap in the market for flexible childcare.

My husband, Yusuf was studying for a self funded MBA at the time, whilst working for Dell, and I suggested that he based his dissertation on this idea. He was a home-based employee, so his study had become the little ones nursery, so he really understood the co-working side of it. We actually based the research on our current location, and it was a feasibility study for the idea. The conclusion was that the market conditions were right, and he got a distinction for the work. He handed it in in December 2008. Our little one had just turned 1, and in 2009 I took redundancy from Nokia, whilst pregnant with our second, and started working on Third Door.

The bank decided that they weren't going to lend us the money that we were counting on when I resigned (it was the time of the Lehman's crash), so we decided to re-mortgage and borrow money from friends and family.

We opened May 2010, positioning it as an adhoc service, supporting existing childcare. Listening to the customers we then adapted that model. Now it's a fully registered Ofsted nursery offering the flexibility that others don't. We're a bricks and mortar space, offering childcare with co-working, supported by software that we've developed ourselves, to support that flexible model.

How does the model work?

We have two options. One is fixed days; but if you want to swap a day or buy an extra day, you can do that really easily. The second option is geared more to freelancers where you can buy a block of hours. There is consistency of staff, the rooms and the care the children get, but the service is built around the needs of the parents.

What kind of people use the space?

We have freelancers & consultants, who tend to travel a bit further. People in the service based industries - marketers, journalists. Then we have remote workers, and they like the flexibility in terms of cost savings. We also have people who live a lot closer who just use the nursery and not the co-working space.

What services do you offer in terms of co-working?

We have tried networking events, seminars, workshops, all of that. This year, we're looking at things like accelerator schemes and we have lots of partnerships to expand our offer.

Why do you think that other nurseries aren't taking on a similar model?

I've had people who have come to me, who have set up co-working spaces, and have looked at the childcare and don't really want to run an Ofsted nursery. I think from the nursery aspect, the bigger operators are looking to make a profit, using a cookie cutter approach, and aren't looking to change anything if that's working. For the independent nurseries, they're really passionate about running a nursery, but they want to achieve the outstanding level with Ofsted, and that's what their business is based on.

You have so many issues to consider - the number of children, the number of staff coming in, what time bookings are, and potential extensions. We went from manual paper based bookings, to excel, to everything being programmed, using our current system. It now takes seconds to make bookings. We've had to go through that to understand our customers' needs and now we can just white label what we've done.

The government keep on talking about flexibility in childcare, but they're getting assistance from nurseries that don't really know about it.

I want to talk more about these kinds of things, as we're positioned well in this space. I think it will be the next generation who will get this a bit more, and in the meantime we're all muddling along.

What future plans do you have for the business?

We get emails from Japan, Australia, Saudi, America and lots from other locations in the UK about what we do. We'll start by expanding in London first.

As my children get older, we're starting to see other types of opportunities in terms of childcare. School times for example don't work for many working parents.

I want to help the working family grow together, that's what I'm really passionate about. This is one solution, but I'd like to look at other solutions and work with bigger nursery chains. There are lots of different routes we can take.

On a personal level, my eldest child is now 8 and before she goes to secondary school, I want to go travelling for a year as a family and use that time to educate my children about the wider world. 

To find out more about Third Door, go to their website at www.third-door.com or follow them on facebook and Instagram

 

Ann Nkune - Bloomsbury Beginnings

How did Bloomsbury Beginnings come to life?

I had an epiphany moment of becoming a parent at 41 and reviewing my whole career. Prior to that I managed services in the probation service sector for under 18's. My role required many hours a week and a really strong vocation and I didn't feel that it fitted in with what I wanted to be doing as a parent. My priorities also changed. My local community became really important to me and I became interested in the idea of flexible working and the emotional trauma that people go through as a mum and equality.

In 2012 I took over a friends website, which essentially celebrated what was going on in the local area for mums. It gave me a ready-made community. I realised that a lot of the mums had creative ideas, and were open to new opportunities. My background is in the 3rd sector so I approached UnLtd, the leading provider of support to social entrepreneurs in the UK with a start up idea. I learnt more about what is actually helpful to people and realised that they could gain from a structured development process using the start up and from there the Parents Incubator was born. People needed business skills and technical skills, but mostly they needed a process so that they didn't give up along the way.

The Parents Incubator is a 10 week process of people coming together and it can be extremely powerful. We've had some amazing people come through it; all with a huge amount of experience. We've had about 40 people who've started up businesses, and others who have been confident to go into new roles or started as freelancers.

However everyone involved had a problem in finding the time to do the homework, because they were all too busy looking after their families. I thought we needed a co-working space. I went to the council and they supported me to develop the concept.

I went to two community centres which were Ofsted registered and we started combining that service with three hour drop in working sessions twice a week. We're also running separate hour long workshops, thanks to additional funding from RBS (Inspiring Women in Enterprise) that people can choose to go to. Primarily it's an opportunity for people to come and work, but it might even be to do their household admin, or just give them quiet time. For a lot of people they're also trying out a creche for the first time, so they like that they can hear what's going on, and can pop in and out to see what is happening with their child.

Do you focus on parents, or is it a focus on mums alone?

We do have men coming on the course and using the co-working space,  probably a ration of about 10%, but that's still the reality of life. I tag everything 'parents' although often it's local mums who attend. My long term strategic vision for the service to be for all parents is really important to me.

Co-working has become much more mainstream now, as has flexible working, and child care has to become more flexible alongside that.

How do you want to progress the business going forward?

My long term goals are to have a place where parents with a professional background or going through a career change, feel comfortable to come and think through their worklife as a parent, and make flexible working successful for them.

I think there is a huge opportunity for a network of community centres to act as all sorts of different support services - childcare, and co-working facilities that would be part of their weekly routine. It would be somewhere that parents could come and get support around parenting and their professional lives, in an environment they feel proud to be part of. It's quite a big agenda! My vision is to have 10 parent hubs around Central London where parents can come and really be part of something.

I'm looking at new locations. You have to have a strong network to open up anywhere. I've got a network of London female founders together who are doing similar things and looking at opportunities in this space. I want to generally encourage the market to develop because I think at the moment, we don't really know what will work to draw parents to use these kinds of facilities; and the more that the message is out there about the industry, the better.

I'd really like to promote within networks and companies to be more creative about flexible working, and to raise the agenda politically so that councils and central government think more creatively about childcare options.

To find out more about Bloomsbury Beginnings, check out their website here or follow them on Instagram

Leo Wood, The CoWorkSpace Company - locations including Winkley Studios and Cooks Yard, and PlayPen

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How did your journey into co-working start?

I was actually an arts and theatre producer and that was my career progression since graduating from university. I was looking to create an office space that was affordable, so I thought I'd try and find somewhere cool, rent out some desks, and cover my overheads by bringing in an income. At that point in 2010, co-working wasn't even a name.

I found this great space in Durham Yard, which was a fun collective of little Victorian workshops and offices, and rented one of the units. We had about 5 desks, and the landlord didn't really know what we were doing, but within a month I'd managed to pay back the money that was required to rent it for the next 4 months. So we rented out the two units above as well. I ran the business for 5 years and I worked from there as a theatre producer.

In a way the co-working idea has developed in that time, particularly the idea of providing services or thinking about active community engagement.

I got pregnant in 2012 and decided I didn't really want to be a theatre producer anymore. I thought that I would have loads of time when I had a baby, and that I'd get really bored without a project, so I decided to scale up the workspace thing. I went on a property hunt while I was pregnant, and found a site just around the corner, on Winkley Street. I was literally going to pick up for the keys for it when my daughter was about a week old, but thank god, the tenants were delayed in moving out, so I was only moving in when she was six weeks old. But there was this period where I remember she was always in the sling, I was painting walls, and every two hour nap was work time. It was really full on, and a bit of a mistake, although you live to tell the tale. We opened in November 2013, and it was very successful.

What was the model of the business when you first opened it?

I think in a way, because I knew I was having a baby, the ambition of the project was more one step forward, rather than three steps forward, and that was quite deliberate. I knew it needed to be manageable rather than 5 times the size, employing a load of staff, spending £50k on a whole new IT system. So in a way whilst I was able to do more with Winkley, I wasn't able to do everything I might have done if I hadn't had a kid.

The interesting thing about co-working, is that you can have an idea of the community you want to support, but actually the community finds you. You create the space with your own principles and other like-minded people are attracted to that. Our spaces have a design focus, but affordability is really important. It's also about low fuss, calm working spaces. There are a lot of co-working spaces that tend to appeal to the younger, tech focused guys, with after work drinks all of the time, but we're more homely, affordable and flexible. 

What sparked the idea about your most recent location addition, the pop up PlayPen co-working / childcare sessions?

I think the childcare problem is really interesting. The typical successful start up founder is probably a 25 year old man, and childcare is the last thing on their mind. It's an area where there could be a lot more innovation.

I ran two taster sessions in the summer of 2015, which were really successful. I was interested in the pop up model, because it's more viable. Your life doesn't get overtaken with writing Ofsted reports, although you still need to find funding. We now run a weekly session in Mile End at the St. Pauls Community Centre, which gives parents a few hours working in the Paper & Cup Cafe, while their children get to play in the creche next door.

How do you see the flexible childcare market developing?

One of the challenges is that you put in so much energy and effort, but then you're only creating 50 spaces maximum, but in a way the problem is so big, there must be a digital solution to the problem that would have more impact.

I think that Sitters.co.uk potentially starts to solve the problem. It's really high level, vetted babysitters, who you can book in flexible hours at an hourly rate. The rating system from other parents is very effective. I met a woman who used Sitters in an incredibly resourceful way. She'd have a meeting in Barbican, go earlier and meet the sitters woman, have her meetings and then come back to the sitter. Of course, that doesn't deliver on the co-working, and there is a real need for parents to build communities, and that's what the co-working delivers, but the real problem is the childcare, not the flexible working space.

I also think it's a really big problem for the first 9 months, but then women manage to work something out, whether it's a friend or granny helping out, or finding a great nursery. When I first had Evie I was so passionate about this issue, but once Evie was settled, and happy (we have a nanny share), I became less obsessed about it.

Dads being more involved has become more acceptable, and they are more hands on than they ever were, but there is still a long way to go. Childcare tends to be a woman's problem, we tend to be the ones looking for a solution, or doing interviews with nannies. It still tends to fall into our admin pile.

To find out more about Playpen, go to their site at www.playpencowork.com or follow them on Twitter https://twitter.com/playpencowork

For more pieces like this about the changing world of work, follow @mastersofmany on Instagram