Justine Roberts is a former economist and sports correspondent, a Liverpool supporter, and a mother of ‘five’, her four children and one internet sensation.
A year after the birth of her first children, her twins, she felt in need of some R’n’R – a holiday but “Sadly we chose the wrong destination, in the wrong time zone, at the wrong resort with, frankly, the wrong children.” She recalls.
The holiday to Florida in 1999 was “a disaster … we hadn’t thought through the time differences or journey. The kids spent the whole plane journey vomiting, and when we arrived, they woke up at 2 a.m. every day. There were supposed to be childcare facilities in the hotel, but the staff didn’t have any training or interest in children. So all of the parents were sitting around the pool bemoaning their choice.”
However rather than just moaning Roberts used it as inspiration. “At the time, everyone was having an internet idea,…” So she had one too about “a website for parents to swap advice, support and, of course, holiday recommendations.”
Roberts had met Carrie Longton, at the time a TV producer, in 1998 at antenatal classes and, following the birth of their children, the group continued to meet up. Roberts now persuaded her to join her.
Neither had any tech skills so Justine asked an old university friend Steven Cassidy to build the site (who completed the trio of founders).
The original idea had been to grow the business quickly and then sell it but that was to prove to be just a pipedream. The reality was the dotcom crash happened and plans had to change.
“We just hunkered down and we built the community. And actually what we realised is there was a need for it. With any business, there’s got to be a need for it,” recalls Longton “We didn’t earn any money.”
Roberts is equally honest about those times; “The business plan I’d cooked up wasn’t worth the paper it was written on and for the first eight years of our existence, Mumsnet Towers consisted of a back room shared with a washer and dryer. Salaries were remembered fondly from previous careers.”
At times they even posted comments under multiple names to create the illusion of activity,
But slowly and steadily at first then more rapidly Mumsnet began to grow and grow. It became a generally supportive, often hilarious community of mostly women who supported each other through conception, birth, teenage years and beyond.
As Mumsnet grew, so did its muscle and it wasn’t scared to flex its muscle. It mounted a ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign aimed at getting retailers to agree to stop selling products that projected an adult sexuality on to young children, This was followed by a ‘This Is My Child’ campaign to raise awareness of the challenges of raising kids with special needs and even more provocative ones like “We Believe You” aimed to bust rape myths and Better Miscarriage Care calling for improvement for the care of women who miscarry.
Politicians and even Prime Minsters started queueing up to appear on live webchats.
At its 10th birthday party Prime Minister Gordon Brown referred to Mumsnet as a “great British institution”.
In May 2011, Roberts founded Gransnet, a sister site to Mumsnet for users over 50.
Roberts was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours, for services to the economy.
While Roberts has learnt lots about being a CEO, her key insights from her time at Mumsnet are not surprisingly about mums and include “there is no standard template for an A-grade mother” and that every mum shouldn’t lose sight of herself as a person “a mother is just one of the many things a woman is.”
She does have thoughts on why Mumsnet has been so successful and one of those is “With Mumsnet, there’s a sense of audience. Facebook is too generalised.”
And the moral of the story as Carrie Longton put it “With any business, there’s got to be a need for it.”