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Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts is flying high

Written by Hannah Prevett, Emilie Sandy on Friday, 01 May 2015. Posted in Big business, Interviews

Justine Roberts, Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award finalist, explains how she’s changed perceptions of mums over the last 15 years

Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts is flying high

Amongst the uninitiated, ‘Mumsnet’ may conjure up images of banal parenting chat. What nappy brands are on offer at Waitrose? When’s the right time to start weaning? Where can I buy the best maternity jeans? But this couldn’t be further from the truth: the bulk of the conversations are about politics, economics and the complex dynamics of human relationships, including, of course, sex. Mumsnet nearly broke the internet when stories about ‘penis beaker’ (google it) went viral a couple of years ago. 

It’s exactly this kind of preconception about mothers that really gets up Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts’ nose. “There’s a lot of humour on Mumsnet, which the media doesn’t really get because they don’t think mums are funny,” says Roberts, who started the site in late 1999 with co-founder Carrie Longton.

An even greater number of people have prejudices about older generations of women, which is why she decided to launch Gransnet in 2011. “Mumsnet didn’t start as a mission but it’s become a mission because I discovered along the way there were these dreadful prejudices against mothers – and I think it’s even worse for older women. People assume that a. they can’t use the internet and b. they’re humourless, pernickety and fussy. The general level of ageism in our society, particularly towards women, is something we thought we’d have a crack at,” explains Roberts, from Mumsnet HQ (known as MNHQ amongst its legions of fans), an office in a Kentish Town business park that houses 85 staff.

There are some subtle differences between the two sites, mainly in tone. “Gransnet is still funny and chatty but it’s slightly more polite and there’s no swearing.” The community, which is largely self-policing, came up with this rule – not MNHQ. “If we tried to ban swearing on Mumsnet there would be absolute outcry,” laughs Roberts. “It doesn’t suit everyone but it suits the majority, it seems to me.” Though some users will naturally gravitate towards Gransnet as they advance in years, Roberts jokes, “it’s not like you get chucked off Mumsnet when you hit 55”.

Growth has been steady, though the newer sibling site has a way to go before it competes with Mumsnet’s 60 million monthly page impressions. “Gransnet is showing exactly the same kind of growth pattern [as Mumsnet] but just accelerated a bit – which it ought to be because we’re not on dial-up any more.”

It’s not been as easy to attract advertising as Roberts expected, however. While brands now beat a path to her door to advertise on Mumsnet, the same hasn’t been true with Gransnet – despite the well-publicised power of the ‘grey pound’. “We couldn’t really understand why there wasn’t so much competition in that space considering all we know about the fact we’re an ageing population and that’s where a lot of disposable income is now. But then we got to talk to agencies and we realised why: they have no interest in older people and a lot of advertisers just don’t really address that market,” says Roberts.

“It’s a sort of market failure in a way. I think it’s partly because the advertising world is full of young, mostly male, creatives who just find the very thought of [older people] off-putting.”

Whilst fighting the good fight for Britain’s older women, Roberts and her team also have to contend with the march of technology. Though Mumsnet has faced criticism for its website looking a bit dated, the feedback from users seems to be that they like it very much the way it is, thank you. And as the old mantra goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “We are lucky because we do have a 24/7 focus group and our users share with us when they want something – and that’s useful,” says Roberts. “We are a mobile-first organisation; 54% of our traffic is on mobile already and I fully expect that number to grow.” The company’s 20-strong development team (mainly blokes – “we would love to have more female coders”) is currently working on three new apps. Watch this space.

Roberts herself has a love/hate relationship with modern technology. “I don’t think there’s much of a barrier now between work and home because you carry this portable computer. As many people do, I’ve lost several phones down the loo. You are constantly checking and responding [to emails] and taking calls from the radio. It’s quite hard to know when you’re working and when you’re not.”

Smartphones are quite the attention thieves, too, she adds. “I was watching Newsnight (her husband Ian Katz is the programme’s editor) and reading Twitter last night and I realised I hadn’t watched it at all, to the point I hadn’t actually understood the arguments, because I was too busy checking Twitter for what Twitter was saying about Newsnight. It’s crazy.”

Social networks like Twitter and Facebook were just a twinkle in their founders’ eyes when Roberts and Longton founded Mumsnet in November 1999. Roberts had already had two careers – the first in investment banking, the second as a sports journalist – and was looking for a more family-friendly environment. “Being pregnant with twins going to interview Harry Redknapp; you can imagine what he thought about that. I was enormous. [Being female] definitely helped me get in the door but I should imagine it’s very hard for women to be taken seriously in that environment.”

A bad holiday experience in Florida with her husband and their baby twins in 1999 provided the genesis of the idea for Mumsnet. “The journey was awful and too far. It was a ridiculous timezone and the kids would wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking it was breakfast. The resort was chaos: all the parents couldn’t use the creche and I remember the person who was assigned to look after our kids had been hired as a cook three days before and had no childcare experience. All the parents were bemoaning it and saying, ‘if only we’d known’.”

The seed was sown. “We’re not trained for this parenting thing. Being able to tap into people who’ve been there and done that and to get the wisdom of the crowd has got to be a useful thing. That’s the simple idea that really underpins what Mumsnet still does today,” explains Roberts.

Aware of the toil involved in setting up a company, she roped in a few friends: Steve Cassidy, a friend she’d met whilst studying PPE at Oxford, agreed to build it for her and co-founder Longton, who’d previously been a TV producer. Longton was a hard sell, says Roberts. “She didn’t even have a computer and barely knew what the internet was. I convinced her by saying she could always work flexibly, she could always work part-time, and we’d have our meetings in the jacuzzi of the local gym where we both went – which we did once but the paper got very soggy.” 

These were the gold rush days of the internet – “everyone was doing a start-up” – and Roberts fully expected to raise money. She went to First Tuesday, the networking event for entrepreneurs and investors, which she describes as “extraordinary” and “full of money men and very young entrepreneurs – I felt way too old.” But before she could persuade an investor to part with their cash, the bubble burst and with it her hopes of raising investment. 

Like many who start on a shoestring after being shunned by investors, she’s now extremely grateful. “It was a good thing to be honest because, as several other people did, we would have had way too high costs for the revenues that, as it turned out, were completely pie in the sky. The idea that anybody was going to make money out of e-commerce when most people were on dial-up was really fallacious. The other thing that happened was the advertising market just collapsed; when I started there was a cost per thousand page impressions to advertisers of £25 and within six months it was £2.50.”

Mumsnet grew steadily and organically over the next six years and though it didn’t become immediately successful in fiscal terms, it amassed an army of loyal fans. “The community grew and took on a life of its own. Whilst it was disheartening not to make any money, it was very heartening to see what was going on in our forums and people used to write to me every week to say, ‘Mumsnet has literally saved my life’.”

They ploughed on, believing that financial success would follow eventually. “I was always convinced that there had to ultimately be a business here, if it’s this useful to people. I was always very honest with our users and I used to write these letters saying, ‘we don’t want to charge but we might have to at some stage’. People voluntarily subscribed and sent us money. I got £200 in the post one morning,” she recalls. 

The turning point came in 2006. Suddenly, there was excitement about social media – “what people were then calling Web 2.0” – and brands were becoming more comfortable with the idea of online advertising, even on forums and next to user-controlled content. “They had been very sceptical about putting their brand anywhere near where real people were allowed to discuss things because you can’t control it,” says Roberts. “Never mind the fact we had a million people using the site; they still wanted to be in a magazine where the environment was very controlled and there’s no real chance of anyone criticising you.” But that had all begun to change.

That’s not to say that advertising on Mumsnet became a free for all. The company is selective about the brands it will work with and the banned list is generally controlled by its users. “They sent us money to keep it alive, they create the content; they are a huge stakeholder in this thing and they care very deeply about the brand. They’ve always had a say in everything we do and that goes from site design to people we partner with, to formats of adverts to people we have as advertisers. It’s a moveable list but at the moment we have a number of brands and industries on our list that we think don’t sit with our philosophy.”

Long-term residents on the banned list include the cosmetic surgery industry, payday loan companies, gambling or any publication that “carries bare-breasted women”. McDonald’s was recently reinstated after being banned for many years; users decided the fast-food chain was now acceptable. “That was testament to the work McDonald’s has done. It’s not perfect and it wasn’t 100% of people but a clear majority said, ‘it doesn’t bother me at all if you take adverts from McDonald’s.”

The other major event at MNHQ in 2006 was when David Cameron decided he wanted to speak to Mumsnetters. “It was his first public appearance after taking paternity leave and he’d just become Tory leader,” says Roberts. This really put Mumsnet on the map as an organisation that wielded significant political power. The 2010 election was even dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’ as politicians clamoured for a chance to court the electorate.

It was after realising its political prowess that Mumsnet began lobbying government on the issues that mattered to users. “Mumsnet wasn’t meant to be a campaigning organisation but it became obvious we should and it was very much driven by members.” The first issue it tackled was miscarriage care, which users had found to be woefully under par. “The system was systematically unsympathetic: women were often being asked to miscarry on maternity wards and they continued to get notices about appointments after they miscarried.” The impact of Mumsnet’s work in this area continues to be felt: Mumsnet’s code of care was in the Labour manifesto which came out last month.

But a site which has 7.5 million unique visitors each month must have to pick its battles wisely. “We do have some clear guidelines,” says Roberts. “It’s got to be something that a pretty overwhelming majority supports. So that rules out quite a lot of political issues – we’re a diverse site with people from all sides of the spectrum. We’re not going to be campaigning on something that is very clearly a conservative policy.”

It’s clear where the power lies at Mumsnet: Roberts has an unwavering respect for the loyal legion of mums who populate the forums with their gripes and advice alike. “It always felt like it was a very different kind of business and that was partly because it wasn’t a start-up that raised VC money and went global, and had different people’s agendas to satisfy.” 

Not that this couldn’t change. Rumours continue to circulate that the time may be nigh for Mumsnet to fly the nest. But any potential owner would be foolish to tamper with a tried and tested formula, says Roberts. “The truth is the pool of people Mumsnet can sell to is not the whole pool if it was ever sold. But equally I think anyone who bought it would understand that you mess with the democratic way we do business at their peril. Our users can go anywhere they like; the internet has no boundaries. They don’t have to be on Mumsnet. I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to want to buy Mumsnet and completely change it.”

These days, Roberts hangs out on Mumsnet a lot less. She spends a lot of her time out at meetings or meeting with the media and liaising with government. Outside of work, she’s got her hands full practicing what she and others preach on Mumsnet – she’s got four children aged between nine and 16 – and is an avid Liverpool fan. It’s unsurprising that there’s not much time for anything else.

“I don’t really do a lot of expanding my mind or hobbies because there isn’t any time for that. My husband says I have no hinterland. I have no time for a hinterland. Work and family is what I do,” she laughs. Thanks to Mumsnet, at least she can now get a decent holiday recommendation. 

 

Justine Roberts is a finalist for the prestigious Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award, to be announced at a glittering awards ceremony on May 11.

About the Author

Hannah Prevett

Hannah Prevett

Prevett likes to think she's something of an expert when it comes to small business. Having cut her teeth writing about tech, she latterly moved on to such illustrious titles as Growing Business, Management Today and the Sunday Times to indulge her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship: from P&Ls to private equity and all that's in between, you can't keep this girl away from the heady world of start-ups. 

Back in the day when she had spare time, she would spend it networking, horse riding, drafting and re-drafting ideas for novels, and playing auntie to her niece and three god-children. Those were the days...

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EB and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...

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