By Siobhan Doran, Managing Director of Thread Publishing
Siobhan Doran heads up a multimedia brand storytelling agency, Thread Publishing, servicing a range of clients to put humanity in business and tell their stories more meaningfully through content marketing. Before this, she left the world of corporate communications to launch The Writers’ Group, and provide written content for companies to help them become more accessible to their target markets.
Despite her business growth, Siobhan opens up about her journey as an entrepreneur so far – juggling work and motherhood and uncertainty along the way. Here she candidly shares the highs and lows that unfolded at every step of the journey so far.
I think there are times when being an entrepreneur isn’t a neatly planned out decision, instead, the moment picks you. This was certainly the case for me, and I want to share my journey so far in the hope that it helps others in some way. Because the bottom line here is that being an entrepreneur can be one of the hardest things you will ever do.
I often say that if I knew what was involved in running my business, I’m not sure I would have taken the steps to do it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my work and I am frankly addicted to my business and its growth, but it is a tiring journey and certainly not the ‘overnight success’ the media likes to paint a picture of – say, when I read about the latest start-up or log onto Facebook and see my newsfeed filled with seemingly easy success stories.
My decision to run a business came from a very practical need: our two children, and my desire to spend more time with them. I’d been working in the government as a media advisor and as head of corporate communications, and I knew I could take the large volumes of writing I had been doing in-house and offer this service to other organisations through a network of freelance journalists. This is where the idea for my first business, The Writers’ Group, came from.
Taking the plunge
There was I, at the kitchen table with my five-month old boy in my arms and my three-year old son beside me, having handed in my notice at work, and with no formal business experience. My father was an entrepreneur to the very core, but he passed away three years earlier, aged 62. I remember missing his advice and insights at that moment more than ever. And I still do – there is so much he could have taught me, and no doubt more lessons ahead that I will learn the hard way without such advice to steer me on course when needed.
Looking back to that early moment at the kitchen table, with a fresh stack of business cards next to me, and a new laptop whirring into action, I’m glad I didn’t think it through too much. Now knowing what I do about the sheer hard work involved, I would have considered not pushing on.
So, on July 4th 2011, I just got on with it. The website went live and The Writers’ Group launched. After an excited call to my mum and close friends and a cup of celebratory tea, I started sending emails, calling up old colleagues, and going to networking events. Nothing happened for three months – but then, slowly, very slowly, the work came in.
Growth kicks in
The story goes onto say that we doubled our six figure revenue in the first three years of operation and now in our fourth year, the sister brand to The Writers’ Group, Thread Publishing has been launched to put humanity in business through our brand journalism and multimedia storytelling services. It all sounds like a fairly easy growth period, but I can honestly say it has been the hardest thing I have ever done – and my dad left a small amount of inheritance which covered my salary in the early years. It wasn’t much, and it was one-third what my previous salary was, but it got us through in a very lean – but critical – way.
I would dearly love one day to offer a similar investment to start-ups, because the fact of the matter is that few businesses grow quickly enough to pay a salary from day one, often let alone in the second or third year of operation. This practical reality can be the difference between a business making it or breaking it.
While we have experienced this growth, the day-to-day grit involved in running your own business can be very testing on so many levels. And above all, you need to find a support network beyond your family and friends who will walk beside you – I say this as much for your family’s benefit as your own.
The hard yards
Looking back, I had a vision I would be somehow baking cupcakes in the kitchen while simultaneously taking client phone calls. The truth is I did try this, but I didn’t account for the very human variable, which is how children choose that precise moment to burst into tears/spill rice all over the floor/run out onto the street. Soon I realised there was no way I could get any work done with the children underfoot – and this is probably a good thing as the whole point of the business was to create more quality time with my kids.
So, I would set the alarm at 3am and work till 5am, and then pick up my work again during my youngest son’s naptimes when my three year old was at preschool. I would work on the weekends when my husband was home, and in the evenings when the kids were in bed. Dishes collected in the sink, piles of washing went unfolded, the bathroom took on an interesting shade of beige – but you have to drop what you need to, to prioritise. And at that early and very vulnerable stage of the business, all I could focus on was my family and the business.
This continued – to be completely honest – for the best part of nearly two years, until we couldn’t take the chaos any more. My husband decided to leave his job and help out in the business, as well as being at home more for the kids. This wasn’t an easy decision, and it financially challenged us beyond belief, but I don’t know how we would have got through this period with young children and a young business in any other way. He’s since returned to work and the break helped him to redefine his career direction, so it has worked out very well in hindsight.
But during this period with my husband at home and working in the business (as well as mostly running the household), there were sacrifices.
The sacrifices made
You need to accept that you can’t be all things to all people, and near enough is good enough. As our kids got a little bit older and the lines between ‘work time’ and ‘family time’ blurred with both parents at home and working all hours, they were tough years. Slowly I could see that the original plan for the business, to spend more time with the children, was drifting further and further away.
However – this didn’t last forever. By the end of our third year, with my husband now back at work and the business gaining momentum, stability began to kick in. Were it not for the sacrifices in those very hard early years, I would not be able to spend the quality time with my kids that I now do. Looking back I can say that this has been worth it, and now with my children aged seven and four, I can spend more time with them than I ever could have had I not launched the businesses.
Having said that, we still have good days and bad days and it’s not perfect. I would like even more time with my children, but I am growing the business and by looking after the stability of the business, I am looking after our family’s future.
The reward of flexibility
Regardless of any of this, not a day goes by now when I don’t feel grateful for the flexibility afforded to me and my family. I don’t have to ask my boss if I can work away from our studio to stay at home for the day, or take a half-day off to attend literacy group at my son’s school, or help out in the canteen each month, or even just drop everything to spend a day at home with our now four-year old.
The business provides a flexibility that probably isn’t available in many full-time roles within organisations. I still work a 50-hour week, and there are days when I feel utterly exhausted from the juggle, but I can be creative with how and when I choose my hours – within reason. And now as an employer, I implement these same flexible work practises as we continue to grow.
At the heart of the dream
But this is all logistics, and it doesn’t paint the full picture, or even come close to its heart. Behind the schedules, stress, and sacrifice lies a passion to do some serious good in this world. If I wanted to open up a business that helped to provide for my family, there are other businesses I could have chosen to run. My decision to launch The Writers’ Group and now Thread Publishing comes from an obsessive desire to tell the stories of business leaders who are using business as a force for good. We work with these companies to tell their stories and create their content, which in turn, empowers the very people they seek to serve. As their brand publishers, our journalists, designers and documentary makers are part of this wider change towards business for purpose.
This is what keeps me awake at night, in a good way. This is my purpose and our company is creating positive change, one story at a time. It brings untold meaning and inspiration into my life, and the lives of people around us. And there is no way that you can grow a business without this very strong sense of purpose. I knew I needed to create a business that would help me to honour my role as a mother first and foremost, but once this logistical box was ticked, I knew I needed to find something very personally relevant to me that would drive me onwards during the highs and lows ahead.
So that is how the story began for me, sparked by a logistical need and fuelled by a higher purpose. It’s not a perfect tale of month-on-month growth. There have been highs and lows, and this will probably continue, like it does in most business journeys. Along the way on this four-year journey, we also threw in two spinal operations (my husband and me), a knee reconstruction (me) and three house moves during this period. Just for fun, as you do…
What I have learnt
But I have learnt more about business and about life, frankly – then I could have ever done had I not launched my companies. This is knowledge that can’t be undone and it will continue to carry me onwards no matter what the future holds. I will never look back and think ‘what if?’ Life is too short to not do what you know in your heart you should be doing – but just go into it with plenty of planning, some savings or part-time work to back you up at least initially, eyes wide open, an optimistic spirit and a great support team around you.
Siobhán Doran heads up brand publishing agency, Thread Publishing, which puts humanity into business by connecting the world, one story at a time. Siobhan loves working with socially conscious leaders to uncover their inspirational stories, and also help inspiring companies shine through Thread’s content marketing services. Previously a journalist, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Telegraph, The Age, ACP and Pacific magazine publications, Siobhan moved into state government to work as a media advisor and later, as head of strategic communications for a state government organisation. Then she started all over again from the kitchen table…