By: Angela Prentner-Smith, Founder and MD of This is Milk
When Covid hit I was four months pregnant with my second child, Neve, and managing an established business with a small team. I’d gotten into a place where we were comfortably earning enough money and had overcome the start-up anxiety and challenges that plagued our early years. We had clients, consultants and a team, and everything was, well, comfortable for the first time in my 5 years of running the business.
I was about to travel to Dubai in March 2020 to deliver training to a client, and as a pregnant traveller, I kept hearing ‘are you sure you should be travelling?’. I hadn’t really paid much attention to the chat of what was then just termed ‘The coronavirus’, on the basis of not wanting to add worry to my pregnant self. I was abnormally anxious in my early pregnancy, specifically in relation to the climate emergency.
The day before I was due to travel, the trip was cancelled. All the delegates were grounded, and we were told to stand down. Equal parts relieved and worried I spent way too many hours in Covid internet searches and ended up in the deep depths of conspiracy theories. Fuelling my nervous pregnancy, I called my husband home from work and cried on and off for a week worried about the impact of the lockdown coming, getting sick myself and all of the unknowns.
Lockdown came the week before my son’s 6th birthday, and that was the first of our personal events to be cancelled. My son was a happy, active, sociable child, and the thought of him being cut off from school, his friends and his beloved Granny were just heart breaking for me. And, well we all know what happened next… lockdown just went on and on and on.
My son was awful, there’s no other word for it. He really couldn’t stay happy, cut off from everything. Home schooling was a nightmare, and I cried often. Eventually, the school offered us a part-time space in the hub school to help lift him from what was effectively depression.
This sounds all bad, but I want to share some of the learnings and positive things that came out of Covid for me. What was really nice about working through the pandemic online was that I was pregnant and none of my clients knew. I had worried about telling clients that I was pregnant and their response to that because there's an expectation that if the owner is not there, the company doesn't run.
While working this way we found useful tools online, to help democratise decision-making like, Easyretro, Mural and braided communications. I worked out ways to run focus groups – limiting the bias that they normally bring to bear and really running democratic meeting spaces. The business itself was actually going OK. I did furlough my staff for a short while due to uncertainty but by the time I was due to have my baby they were all back.
Birth of my daughter
I had my daughter in July 2020, Neve, and I ended up taking only six weeks of maternity leave and that was it.
That may sound too short, and I’m sure some will judge me for it. Someone is going to criticize you no matter what your choices are, as a mother. What I've learned, with this being my second child, is to ignore peoples’ expectations of you as a mother. Somebody will criticize you for working, somebody will criticize you for not working enough. Someone will criticize you for being a stay-at-home mom, someone will criticize you for being an absent mom. So, it doesn't really matter what you do. You do you.
My choice to return so soon wasn’t out of necessity but out of desire. The thought of being stuck in the house with a baby, with nowhere to go, was unfathomable. For the first few months, Neve was no real bother. I managed to work while taking care of her, she even came to meetings and workshops with me. She was just kind of my little sidekick.
It did start to get difficult when she was around the six months mark because she just wanted to be held all the time and I could no longer multitask to the level she wanted. At that point, my Husband took a spell of shared parental leave.
It is great that we were able to do that, but we wouldn't have been able to even two years before when the business was more in a struggling situation. The business had been run really lean and we had a lot of profits sitting in the business. I was actually able to pay myself a decent amount through that year, for the first time ever in the whole history of running This is Milk, so that we could afford enough to support the family. Shared parenting leave – whilst great, doesn’t provide enough money to incentivise fathers to take up the option.
While I was still on maternity leave, everybody kept telling me about the CivTech challenge that the Scottish Digital Academy had put out and telling me that we should reply to this. It was about creating a new learning environment for the future.
I said, “I have no interest in starting a tech business and I'm on maternity leave right now”. Just leave me with my baby. But it was my colleague Al that convinced me that we should do this. So, one night, Al, Kate, Steve and I got onto a Zoom call, at 8pm. I literally had a baby in one arm and a glass of wine in the other, and we came up with ideas. We came up with the idea for an app that encouraged lifelong learning behaviour, we called it Sherpa (we’ve since changed the name to Neve).
We kept winning rounds of CivTech, which we didn't expect to happen. The exploration phase of CivTech actually started the week I was coming off maternity leave, so all of this perfectly coincided.
We decided to take a big punt and now we're in a position where we've got 11 employees, 10 contractors and three lines of business. All the profit we make is going to fund the e-learning product and in the space of just two years, we’ve gone from a comfortable small boutique consultancy to a tech scaler.
So, in the midst of a pandemic, I had a baby and started a tech business.
Learn more about Angela
You can read the first part of this blog by clicking here.