If you had told me in the spring of 2020 that taking on even more responsibility by launching a business would be the key to getting through the pandemic without losing my mind I would have choked on the obligatory banana bread.
BC (Before Covid), I naively decided that 2020 was going to be my year; I had just landed a new job as Head of Content at tiney, a fast-growing start-up with an office in a trendy bit of London and, at four and two, my kids were no longer babies (spoiler alert: two-year-olds are still pretty much babies). Plus I’d even renounced black leggings and started dressing up every day.
We all know what happened next: yep, the exact opposite of swanning around Shoreditch in pretty dresses while someone else took care of the children. Working five days a week from home, juggling home-schooling and childcare, every minute of every day felt fraught and exhausting, with my husband and I veering wildly between time-tabling each hour between us to feel in control, and just saying “f**k it” and buying more screens to put the kids in front of while we tried to get to grips with Zoom life. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was also feeling an extra level of loopy thanks to being, at 39, in premature menopause (but that’s a story for another day).
Also, I hated working from home, and not just in lockdown. I need the work/home separation that a commute forces and I’m an annoying chatty type who’s at their most creative and productive when there are other annoying chatty types in close proximity, to bounce ideas off and all that other insufferable W1A type nonsense. As a result, my professional confidence was at an all-time low and, since I’d started the new job just three weeks before the first lockdown, I hadn’t had the chance to make a good impression. It’s fair to say that, with perhaps the exception of the summer I spent fruit-picking after my GCSEs, I have never felt more terrible at any job than I did in my first few months at tiney, and the only thing that helped was knowing there were others in the same boat.
In a slightly different but equally relentless boat just 30 seconds around the corner was my friend Lucy, who I met through NCT in 2015 when we were both pregnant with our little boys, and who now had a daughter the same age as mine too. She was a self-employed learning and development consultant and, like so many other mums who’d gone freelance for the extra flexibility (ha!), had now, thanks to Covid, lost most of her work and therefore become her household’s default home-schooler and toddler-wrangler.
We, along with every other parent of young kids we knew, but especially the mums, were both miserable. We did the obligatory hasty doorstep drop-offs of cakes and books and eggs (remember when there were no eggs?), which morphed into lingering doorstep gin-in-a-tins and, by the winter lockdowns, late night walks with wine hidden in coffee cups (all things considered, I’m not really concerned about being arrested for this now).
We talked about work, a lot. I’d had an idea in the back of mind for ages about a website I wanted to launch to showcase online courses and do something - anything - to help women feel more confident, but it hadn’t really taken shape and I was convinced I needed to partner with someone techie to get it off the ground. Lucy wasn’t techie, but she was brilliant. Best of all, she too was an annoying chatty creative type. We were both feeling frustrated by the drudgery of pandemic parenting and the fact that the new ways of working didn’t play to our strengths, so we decided to just go for it, and so Discoco (although at the time it didn’t have a name) began to form.
But with everything else in my life - my job, the kids, plus the demanding exercise habit I’d developed during lockdown after barely moving for the preceding 39 years - how on earth did I think I could launch a business?
Valid question. And definitely one my husband, friends, family and tiney team-mates had.
It hasn’t been easy. There’s a problem in tech and that problem, as with so many things, comes down to money. Normal people don’t have the time or cash to speculatively launch businesses, which is why the start-up world is awash with the unusually privileged. Me and my husband are equal earners, so if I don’t have a salary coming in, we can’t pay our bills. I couldn’t jack in my job and hedge my bets on Discoco - and actually didn’t want to as, despite the rough start, I liked my job at tiney and in many ways found it complimentary.
One thing I realised in lockdown was that structuring my time was key. I know it’s not cool, but I bloody love an itinerary. I had managed to apply this mindset to exercise for months, with great success (yes, I have a running schedule stuck to the fridge; no, you can’t see it) and during my most dynamic work periods I’m surrounded by post-its listing out tasks chronologically. Sure, I dabble with productivity tools but ultimately I’m quite old and I JUST LIKE PENS!
I needed to break Discoco down like this too - which meant somehow carving out some time to structure in the first place. So, Lucy and I formed a plan. We cobbled together £1,500 between us for the bits we didn’t have the time or skills to do ourselves (namely, web design) and I went down to four days a week at work, which was just about financially do-able because it coincided with my daughter - finally! - getting her 30 funded hours at nursery. I’m pretty sure that’s what Take That meant when they sang Greatest Day.
Less than a year since Discoco went live, it’s going really well. We’ve created a brand that seems to resonate with the people who know about it and we have a bit of money trickling in via the brilliant experts who’ve joined our course creator membership, and now also from the one-of-a-kind course we’ve just launched, The Big Career Reset, aimed at women who want to do something different with their lives, but need direction, confidence or both.
As I’d hoped, working with Lucy as my co-founder has provided that accountability I so need and that so many of us struggled to find during the pandemic. I could never get something off the ground by myself; I need to feel like there’s someone either breathing down my neck or dangling a cheque in front of me to get things done, and that my actions, or lack of, impact people or things I care about.
These days my Friday commute is the 30 second walk to Lucy’s house, where we work together from her kitchen table and I instantly feel more motivated, not least because she’s a neat freak so her house feels much more like an office than my pigsty.
The rest of my Disocco time happens in the evenings and at weekends, which is tough, but again, I try and structure it to minimise the impact on my family - so, for instance, I’ll write the weekly newsletter while my husband takes the kids to a football match; that way they think I’m the one missing out.
There are issues, of course and sometimes I have to remind myself that this extra juggle is a personal choice. It often feels like every single second of my life is accounted for, which has not only destroyed my ambition to complete Netflix but also means that if one little variable goes wrong, I feel screwed. The weekend before we launched The Big Career Reset, for instance, my 6-year-old came down with Covid, followed in quick succession by my now 4-year-old daughter, and then, a couple of days ago, me. Omicron is cheeky like that.
But it’s this incessant plate-spinning that so many mums are at the mercy of that made us want to launch the site in the first place. I like to think the women browsing Discoco for inspiration feel like I did two years ago, ready for “my year” to start. We might not be able to control pandemics or politics but we can find new passions and work on our confidence or even try to start businesses and change our careers if we want to; whatever it takes to feel like we’re doing something positive for ourselves.
I’m frequently a bit stressed and overwhelmed, and often feel guilty in multiple directions (what if Lucy finds out I watched an episode of Mare Of Easttown the other night instead of working on our social strategy? What if my boss finds out I glanced at the Discoco Instagram account during a meeting? What if my kids find out I was writing this piece for The Juggle when I could have been doing Lego with them?), but all of that is offset by also feeling happier, more connected, more creatively fulfilled and most of all, more confident about my abilities to do something.
And if the next piece I write for The Juggle is “How I Burned Myself Out While Launching A Side Hustle During A Pandemic And You Definitely Shouldn’t Do That, Ever”, I’m sorry.