An Interview With Digital Mums’ Nikki Cochrane

It seems entirely appropriate that I am sitting in deepest Hackney, in a renovated old laundry building surrounded by busy bees, all plugged into the matrix on their laptops with green teas and cappuccinos fuelling their morning. As I am here to meet Nikki Cochrane, co-founder of Digital Mums, a social enterprise putting Mums to work as Social Media marketeers.

Nikki (right), formerly a social media marketer at M&C Saatchi, met co-founder Kathryn Tyler many miles away from Hackney on a remote island yoga retreat in Thailand. That was seven years ago. They clicked and have been friends ever since. So it was probably only a matter of time before they went into entrepreneurial business together.

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What’s the story on how Digital Mums was created?

Kathryn and I are both passionate about our community and both came from digital marketing backgrounds so it was a natural progression to work together. We were both interested in flexible working, which of course is a major issue for Mums re-entering the workplace. We were keen to set up a social enterprise, with a social conscience, so while both still working we set up Hackney Social, helping small local businesses with social media and digital marketing.

I know it’s a cliché, but what was your ‘Eureka moment’ for Digital Mums?

Yes there was a light-bulb moment. With Hackney Social, we soon had more work than we could handle so we needed a solution. We thought about what makes a good social media manager – a good listener, a natural born nurturer, a community builder, able to remain calm in a crisis, someone who can juggle and multi-task with great time management skills. We both realised, that’s a Mum! We looked into maternal unemployment which we discovered was at an all-time 25 year high, so everything came together. We researched for more than six months, talked to businesses and they were overwhelmingly receptive, so we piloted it.

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What do you feel are the main challenges to a post-maternity Mum?

Mums have traditionally had significant barriers to entry when returning to work. Work needs to fit round childcare which is notoriously expensive and can almost be a false economy. And finding an employer who can accommodate that flexibility isn’t easy, although technology has really helped facilitate this.

This can impact on careers so alternative solutions are required. There weren’t a lot of options out there. That’s where Digital Mums comes in. If you take a break for kids, especially in the fast moving world of digital marketing, it is easy to feel left behind. Interestingly though, Mums are traditionally early adopters of technology and social media. It has transformed their ability to stay connected, and more often than not, on the go.

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In a nutshell, what does Digital Mums do?

We train Mums to be freelance social media managers, working with real-life businesses during training for on-the-job work experience. We run five month courses, currently with 18 Mums a month, working in teams of six, each ‘Digital Mum To Be’ has their  own client. It’s interactive training and it solves two problems with a single solution. We get Mums back into flexible employment and help businesses grow with social media. A lot of businesses know they should be thinking social but don’t have the expertise, or big budgets. We provide a low risk/low-cost way for them to test whether social media marketing works strategically for them. We create a strategy for them with inbuilt KPIs. And at the end of the course, over 50% of our Mums get hired by the business they have been working with.

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Have employers caught up with modern day working?

Having been on maternity leave, Mums can’t automatically return to a standard, five days a week, 9 to 5 job and employers can still be relatively inflexible. Businesses are slowly realising that we should be measured on output, rather than whether you are clocked in at your desk from 9-5. Mums have to get things done to hit school runs for example, so Mum doesn’t sit around twiddling her thumbs, she is extremely productive and deadline driven. Employers need to change their mindset and I hope we are helping with that.

I presume initially you both balanced work with starting up?

Yes. It is only this year that we have both finally gone full-time. We couldn’t leap in straight away as we both had bills to pay, so we both paid our way in the first year with freelance work and part time consultancy work. We were both really excited about the idea, and taking the entrepreneurial leap and it really came together when we got some important funding. We don’t have an office, the team is 100% remote, and our Mums are too, which is a brilliant way to keep overheads down. Most of the team live relatively locally so we are always popping round to each other’s houses for meetings. And there are great places like this to meet and work in.

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Where did you source funding from?

Big Issue Invest, which is the social investment arm of The Big Issue. They were fantastic and as passionate as we were about our social mission, and that it wasn’t just about money. They provide funding to help social entrepreneurs take the next step with hands-on mentoring and helping prepare you to pitch to their investors. It’s kind of a nice Dragon’s Den.

Was that a make or break moment?

We would definitely have carried on anyway as we are both pretty determined, but getting the investment from Big Issue was a real shot in the arm and allowed us to go full-time and pay 100% attention to the business. We probably could have burnt out if we still had to juggle Digital Mums with other work. The funding hit at exactly the right time for us.

Nikki Cochrane, Kathryn Tyler (and Cooper). Photography by Sophia Spring

How do you and Kathryn divide up responsibilities?

That’s a really good question, and something we have only recently completely sorted out. In a way Kathryn and I were both doing everything but as we grew the team we had to decide on roles and responsibilities as we scaled up. Pitching to investors really helped with this as we needed to present a sound organisational structure. One of the biggest mistakes a start-up can make is trying to do everything all of the time and it can be hard to ‘let go’. It obviously helps if you have a great team you can delegate to. Creating a business from scratch has been a huge learning curve and extremely rewarding.

What happens if a Mum isn’t instantly hired?

In the training we help them build their professional profiles which is important when we introduce them to clients. Some go freelance, some launch their own entrepreneurial businesses. Many of them have come from a marketing background anyway, just not a social media one. Not every business has the budget straight up to hire our trainees but Mums get a great reference and join our alumni network. We have lots of client approaching us now, so we introduce Mums to those businesses. Some of them also come and work for us.

So it is a perfect storm ecosystem?

We definitely believe so and the proof is already there. It ripples out perfectly. We even have Digital Mum graduates working with  our trainees. Some come back to us as trainers and they share information, tips and ideas through our forums. We have a training community on G+ and our graduates are all in a private Alumni on Linkedin.

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How do you market the business?

We certainly don’t spend fortunes on advertising and our expertise lies in social media marketing so we maximise that. Our mums are our biggest brand ambassadors and we get loads of referrals. Around 30% find us on Twitter and Facebook. Mums already know that word of mouth is a key driver of their decision making so we mobilise that philosophy.

What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing the business. We want to  get our 1000th Mum through the course and into work and continue scaling up. Digital Mums is not constrained by location or geography, I have just been chatting with one of our Mums who is working for a London business, although she is based in Russia. So there is a natural international dimension we hope to explore.

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