Your Working Mum Questions Answered By Retail Guru Wendy Hallett MBE

by Alex Davies |

Missed our Q&A with inspiring businesswoman Wendy Hallett? Find all the expert advice she shared here

The idea of starting and setting up a business when you have a baby is daunting – but do-able. And that’s what Wendy Halley MBE addressed in Facebook’s Working Mums Club Q&A.

Wendy is founder and managing director of Hallett Retail, which runs concessions in department stores around the UK. She spent 13 years working in management roles at Philip Green's retail giant Arcadia, which includes M&B favourites Topshop and Dorothy Perkins, and in 2011 she was named the overall winner of the NatWest everywoman Awards. 

She’s also a member of the Women’s Business Council, a government group aimed at maximising women’s contribution and involvement in business and the economy.

Here, she talks inspiration, work/life balance and moving your business forward.

Q: What’s the best place to start when thinking of setting up your own business?

Wendy: First off, you have to have passion for your idea, so find something you know. Don't feel it's got to be big – a lot of the best business start really small and grow organically. That's what happened with me. And see how you can get your business idea to fit around your new life with your baby.

I think it's very stressful to try and focus on work related things while caring for babies or young children. Even now when my children are teenagers, I find it stressful. My advice would be to try and obtain some family/friend support so that you have free time to focus on coming up with ideas.

Q: What is the best book you would recommend for someone new to being self-employed or owning their own business?

Wendy: I didn't read books about business, and tend not to now. I found the best place for advice was from people already running businesses. And looking at any local business networks – often there are breakfasts or lunches. And, on a more national scale, there are groups like Everywoman. Use websites that fit your audience.

I didn't read books about business, and tend not to now. I found the best place for advice was from people already running businesses

Doing something like this can be quite lonely so it's worth considering whether you're the sort of person who loves total control and therefore wants ownership and for it just to be you, or whether you want to do your business in a partnership.

Q: Can you recommend companies that offer flexible working or job shares? In my experience you can negotiate flexible working when returning to work, but if you wish to move roles, change companies or advance your career, it’s more difficult to get.

Wendy: My knowledge is mainly around retail and fashion, but I know Asda has an excellent approach to flexible working, as do Debenhams. One company that has an interesting culture is Timpson Shoe Repairs who believe very much that work should be fitted around the employee's life/work balance.

I agree that once you're in a company and have built your own reputation, the power to negotiate is much more in your court. However, it's still worth at interview stage exploring different possibilities even if you end up accepting a full-time role with the understanding that there will be a review once you're established. Use examples in an interview of women you're aware of who have made this flexible arrangement work and how they've been successful.

Use examples in an interview of women you're aware of who have made this flexible arrangement work and how they've been successful

Present yourself as a flexible person, and not somebody that would want hard and fast rules about how this will work – explain you know the impetus will be on you to make this work, that it's down to you as well as (if not more) than the employer. As an aside, is an excellent site for part-time roles.

Q: I work full time, have a two year old and started my baby product business in my spare time. How do I let people know about it?

Wendy: I just had a quick look at your site – looks beautiful. And you have a ready-made internet audience with parents, so look at how you can link in with sites for mums, and so on.

Another excellent way of promoting your business is entering awards. I did this and it was a great way of getting my business known in the fashion industry. Everywoman runs a number of different awards for all sizes of businesses – no fee to enter. Any of the social media is good, too, and bloggers are so important – we use them a lot in the fashion world. You send the gifts and they'll blog about them if they want to.

Q: I’m back to work on Monday after a year off – full-time as it was the only option. How can I make it less painful?

Wendy: Start as you mean to go on – you need to make sure that while you're at work, you're very professional and focussed on working. Keep the baby talk and photos to official breaks or lunchtime. Make sure you get in on time but equally make sure you leave on time. You setting boundaries about leaving on time while illustrating you don't expect to be treated differently.

You setting boundaries about leaving on time while illustrating you don't expect to be treated differently

Don't underestimate how challenging it will be and I certainly found it easier not to allow myself to be distracted thinking about my baby. If flexible or part-time working is what you want, I wouldn't give up on it. The better you are at your job, and not how many hours you put in, the more indispensable you'll seem.

In terms of your first day, prep the night before – so get your outfit ready, and leave more time than you need to get everything prepared in the morning. Don't forget to eat breakfast!

Q: I want to revamp my CV before I come off maternity leave. What do you think grabs an employer’s attention?

Wendy: A balance between experience and skills. And don't be afraid to talk about what you've learned while on maternity leave. In addition to all the obvious things like taking charge of the baby, you're also meeting new people, perhaps organising groups, and developing multi-tasking skills. So maternity leave in itself can be presented as a positive.

Less is more – don't put too much in, as people just get bored reading it. And some people say don't include personal stuff, but an interesting fact (like 'I do paragliding') can give an insight into the sort of person you are, e.g. you like taking risks. Although admittedly it's unlikely you've spent much time paragliding when you've just had your baby!

Q: I want to ask to do a job share. Is it worth putting a case together to argue this?

Wendy: I believe that job sharing is seen as the same as asking for flexible working, but if you go to a body like ACAS you can double check this. I job-shared at Arcadia prior to setting up my own business, and both of us did three days a week and it worked very well.

One thing that may be worth considering is if there's anybody else in your company that may want to share a job. Then you're going in with the complete solution to offer.

When putting your case together, think about the practicalities – who will do what, how will you handover, will you be contactable on the days you're not in. But also the advantages – a wider skill base, holiday cover, different approaches, and so on. I think the company absolutely gets more for their money.

Q: After having my baby 18 months ago, I haven’t gone back to work because I just don’t think I can afford the childcare. I’d really like to, and am aware that the longer I wait, the harder it could be to go back into the workplace.

Wendy: I'm a member of the Women's Business Council and working with the Government on how to support women who want to return to work to get back into it. One of the biggest barriers is both the affordability and suitability of childcare, so I totally understand where you're coming from.

A positive move, and an area that WBC has campaigned for, is the (up to) £2,000 childcare support that comes into play in the autumn. It's a start but not enough. What's a good idea is thinking about another mum you know who wants to go back to work – could you both go part time and help each other with childcare?

Q: I really struggle to switch off once I walk through the door from work as I’m still getting emails. How do you do it?

Wendy: I struggle with this, too. And realistically the only way to do it is to put your Blackberry in a different room and not check it. At least for a period of time. As soon as you've read an email, you automatically switch into work mode and feel you need to reply.

As soon as you've read an email, you automatically switch into work mode and feel you need to reply

For me, one of the most stressful things when my children were small was trying to deal with work things at the same time as being there for them. Make sure you're disciplined in not sending an email is good, so perhaps write a reply in a draft so it's out of your head and ready to send the next day.

Q: Do you have any top tips for keeping momentum going when you have been working on your own business for a few years, and the excitement of start-up is behind you?

Wendy: Totally get where you're coming from! And what I keep doing is coming up with more and more ideas! And developing the business in more and more ways. What you could think about doing is looking more at networking so you can meet other people in your position and bounce ideas/thoughts off them. There are lots of different organisations such as everywoman and FE BE.

Sometimes getting involved in different charities and looking at how you can link your business in while doing good also can open up new avenues. I've done a lot with the Retail Trust, which has given me great contacts and a good profile.

You could develop your product categories or where you sell. My business is based around concessions, so maybe look at department store opportunities.

Striking that work/life balance can be one of the biggest juggling acts as a parent. That’s why we’ve set up our Working Mums Club Panel, to advise and get behind you every step of the way.

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