Self-Start Mums showcases mothers who have created their own self-employed business. I’m very happy to share my interview with Founder of Smart Steps to Australia, Karen Bleakley!
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An Interview with Smart Steps to Australia Founder, Karen Bleakley
1. Tell me about yourself?
Hi! I’m Karen Bleakley – a mum of three kids (twin boys aged eight and a daughter aged five) and I’m married to Matt. We moved from Hampshire in the UK to Brisbane, Australia in 2014.
I love sunshine and travel – the beach is my happy place! I also love reading, writing and learning everything I can about building an online business.
2. Tell us about your self-employed business?
My business is a website and Facebook community that supports UK families on their move to Australia. It’s all about encouraging families to follow their dreams, so it’s a mix of inspirational content, factual resources, emotional support and service recommendations to help take the stress out of emigrating.
Starting this business was a real journey in so many ways. I wrote a travel blog when my husband and I were backpacking in 2008. I launched a family blog after our twin boys arrived which led to me write an e-book about having twins (Don’t Panic! A Practical Guide to Twins, Triplets and More).
A couple of years later we added another baby to our family and moved across the world to Australia!
While blogging and writing my twins book, I started ghost writing for entrepreneurs. I started following their mentors for content ideas. I knew nothing about being an entrepreneur before I moved to Australia, and I found learning about it so inspiring and addictive!
My digital skills and online marketing knowledge grew and it all came together after attending a ProBlogger conference. At this event, I went from thinking about writing an e-book about migrating to Australia to realising I wanted to offer more personal support – something I felt was lacking when we made the move. I wanted to share my own experience along with practical information and help families find reliable services. I also wanted to help people to form friendships to make their move easier.
I was awarded a Queensland Home-Based Business grant and this funded me to have business coaching sessions to work on my business plan. I received a second grant to take my plans forward and this gave me 50% of the funding I needed to create a website, logo and have some branding photos taken. This financial support meant I was able to launch my site with a professional image which really helped me stand out. I feel so grateful that the grants were there to support me and help me get started.
3. How did you transition to working for yourself?
I’d been working as a freelance writer since having kids, so I reduced the amount of work I was doing for other people to give me time to work on my own website.
It’s not easy to juggle and there have been very tight months where our finances have been stretched and there have been months when freelance projects totally took over leaving me no time to work on my business. For the last couple of years I’ve been doing all of this during my 15 hours a week of child free time while my youngest was in kindy (plus grabbing the odd hour in the evenings and at weekends).
I still don’t have the balance right every week but this year, now my youngest has just started school, I’m hoping to get there.
4. What was your previous career?
Before having kids and getting into freelance writing, I worked in event and project management for 12 years in the UK.
I worked for an international film festival as a Festival Co-ordinator – that was lots of fun and taught me so many skills! Then I relocated across the country to be with my (now) husband and ended up working as a freelance project manager for a council. This role involved doing a mix of marketing, PR, website co-ordination and event management tasks. It was busy and all-consuming. I loved all of that before having kids, but when my little ones arrived, my priorities changed.
I love looking back over my career. What I’m doing now seems so far removed from my first admin job when I was fresh out of college, but every job has been a stepping stone and it feels like it was always supposed to lead me here.
5. Describe a typical day in your working life?
This is my new routine since my kids all started school a few weeks ago…
I get up between 5.45am – 6.30am depending on if any of the kids have woken me up in the night! I grab a big coffee and hit my desk to check my Facebook group so I can reply to questions and do any group admin. I check my emails and go through my plan for the day. I knock off any quick and easy tasks then because the kids are pottering around and asking where their socks are so I can’t fully concentrate on bigger projects then.
About 6.45am I organise the kids and encourage them to get ready (I’m lucky that they are all really independent so don’t need too much encouragement). I use this time to empty the dishwasher, think about throwing dinner in the slow cooker and I might get a load of laundry on. Or some days I just sit and enjoy a quiet breakfast and don’t do any of that – it depends what mood I’m in.
I do the school run, chat to my mum friends outside the classrooms and get back home about 9am. I grab another coffee and a big bottle of water and I sit at my desk and work through my projects for the day. If I have freelance writing projects for clients, I will schedule in time to work on those first, as I find it easier to be enthusiastic about my own work later in the day rather than other people’s. This could be doing keyword research, writing content for a marketing campaign, writing an e-newsletter or drafting a blog post.
Next, I will spend time working on my website, so this involves writing blog posts, reviewing my stats to see how posts are performing, optimising old posts and working on actions that help take me closer to my business goals. I will also do some social media scheduling and reply to more group questions and emails.
I’m a writer for Australia and New Zealand magazine in the UK (I have a monthly column about living in Australia plus I write regular travel features and migration focused features for them) so I often have to do some admin relating to this. I might need to email some ideas to my editor, or try to organise a travel itinerary for an upcoming trip, or edit a piece I’ve been working on.
I grab a bite of lunch at my desk at some point during the day. 2.30pm comes around quickly and then it is back to school to collect the kids.
It’s action stations then with washing up lunch boxes, reading with the kids and doing homework, a quick swim in summer, dinner and bath time. I sometimes nip into my office to grab another half an hour of work while everyone winds down, and then usually after the kids are all in bed I do a bit more work to finish off any loose ends before we collapse and enjoy our evening from about 8pm. If Matt is on the night shift, I tend to pick my laptop up, put on a movie or box set and do more work until bedtime. I am so productive when he is on nights!
6. How many hours do you work per week on your business?
I probably worked about eight hours a week on my site last year (with the rest of my time being taken up with freelancing and my other website sites), and this year I’m aiming for more like 20 hours a week with some time still spend on freelancing and maintaining the other sites that I run (my family blog and two Amazon niche sites that I’ve been developing). I’ll see how it goes now school has started!
7. Do you supplement your income in any other ways?
I supplement my online business income with freelance writing, although I am trying to be careful about how much work I take on this year so I don’t get swamped and lose sight of my main goals. I’m now trying to only take on writing projects that make me happy too.
I also do the magazine writing. It is so aligned with my brand and my audience so even though I’m freelancing, I’m doing it in my niche and it is something I love to do so I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
8. How do you manage your family and working for yourself?
I couldn’t do this without my husband. Having one consistent income means I can spend time building my business. It helps that he really believes in me and knows that I will work at this until I reach my goals. He understands that investing in training is important to help me move forward, and even when finances have been tight he has agreed that I should go on courses and to conferences – and these things have all be integral to me taking my business (and my freelance writing work) forward.
We’ve always been an independent family even when we lived in the UK so have never been ones to rely too much on outside help. Once we moved to Australia, we didn’t have any family nearby to help with childcare anyway. Our boys started school a few months after we arrived, and our daughter went along to the day care/kindy centre at their school three school-hours days a week. Now the three of them are in school, I generally do about 90% of the school runs and Matt does occasional pick ups when they fit around his shift work.
Now they are older, it’s much easier to work from home with them around – during school holidays I can sit on the deck working while they swim or I can take my notebooks to the park while they ride their bikes, or they can build a den, or play with Lego together. They also love going along to educational holiday activities where they learn robotics or learn about building things which gives me some days to focus on work during the school holidays without feeling guilty because I know they’re having an awesome time and learning new skills.
I don’t have enough support right now in all areas, but over the next 12 months I’m hoping to get a cleaner and a gardener to take off some of the burden so my downtime can be spent with the kids instead of doing chores.
I do outsource web development tasks but I would like to outsource a lot more for my business this year because I know to take things forwards I need to spend less time working in the business and more time working on the business.
9. What challenges did you face in setting up your business?
Challenge wise, as a mum of three it always comes down to time. But I know we all have the same number of hours in the day. At the beginning I spent too much time on daily admin like sending emails. I always felt busy but didn’t feel like I was making progress.
Now I batch tasks and try to plan my days better. I have an amazing yearly planner that helps me tie my goals to my daily tasks so I make sure I am only working on things that will help take me forward.
10. What’s the best thing about working for yourself?
Being there for my kids when they need me. I have no idea what I’d do if I had a 9-5 job as we have no family around to help. My kids get sick, then there are assemblies to go to with certificate presentations, or sports carnivals or something that means I need to take time out of my day. I love being present for all of this stuff, even though it does mean I’m constantly adjusting my plans.
While I know working from home can mean you never switch off, I think because I love what I do so much I don’t mind not switching off from it. I get messages at 11pm from group members thanking me for my support or telling me how their move went and they couldn’t have done it without me – I love getting stuff like that at any time of the day!
11. What’s your best advice to another mum who is considering setting up her own business?
I have three pieces of advice:
- I would say, understand your ‘why’. People I’ve seen who don’t have a strong ‘why’ seem to lose interest in what they’re doing or they don’t give it 100%. I really think as a mum with limited time and an endless list of tasks to do, you need to really love what you are going to do if you are going to invest a lot of your time into it. I think that your readers or customers can tell if you are passionate about it or not too – if your heart isn’t in it and you don’t have the right motivation, it will show.
- Find your people. Whether this is online or in person – go along to networking events and conferences, join Facebook groups and connect with others. Other people can lift you up, they can help you leverage your business and they can give you much-needed support when you need it.
- Invest in yourself. Free training is available everywhere but you will get a lot further a lot faster if you invest in the right training. Do careful research to make sure it is the right training first though as it is easy to get persuaded by a sales page and end up wasting money. I am currently doing Sharon Gourlay’s Build Blog Freedom course. I really wish this had been around when I started blogging in 2008 – learning SEO and affiliate marketing has been a game changer for me.
12. What’s next for you and your business?
Working more hours and working more strategically is going to really help me take things forward this year. I’m looking to increase my audience, form deeper connections with my readers and group members, bring on new businesses as affiliates and keep improving my SEO. The end goal is to fund my lifestyle full-time from Smart Steps to Australia. And I’m so excited about getting there!
Check out Smart Steps to Australia in the Self-Start Mums Directory or search for other mums in business!
Are you a self-starter mum? Read more interviews with self-employed mums here.
To chat about taking part in this series and sharing your story, contact Mim here