If you haven’t heard of Justine Roberts, the chances are that you are still aware of her crowning glory: Mumsnet. A forum for parents to engage with each other, talk about issues and share helpful tips, the site has grown at an exponential rate, but far from being an online ‘sewing circle’ for ‘mumsy’ types, Mumsnet has had it’s fair share of controversy thanks to the posts being discussed. We spoke to Justine to find out more about being one of the most successful female CEOs in the world.
Before we really get started, please let me congratulate you on the phenomenal success that is Mumsnet. In your wildest dreams, did you ever think it would grow to the size it has?
Thank you, that’s nice – it’s really all down to the amazing users we have and how much they go out of their way to be helpful. We’re celebrating Mumsnet’s 15th birthday this year, but it certainly wasn’t an overnight success – the first few years were spent working out of my back bedroom and Mumsnet didn’t make any money for years. That said, it was clear that the original vision – to make parents lives easier by providing access to peer-to-peer advice from people who had been there and done that – was working, because more and more people were engaging and finding Mumsnet really helpful. But no, I never for a moment thought I’d still be doing this 15 years after I first has the idea – or that Mumsnet would have grown to have over seven million monthly uniques.
You founded Mumsnet in 2000, with your friend Carolyn Longton. Can I ask what the catalyst was and if you received any negativity regarding the potential of the idea?
It was my first family holiday – we took our nearly one year old twins to Florida to a so-called family friendly resort that turned out to be anything but. Everything about the trip was pretty disastrous. From the flight, where both kids developed tummy bugs the instant we sat down, to the jet lag (my two awoke at 2am on the dot every morning ready for breakfast) to the resort itself. All the parents there bemoaned their choice – if only we’d known before we left. It turned out to be the light bulb moment for Mumsnet because I realised that the web would be a great place to tap into the wisdom of others who’d been there and done that, and not just about travel but about everything else parenting related too. I came home and immediately started planning the launch. People were quite sceptical at first – I only persuaded Carrie in by promising her a flexible role with lots of work-life balance. In those days lots of people still thought the internet was a fad, and indeed it was long before broadband, dial-up internet connections were the norm so surfing the net was a whole different business.
How quickly did you notice the site beginning to grow and what do you attribute that to? When was your ‘eureka, this is going to work moment’?
Back in the early days I had many aliases and I would go on forums to ask myself questions – so that I could answer them. I remember one moment when a pregnant friend told me about her pregnancy palpitations and I ruthlessly told her to ask on Mumsnet. I felt a bit guilty about it, but by the time I’d logged on again to reply, she’d already gotten an answer from someone else – and I remember punching the air and thinking this might just catch on.
Has the site continued to develop organically, or do you retain a firm control on the site and the direction it moves in?
Many of the innovations over the years have come from Mumsnetters – we listened carefully to what they want as they are a smart, savvy bunch. I wanted to create a platform and largely move out of the way – not over-moderate or be too bossy. We try to avoid the hierarchy that often characterises community websites like ours by not ranking users by longevity or number of posts; it’s what you say that matters, not how long you’ve been around. Our campaigns arise from a consensus on the talk boards about what’s important and what users would like to see changed. That said, I do have a strong vision of what we are here for – to make parents’ lives easier – and what we stand for as a site and a business – freedom of speech, the wisdom of the crowd, championing the unheard.
I once overheard a man talking to a colleague about Mumsnet and referring to it as an “online sewing circle full of bored housewives who want someone to listen to them”. I have written this verbatim as I immediately wrote it down and vowed to contest it. Do you think this is a common misconception, particularly held by men?
Before Mumsnet, the idea of your average mother was that she was a bit thick, terribly insular, not that funny, and only ever really worried about getting her whites whiter and whether her children were eating their greens. She didn’t care about the broader world – economics, politics – and she couldn’t properly hold an argument together. But this is prejudice, and one I’m really pleased that Mumsnet refutes. Anyone who takes the time to really look at it will see that the mothers are nothing like that at all. They are a smart crowd, engaged with the wider world discussing everything from Isis to I’m a Celebrity, and often witty to boot. And, as a matter of fact two-thirds of our users work outside the home, so that man got his facts wrong.
You have all of the attributes that I would associate with modern feminism; clear goals, determination, success and a firm grasp on business matters without neglecting your personal life. However, the term has become dogged with negative connotations, leading to many women not being willing to label themselves as a feminist anymore. Do you accept the term?
It seems bizarre that anyone, whether your average person or someone in the public eye, would fear the feminist ‘label’, when all it really means is advocating equal opportunities for men and women. We’ve gladly put our weight behind this cause on many occasions and our 2013-feminism survey showed Mumsnet has awakened a latent feminism in our users – 40% said they were more likely to think of themselves as feminists compared their pre-Mumsnet selves and 53% said they felt more confident about expressing feminist viewpoints.
The relatively recent launch of Gransnet may have come as a surprise to some. What was the motivation behind the site? Were you inundated with requests from grandparents?
I wanted to replicate what Mumsnet had done for younger women and create a platform that would be equally useful, identifiable and empowering for the over 50’s – a demographic too often overlooked. So we started Gransnet in 2011 and it received over 500,000 views in its first month. It has become the UK’s biggest online network for grandparents since – a hub of information and advice, as well as a lifeline of support and friendship. In many ways just like Mumsnet – but with much less swearing.
Finally, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back to the moment that you thought up Mumsnet?
Don’t bother trying to raise any money. I did and failed pretty much and it wasted precious time. Plus, had I succeeded it would have set us completely on the wrong path because what was needed was to grow something organically with the freedom to focus entirely on the community’s needs and not the demand of outside investors.
Interested to learn more? Visit www.mumsnet.com.