When Fiona Hennessy met her husband, she gave up a successful corporate career in London to settle in a small town in remote North Devon. Six years on, she has two lovely boys and a thriving marketing business. We found out what happened.
What did you do in London?
I had always wanted to be in marketing from an early age. I grew up in Ireland and studied for a marketing degree in Dublin, but when I graduated there were no jobs locally, so I came over to London on a graduate training scheme for a men’s retail chain. When I first arrived I had no idea how to get around the city or use the tube, but I quickly learned!
I worked there for nine months before moving to a large corporate where I stayed for the next 14 years, working my way up in marketing until I was managing a team of 35 people across the UK. During my time at there I studied for my master’s and really put a lot of time and effort into my career – I was a total workaholic. In return, I got lots of opportunities and was even allowed to take a three month sabbatical to travel, which resulted in me working even more when I returned, and made my decision to leave even harder!
Why did you leave?
I was leaving for three years before I eventually left, each time I tried to go another opportunity was presented to me. I was lucky with all the great jobs but I was burnt out. I’m not someone who can easily switch off from work and I could see what I needed to do to get to the next stage of my career but realised that’s not what I wanted, what I really wanted was to work for myself.
Around the same time, I met my husband and made the decision to move to his town in Devon. I was supposed to be a home worker, but in reality I was spending three days a week travelling. Six months after the move I still felt that I had one foot in both places, and lived in neither. I just wasn’t very settled and it was really tiring spending so much time on the motorway every week. I was also in my mid 30’s and was getting that “my clock is ticking” feeling. So I finally left and on my last day of work I found out I was pregnant and my whole life changed!
What did you do next?
I had managed to secure a small voluntary redundancy payout before I left that helped me through the summer period, then I started looking into finding freelance marketing opportunities that I could do from my home in Devon. Luckily I have a really strong work ethic, which you need to work for yourself.
How did you find work?
You can’t just expect that job opportunities are going to coming knocking on your door, you have to go and find the work yourself. And in my experience when trying to find work you always need to start with your personal network, my first freelance job was actually working back in my old team as a contractor! I also used my husband’s network in Devon to see what I could do. I used LinkedIn to let all my contacts know that I was setting up my own business and arranged meetings with those people who were interested to find out more. I put myself forward for local networking groups and women in business groups, and offered my services for free as a mentor. It’s quite unusual for a woman in her 30s to be mentor, but I pushed against the standard norms to get my name out there and make contacts locally.
And it paid off. My networking helped me get work from agencies looking to outsource projects; medium sized business that don’t have marketing departments but need marketing expertise and small local businesses with one off projects. It also generated marketing training work locally, and pretty soon it all started to roll.
What’s it like working as a freelancer?
I’ve enjoyed a steady flow of work over the last few years – from both larger national organisations and small, local businesses. Many of my bigger customers have a need for marketing but are short on in-house resource to do the work, and they want to be able to dip in and out as they need. That’s exactly what I’m able to offer them. I get a great sense of satisfaction from making a difference and I enjoy the fact that I get back what I put in. I’ve learned so much more than I ever thought I would, it’s been hard but great at the same time.
What have been your biggest successes?
I love the project that I am working on at the minute; it’s a rural transformation programme in Cornwall. It’s great to be working with such a strong team and being part of something so impactful. I’m also really delighted with the fact that within a year of starting I helped a Yorkshire telecoms company to win a National Communications Distributor Award, which they have also been shortlisted for again this year. In the last year I’ve created and delivered marketing training courses for North Devon+ (North Devon’s regional development agency) specifically aimed at helping SME’s locally with their marketing and I’ve also won an award with a Women Do Business programme for great use of technology to drive my business forward from such a remote location. As a result of growing my business I employ someone, as well as contracting marketing specialists in Devon to work on some of my projects. This again I am proud of because when I started it was just me.
I’d love to set the world on fire, but I’m realistic that you can only do so much with the amount of time you have as a working mum with a young family.
What advice would you give to other working mums?
Try not to give yourself such a hard time if you don’t get things right all the time because there is no right or wrong answer! Stick to your values and be true to yourself. Most of all though if you want to work for yourself then do something you’re really passionate about, because when you’ve had no sleep and you’ve been up all night with one or more of your kids, the thing that you have to pull out of yourself is the love of what you’re doing in order to get through the day. And if you’re not doing something you love, it’s difficult to feel that motivation.
How do you balance your work with being a mum?
It was much more straightforward when I had my first child. Because I was just starting out I was working part time whilst trying to find new contracts at the same time. I put him into nursery when he was 10 months old and chose the best one I could find, to alleviate my guilt at putting him in, even though it was 30 minutes’ drive away.
My husband runs a winter seasonal business, and has taken care of our second child since I’ve been back to work. His winter season is starting again soon and I don’t feel ready to put my son into nursery yet as I don’t feel I’ve spent much time with him, but he goes next week just after his 1st birthday and I’m not looking forward to it, but that’s the way it goes.
As a working mum, you do everything you can to retain business, even if it means sacrificing things. But I would never complain. If I find myself complaining I tell myself that I’m really lucky – it’s great to be busy and I just need to get on with it.
How do you feel about your work?
I love being my own boss. Leaving corporate life was a big step for me as my identity was my job. So when I left that and started working for myself, I struggled with what to say. Now I’m really proud to say I run a marketing business as I feel I have credibility. I don’t have to ask anyone’s opinions any more, and I can be honest but respectful with my clients, instead of having to tow a corporate line.
And how do you switch off?
I find that you need to have an outlet when you work for yourself. Often you work hard all day and then go straight into being a mum, and don’t get chance to sit down and switch off until the kids are in bed. There are so many hats you need to wear – professional, mum, sister, daughter, partner, friend – but I think it’s really important to wear a hat for you and make time for yourself, even if it’s just for one hour a week. For me, it’s learning how to DJ. If I need to escape I just put on the headphones, play some tunes and completely forget about everything.
Fiona Hennessy runs Hennessy Marketing, a national marketing agency from her home in North Devon.