Fiona McKinney is a mum of four and a part time secondary school teacher. And if all that wasn’t enough, while on maternity leave with her son she developed a brand new website for parents called Share My School with her husband Alan! Fiona reveals how and why she did it.
What’s your career background?
I’m a secondary school English teacher (teaching 11-18 year olds) and have been for the last ten years. In that time I have held a few responsibility posts and have managed two of those as a part-timer when I returned to work after having my children.
I work two days a week and am due to return to teaching once my maternity leave finishes in May.
Where did the idea for Share My School come from?
It grew from several conversations with other school parents – and the realisation that they found themselves in the same situations as me. For example, we all noticed that physical message boards for finding things like school uniform and childcare for before and after school care were difficult to find.
One of my friends (a childminder) was looking for school pickup/drop off work after her daughter started school and wanted to find some in the school her daughter attended. Buy she found it hard to find a place to specifically advertise this. Another was returning to work full-time but needed someone to collect her two children from that same school. Again, she was struggling to find this so I put them in touch with each other.
The idea was also borne out of the first and middle school situation in our area – many parents find themselves trying to arrange the school run with others just to be able to drop one child off at one school, and another at a different school, with little leeway in terms of time to do this. I just felt there was a real need for an online solution that would offer local school networking among parents.
So many people find things offered to them by other parents and offer it back in return in terms of help and support, but little is followed through, hence the site.
How does the site work?
The site relies heavily on its community of users – you register, join your child’s school and from there either post, reply or simply read any of the messages posted into your school’s notice board page on the site.
You also have the opportunity to create ‘circles’ with other members for things like managing the school run (could be last minute offers or requests for help), babysitting for each other, organising PTA events or simply arranging social events with other parents.
How did you get started on it?
It’s a joint venture with my husband. We took several months to finalise and tweak the site, its functionality, and the exact specifications we wanted with our web developer. Then we prepared for the launch, setting up social media pages, designing and printing flyers and contacting local press.
Really the hard work in terms of getting users to register and become members is only just beginning to happen.
What experience or skills have helped you create it?
I suppose being a school parent and networking with others has helped in terms of working out what were the real needs of our users. My husband has created and run a few websites of his own prior to this one and so has a good idea about SEO, site functionality and general website features that are important, which has greatly helped in terms of getting started and working with our developer.
And hopefully, as we continue marketing the site my English teaching background should help in terms of producing purposeful, effective and accurate copy for all of our materials.
What’s your vision for the site?
That it works in the true sense that a community site should. It’s great to see that users are already making it work in terms of solving issues and problems that they face, and that schools are becoming closer and making more purposeful contact because of it. If this could begin to happen in a lot more schools locally, and then nationally, that would feel a real success.
Whichever way the site changes and grows, it will hopefully be driven by its user base, so everything that exists on it is genuinely making parents lives easier and more straightforward.
What challenges have you faced so far and how have you overcome them?
Our initial challenge was to ensure that our site was unique and also secure enough that parents would want to go on there and feel safe.
Some people reacted quite negatively when we first talked of setting up a site to help parents network with each other over things like school run help online, and although it was only a small percentage of the people we talked to, we had to find a way to allay their fears. That’s why our messages are private. We also have clear site guidelines, and that our boards offer more than just this (something that took some time to finalise).
Financing the initial build was also not that easy, and only became possible through the decision to sell my husband’s other website and concentrate solely on making this one work. Even to date, financing further developments and continuing the PR work we want to do for the site is difficult when there is little money for this.
But probably our biggest challenge to date is reaching out to parents outside our local community. We have a steady stream of new members to local schools and it is slowly expanding outwards, however gaining members beyond this and nationally is still proving challenging. But we are working on finding a range of solutions to this. I suppose patience is the most obvious solution (especially as the site has literally only been launched a few weeks).
What have been your biggest successes to date?
Even though the site has only been live a few weeks, we already have over two hundred registered members already. We have also managed to secure local radio and newspaper coverage (including a live interview with the BBC) and our Twitter and Facebook following is steadily gaining momentum.
How do you balance the business, your four children and career?!
With acceptance! Acceptance that not everything can be done the way you would choose to do it. Acceptance that although something like this can dominate your thoughts, you still have a family to organise and support. And acceptance that if the idea is good and you persevere for long enough, there is no reason why you can’t succeed.
Probably what helps along the way is that our four children can and do help each other and entertain each other quite often, leaving us time to do other things. Also, our son accidently managed to break our TV with a Wii controller the same week we launched, meaning that we had to focus on doing things on the site in the evenings, when we may have been tempted to watch the TV.
I’m also on maternity leave at the moment, which means I have a lot more time and space to concentrate on the site rather than my career – ask me again in six months and my answer may well be different!
What advice do you have for other ambitious mums?
I’m not sure whether I would say I was ambitious. Driven maybe, and with a desire to make a difference. In which case I would say that you will always get sceptics (often they are people who would like to be able to try ideas of their own, but for various reasons don’t) who will find reasons to criticise or belittle what you are trying to do.
Keep their comments in perspective because quite often it is easy to focus on these rather than the many more comments of support that you will get.
Support from other people is also often surprisingly easy to get – you will find that many people will be willing to help you to get to where you want to be, so accept this without worrying too much about having to prove yourself on your own and (without wanting to sound too clichéd) don’t let pride get in your way. Oh and good luck because most ideas are at least worth a try!
Find out more about Share My School and find your school on their website.