Interview with Flexiworkforce founder Tracey Eker

Read how Mum of three Tracey Eker turned her own experiences of looking for flexible work into an ambitious new business – launching the UK’s first truly dedicated flexible work job site, Flexiworkforce.

Whats your career background?

I studied marine biology at JCU in Townsville, Australia. After this I went to live in New Zealand and landed in car finance where I was the Finance Manager of Mitsubishi Wellington and then Hyundai.

I travelled to the UK in 1999 and started work for an Isle of Mann finance company selling into the recruitment industry.

How did it change for you after having kids?

I was an organised person before I had kids but becoming a mum forced me into hyperdrive! Kids take up a lot of time, especially when you have three (including twin boys).

During my maternity leave with my first child I experienced some of the negativity women are faced with from employers. This really dampened my time with Tabitha and soured my whole entry back into the workforce. I was made to travel excessively as if to prove a point that I couldn’t do it all like I used to.

That relationship quickly came to a close and I decided to stay home with my baby. However I get restless very quickly and started up a little cottage industry by trading in vintage clothing on Ebay, and then in restoring furniture which led to a few appearances on TV alongside Kirsty Allsop and Shereen Nanjiani.

I have never lost my drive to succeed and am probably more driven now than before I had kids. I had a good role model as my mum was a single mum who worked constantly both days and nights to put me through private education and to provide us with a really good life – however she had to sacrifice her time with me to do this.

I am lucky as my kids are, on the whole, very understanding. They have seen me be a stay-at-home mummy and now they are seeing a different side of me – my career-focussed side. Initially, it may have been hard for them but now they are on board and I know I have their backing.

My husband and children have also been a great help to me. They help to fire me creative ideas, and they seem to have an innate knowledge of social media and how the internet works – they often help me out of IT situations!

Since starting Flexiworkforce they have learned to be a lot more independent in things like getting themselves to and from school, which gives me an extra 2 hours to dedicate to Flexiworkforce.

In short, having kids changes everything, your time is rarely your own but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative, as having kids can have a positive impact on your career also.

What first gave you the idea to start Flexiworkforce?

Initially, it was trying to find flexible work myself. I wanted a full-time role involving a degree of flexibility to fit in with my childcare commitments, but found that searching for this type of working schedule is much harder than it should be.

Having children really showed me the lack of provision of flexible working within the workplace and highlighted the need for employers to be more upfront about the types of workplace flexibility they could/have on offer. So in a way, my children are responsible for me coming up with Flexiworkforce in the first place!

When I decided to start looking for work again, I spent days trawling generalist job sites to only come up with a dozen or so genuinely flexible jobs. It became a job in itself! This is when I decided that something needed to be done to make searching for flexible work easy.

Hence the creation of Flexiworkforce, where employers show the type(s) of flexibility that each of their listed jobs have UPFRONT- no keyword spamming, and no disingenuous jobs.

How did you go about making it happen? What were your first steps?

I was a chicken at the start! I told my husband about the idea and he was very encouraging and added that there was actually a need for this type of service among recruitment agencies as well.

However, I do have the habit of coming up with ideas and then putting them on the back burner – a ‘jack of all trades but master of none’ so to speak. I needed someone to validate my idea, to give me encouragement to take the next step.

I saw an advert for Entrepreneurial Spark, a free business accelerator, and pitched the idea to them and moved into their accelerator program in August 2013. Being part of a business accelerator helps you to see your weaknesses and to build on your strengths. The support and mentoring they offer was a great help in launching Flexiworkforce.

How did you get investment, and how has that investment helped?

I created a business plan that cemented everything in my head. I had put off doing this for months, but when I started it became quite cathartic and clarified many aspects of the business for me.

I then started to investigate the financial options available, ranging from borrowing from the family, applying for a bank loan and approaching an investment company.

I attended an investment seminar held for E-Spark businesses and approached one of the investor representatives at the end of the seminar. We had a brief chat and I followed it up with an email the next day.

They were impressed enough to invite me to meet with their board, where I pitched my idea. You have to know your business inside out when you meet with potential investors as they want to know everything as it is a lot of money that you are asking them to risk.

They loved my idea and the deal progressed very quickly. I was actually their first deal to close within six weeks without the need for Scottish Enterprise to be involved, and was actually over-subscribed with interest. A London venture capitalist has actually offered me another £500k for further expansion within the next 12-24 months.

What skills and experience have you brought from your previous career to Flexiworkforce?

My experience in sales has come in very useful. I don’t think you can learn how to sell, it is something you are born with. Knowledge of the recruitment industry from both my husband and my previous career has been invaluable as well.

Even growing up as an only child with one parent may have been helpful, as I watched my mum work all type of hours to earn enough money to keep our little family going. I didn’t see her that often but I knew why. I am a very tenacious person and very anxious to provide for my family.

Who is Flexiworkforce aimed at?

Flexiworkforce is for both employers and job seekers. Employers and recruiters are given access to skilled people that they haven’t been able to connect with before. Flexiworkforce will widen the talent pool that they can access , helping to reduce the major skills shortage that the UK is currently facing.

Currently there are 7 million people who need or want flexible working, 3 million are currently out of work because they cannot find a job with the flexibility they need, and a further 4 million who are currently in roles where their talents are under-utilised. The latest figures are that the UK economy loses between £15-23 billion a year in the underutilisation of womens’ skill alone!

Flexiworkforce will have a positive effect on society as a whole, as it will help the underemployed to get the jobs worthy of their skills, and in turn allow the unemployed to job seekers to gain a foothold on the career ladder again, reducing the amount of people who need to claim employment benefits, and hopefully reduce child poverty and in-work poverty.

Flexiworkforce is the only UK job site dedicated to all forms of flexible working from full-time flexible schedules to the more traditional part-time/job share positions. Flexiworkforce crosses all sectors, genders and demographics.

Why is flexible working so important for businesses?

The benefits of flexible working are proven. They range from that of a more agile workforce, capable of running a 24/7 business, to enhanced productivity and motivation among employees.

Employers who embrace flexible working will gain a reputation as a socially responsible company, committed to upholding equality and diversity, and this will help to improve the company’s image as a top employer.

Aside from these advantages, embracing flexible working is actually vital to a company’s future success. It is clear that our priorities are changing in favor of work-life balance, and being trusted to do a good job rather than being chained to a desk, constantly under surveillance.

Businesses must be aware of this, and actively seek to promote flexibility within their workplace, or else miss out of the talented candidates their company needs to grow and thrive. Therefore, flexible employers are far more competitive in the ‘war for talent’ than their competitors.

What has been your biggest business challenge to date, and how have you overcome it?

Scraping together enough money to build the web platform was a big struggle. I had to cash in shares, use savings and then use the money my husband had saved up to go to Australia for his 40th birthday.

After that it was learning about forecasts, profit and loss sheets and all the tech chat that developers use.

E-Spark helped to guide me through these minefields and picked me up a few times. Tears have been shed but there have been just as many highs as lows. You learn fast!!!

And what has been your biggest success to date?

I would have to say my biggest success has been landing investment. I have seen many businesses go through the mill trying to get what I have received. My investors all have experience and contacts which will help to excel Flexiworkforce in the direction I want it to go.

What’s your vision for Flexiworkforce?

My vision is for Flexiworkforce to become one of the biggest job sites in the UK. I want it to be the first port of call for anyone looking for a job that fits around their family, caring or lifestyle.

Within 2-3 years I want to expand Flexiworkforce into the Europe, which has one of the largest flexible working populations in the world. After that the USA is on the cards!

How and when do you work – and how do you balance the business with your family?

Any mum who works balances work with family. Being an entrepreneur and starting your own business means that you don’t have standard working hours. You do what you need to do whenever you need to do it.

However I do need to be careful as I have a tendency to become so absorbed by my work that I forget to chill out and spend time with the kids and my husband. For this reason I work from home on a Wednesday so that I can go to the gym, spend time with my dog, cats and guinnea pigs and then pick the kids up from school.

What advice do you have for other women starting their own businesses?

Realistically, I would say that being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. You need to sacrifice a lot, from job security to family time. However the outcome of building a successful business should mean that you can claw back all the lost time and have enough money to treat your family for all the sacrifices they made to help you build it in the first place.

I would recommend that women who are trying to start their own business have the full support of their kids and husband. You all need to have realistic expectations of how life will be for a while as there will not be as much money in the kitty and your time with them will be reduced but if you are all involved and speak about what is going on, on a constant basis then you should be able to muddle by.

It won’t always be possible to have an idyllic family life but that will improve with time and what you end up with will be worth it for all of you!

Want to learn more about Flexiworkforce and search for a flexible role near you? Visit their website.