What has Jane James from Little Voices learned from 15 years in business?

In 2015, we interviewed Jane Maudsley (now Jane James), founder of Little Voices. But what has she been up to since? It turns out that a LOT has changed in seven years! Here’s what she’s been up to and learned over an incredible 15 years in business, in her own words.

Winning awards and raising standards

Little Voices has developed dramatically: we have won national awards in both the industries that we sit within – franchising, and children’s activities. 

In 2018 I won EWIF’s Inspirational Woman in Franchising award, and in 2019 was crowned Industry Champion in the prestigious What’s On 4 Kids Activities Awards. 

And as I write this today, I’m a finalist in several more awards across the UK, both for my experience in business and working with children, all of which I have been put forward for anonymously, which is truly humbling.

I’m also a firm advocate of collaboration over competition – one of the few positives to come out of Covid in my opinion – because I honestly believe we’re stronger together. 

But above all, I believe that our children deserve the very best, and that as a sector, we have a duty of care to come together to raise standards in the industry.

Which is why I’m a staunch supporter of the work of the Children’s Activities Association (CAA). Not only have I put Little Voices through the compliancy and full accreditation process, but I’m also a voluntary board member. So alongside helping shape its operational strategy, you’ll regularly find me spending time talking 1-to-1 with other providers about the challenges they’re facing, sharing my knowledge and best practise to help them grow or improve their businesses.

And because I pride myself on being a highly ethical franchisor, Little Voices are now proud members of the British Franchise Association (bfa), an organisation whose core aim is to support and influence high quality ethical business format franchising.

Dispelling the myths around franchising

‘Franchising’ is sometimes seen as a bit of a dirty word, or is misunderstood, which is why I’m also working to dispel some of the myths that surround it. 

Reputable franchising isn’t a ‘pyramid scheme’. A franchise is a local person running a local business, surrounded by support and help from the outset, and with standards in place to give customers a level of service expectation.

The people I award a franchise to are individuals who have Little Voices values at their heart: they love working with children, and they’re passionate about the benefits of arts education. 

Little Voices franchisees are people who want to build a business for themselves but not by themselves. 

They’ve received all the training, systems, and support that they could wish for – along with the benefit of my 15 years’ experience in this sector and a proven business model– and they run their franchise in their local area, helping local families and putting money back into the local community. 

Making a difference

While awards are always a wonderful achievement, my biggest driver remains the same as it’s always been: the impact that Little Voices can have on children and young people. 

Focus and funding for formal performing arts education in schools has been increasingly cut since 2010 due to mounting pressures to hit targets in other core subjects, and yet it’s fundamental to a child’s overall development. 

Emotionally, mentally, physically, and socially, drama and singing can have an incredible impact on a child that will stay with them for life, and this is at the core of Little Voices. 

Today, we work with more schools, more teachers, and have grown our franchise network – and that means we are making even more of a difference to children and young people across the UK at a time when, due to the repercussions of events over the past couple of years, they undoubtedly need more help than ever before.

On a personal level, there have been some considerable changes in my life – changes that have had a major impact.

Becoming alcohol-free

Three and a half years ago, I made the decision to lose weight, focus on my health, and eradicate alcohol from my diet – and becoming alcohol-free was quite simply the most liberating thing I have ever done!

What initially started off as a 30-day challenge eventually turned into a bit of a game with myself. Could I do it? What would the results be? What would change? How would I feel? What alternatives would I find? What would I learn about myself? 

As a business owner, I was acutely aware that I was using alcohol as a way to switch off, reduce stress, celebrate, commiserate, and everything in between! I also loved a cold glass of Sauvignon while I was cooking the evening meal. 

But the process of becoming alcohol-free made me realise that it wasn’t the wine I loved (despite my being adamant at the time that I really did love the taste).

What I actually loved was the fact that it signalled the end of my working day; the ritual of opening and pouring the wine; the pleasure of holding, and drinking from, the tall, thin, crystal glass – not the effects the contents of that glass gave me (eating too many nibbles, disturbed sleep, and weekend hangovers that sucked valuable time). 

I truly believe I will never have another alcoholic drink, because the sense of freedom that comes from being alcohol-free far outweighs any short-lived enjoyment I ever got from drinking.  

Going from from ‘Jane Maudsley’ to ‘Jane James’

In my previous article, I talked about my partner, Gary, but in 2016, we split up. And while the breakup was due to him having an affair, on reflection this had been an increasingly toxic and emotionally abusive relationship – something that I couldn’t see while I was in it, but time and space created a new sense of perspective for me. 

I’m now married to a wonderful man, Ant, who I met around the time of Little Voices’ 10th anniversary and who finally made me feel ‘at peace’. We married in 2020, and he’s been my rock over the turbulent times of recent years. 

A pandemic breakdown

The pandemic is the one experience every single one of us has shared, albeit in our different ways. For me, it signalled the start of the biggest personal battle in my life so far. 

In February 2020, I was rushed into hospital and had to undergo emergency major surgery.

Then, just as the pandemic was taking hold, I developed a post-operative infection. This collided with me panicking about the survival of the business and trying to crisis-manage, as well as pivot the business online.

We did it and we did it fast. Even before the announcement of school closures, we’d already put plans in place to go online and had contacted all the schools and families we work with, giving them access to their online virtual classroom for the following week. 

As this was effectively a completely new business model, there was so much that had to be put in place – new policies, procedures, safeguards, terms & conditions, payment terms, etc. – and I worked day and night to get everything done.

Entire days of no sleep, not eating properly, and a whole host of other factors created the perfect storm for a catastrophic mental and physical breakdown that kept me in hospital for 6 weeks. I had no phone, no visitors, and by the time I came round I had pretty much lost a month of my life. 

When I was eventually discharged from hospital, I was still very poorly. I moved in with my parents, though I was hardly able to leave the house, and spent the next 12 months rebuilding my brain, my body, and my whole self.  

Throughout this entire time, I was unable to play any part whatsoever in the running of Little Voices. 

But it’s thanks to the incredible Head Office team that I’ve built – a team that wholeheartedly and unreservedly shares my beliefs and vision – that Little Voices rode the worst storm anyone could have imagined. They implemented everything I’d put in place, and the franchise network pulled together.

Lessons learnt

I’m now back to full health, but I have learnt some important lessons the hard way. Life for me now is as a person, a mum, and a businesswoman – and in that order. I create boundaries, and prioritise my health, sleep, food, water, and exercise above all else. 

My mantra is the word ‘balance’. I take regular days and afternoons off work at random, I go on holiday and switch off from the business, and I finish on a Friday afternoon and don’t touch a work email until Monday morning.

And when it comes to my family, it’s all about spending quality time with my husband and daughter, and making memories together (not a half-hearted attempt with my ear glued to my work mobile!).

Future plans

Little Voices is stronger than ever, and we’re back with a resilience that will hopefully get us through the financial crisis that’s now upon the whole country.

Teachers who are longing to exit the classroom are approaching us about franchise opportunities because they’re craving the freedom and flexibility that a Little Voices franchise can give them – not to mention the opportunity to teach and inspire the way they want to, and the huge sense of achievement that brings. 

Knowing first-hand the impact the pandemic has had – and continues to have website on mental health, I’m now on a mission to raise awareness of just how crucial our mental wellbeing is. The first step in this journey was to implement a mental health initiative across our whole network that encompasses training, wellbeing policies, regular check-ins, and support at all levels – from the children we teach in class, to all the adults involved in Little Voices in any capacity. 

I can’t emphasise strongly enough that this isn’t just a tick-box exercise. It’s a fully supported approach that will be embedded into our values and beliefs across the whole organisation.

And finally . . !

Despite all the challenges and traumas of the past few years, I still jump out of bed every morning and love what I do. And if you truly love what you do, you will never feel like you are working.

It fills me with great pride that I’m able to empower, train, support, and mentor others who join us as franchisees to have this life of flexibility, choice, and career fulfilment – knowing that when they return home after teaching Little Voices, they’ve made a real difference to children and their local communities. 

I’ll leave you with my five top tips for maintaining balance in your business life:

  • every problem has a solution – problems promote opportunities
  • be plan-focused, not opportunity-driven
  • be persistent and consistent
  • keep heading in one direction
  • you get out of life what you put in

I’m excited about the future because there’s so much I still want to achieve in Little Voices – and I know that anything is possible if you have a plan and balance.

You can find out more about Little Voices and their franchise opportunities on their website