Interviews

Justine Roberts started Mumsnet just as the dotcom bubble burst. Now it's the nation’s biggest parental chatroom. She talks set-backs, quotas and adolescent boys.

Justine Roberts

1. Which businesswoman do you most admire and why?

I’m a big fan of Carolyn McCall at Easyjet, who’s running a huge company incredibly well but remains absolutely herself and human. I also admire Martha Lane Fox who gets things done without compromising on her values.

2. How do you juggle the work/life balance? Any tips on staying sane?

There’s no real gap any more between work and life in my view. The first thing I do when I wake up at 6.50am is look at my phone and my emails. Then I might be making the packed lunches and taking a business call and listening to the Today programme all at the same time, before spending the day in the office. Typically I’ll leave at about 6.30pm but be working again after I’ve put the kids to bed, from about 9.30pm until midnight.

I think you have to focus on the actual thing you are doing, whether it’s hanging out with the kids or in a meeting. My tip is to turn the phone off periodically; it’s way too easy to get distracted by texts and emails otherwise.

3. Biggest career setback and what you learned from it?

Mumsnet started just as the dotcom bubble burst. Advertising rates crashed and the business plan I’d sweated over wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. On top of that, I failed to raise any money, so we grew Mumsnet on a shoestring budget. It meant working out of a spare bedroom for years, relying on the support of partners, begging favours wherever possible and hiring the cheapest childcare I could get away with.

As it turned out, growing the business organically by word of mouth and keeping costs low when everyone else was obsessed with getting big quick, paid off. The key was to listen to the users. Engaging and being responsive remains at the heart of how we operate.

4. What makes you mad in business today?

I started out in very male-dominated circles – in banking and then in sports journalism – where there seemed to be total acceptance of the idea that family life was a disadvantage in the workplace and women of a certain age were inevitably less reliable employees or less serious about their jobs. The vast majority of the staff at Mumsnet are women, many of whom work flexibly, and all of them are serious about their jobs. A culture where employees have to brush aside their family life to get on just means you’ll lose key staff; I've found that a flexible, honest approach makes good business sense and helps retain talented staff. What’s more, you get lots of flexibility back in return which is what most modern businesses need.

5. Boardroom quotas: necessary or nuts?

I think the key isn’t the number of women on boards, but the number of senior female executives in companies. I fear that quotas will lead to a load of women non-execs and we’ll all think "job done" when, in fact, what really matters is what happens operationally, at the coal face.

That said, more representation at board level may may help shape internal policies to be more representative and inclusive. So, for that reason, I think short-term quotas to reflect diversity are probably worth a try and they certainly won’t do any harm.

6. Your one tip on negotiating a pay rise?

Ask for one.

7. Where do you see yourself in five years?

I don’t; I only ever look six months ahead. I’m a firm believer in living in the moment and being flexible.

8. Your advice to young women starting their careers?

Try to choose something you're passionate about; it makes it easier to get up in the morning. Be prepared to work hard – there's not too many successful people I know who are work-shy. Don't worry about other people's opinions of you, particularly adolescent boys on Twitter. It's all just a lot of noise.

Justine Roberts has been shortlisted for the 2014 First Women Awards, held in association with Lloyds Banking Group. This year's event takes place at London Marriott Hotel, Grosvenor Square, on June 12. Read more about the event and book your tickets here.

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