From Microbiology to Childrenswear

Image of Helen Yard

“It's taken a while to learn what my limits are.” When a new addition to Helen Yard's family meant she couldn't return to her job, she decided to create something of her own. It's involved a lot of late nights and unexpected twists, but she's learned a huge amount about what it takes to run a business and raise a family at the same time. This is how she did it.

What work were you doing previously?

I was a microbiologist at Severn Trent Water, following the birth of my first daughter.

Previously, I was a lab supervisor and have always worked in microbiology laboratories after completing a degree in Molecular Plant Biology.

What are you doing now?

I now have my own business sewing children's clothing called Lily & Giraffe.

The business has just turned two and is going from strength to strength. We've recently joined Not On The High Street and are also selling on several other online platforms, as well as in shops in Nottingham and Derby.

Why did you change?

After my maternity leave finished I was unable to return to work, as I couldn't manage the anticipated amount of overtime at Severn Trent Water.

This was mostly due to my husband's job as an engineer (which involves lots of working away), but childcare costs were also an issue as both children were requiring nursery. We decided to try to get by on one wage and so I became a stay-at-home mum. I enjoyed making clothing for my girls and other types of crafting.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

I'd had post-natal depression after the births of both of my girls and was struggling with the thought of giving up my career.

I started Lily & Giraffe a year after I was meant to have returned to work. It was a way for me to have something to focus on and also to use up my ever-growing fabric stash!

Are you happy with the change?

I love that running my own business allows me to be there for my children as they grow.

I always get to drop off and collect them from school / playschool and I never miss nativities or sports days. But it's also a constant juggling act and pretty stressful.

I have no set hours of work and have to fit in sewing and admin as and when I can, which normally involves lots of late nights! We now attend larger craft fairs (such as Country Living and Kirstie Allsopp's Handmade Fair) which means we have to spend several days away from the children at a time and arrange for family to look after them.

My business doesn't always have a steady stream of income and some months it feels like all I'm doing is spending! However, I love being able to be creative and always have hundreds of ideas racing around my head.

What do you miss and what don't you miss?

I don't miss the office politics or having to be on call in case of emergencies.

I miss being able to completely switch off at the end of a shift. It's sometimes hard to schedule in any 'me time' now.

How did you go about making the shift?

As I was already no longer in employment, the shift was relatively easy in some respects.

I spent several months setting up the business before going live, sourcing fabrics and working out costs to see if it was worth doing or not. I sorted out my branding and made prototypes during this time, so, when I did go live, the majority of things were already in place.

We started off on Facebook and spent months networking to try and get Lily & Giraffe noticed.

What didn't go well? What 'wrong turns' did you take?

To be honest, I had no idea how difficult it would be (and still is) to be seen and how much time admin and networking would take out of my day.

I really thought that I would just sit and sew and that the orders would come rolling in.

When we first started we didn't have a website that accepted orders and I wish I'd been more organised in that respect. We also did a fair few craft fairs where the turnout and our sales were poor, so that was a massive learning curve and took a lot more research thereafter than I thought it would.

I was also offered a book deal when Lily & Giraffe was a year old, which I readily jumped into, but ended up turning down later on due to time commitments and the increase in stress I could see it would cause.

It's taken a while to learn what my limits are and not to just jump at every opportunity. I also had no idea that Christmas had to be planned so far in advance and that so many people start their Christmas shopping in August!

How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?

As a family we'd already had to make changes to our lifestyle after my maternity leave ended and it was tough living on a single wage.

I borrowed money from my parents to get Lily & Giraffe going as we had no spare money having just moved house.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

Definitely the juggling act of managing a full-time business with family life and not having set hours of work.

Sometimes I can go months without having an evening off, something that wouldn't have happened before.

What help did you get?

My family have been very supportive and helpful with childcare when I needed to get some extra sewing in to keep on top of orders.

Also, the craft community is a great bunch of people. They're always willing to help with any problems or give an honest opinion on a new product.

What resources would you recommend to others?

I've found that the most valuable advice has come from fellow crafters, so I'd recommend going to a couple of craft fairs and having a chat with the stallholders.

What have you learnt in the process?

That less is more when it comes to designing your range of products and that a cohesive range is much more likely to sell than lots of random things.

Also, I've learnt not to get disheartened when I get turned down for events or websites. I just focus and think of other ways of getting out there!

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

Go for it!

You only live once and being your own boss is much more fun than working for a big company.

To find out more about Helen's business, visit www.lilyandgiraffe.co.uk

What lessons could you take from Helen's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at hello@careershifters.org.