“I wanted to have a go at creating something myself.”

Image of Charlotte McMillan
From Law to Tech Start-up

Charlotte McMillan's light-bulb idea happened one morning in the shower. While starting her own business has been a big risk, now she's in the driving seat of something she feels passionate about. Here's how she did it.

What work were you doing previously?

Before my career change, I had worked for the better part of two decades as a lawyer.

I worked in law firms in Australia and in London, becoming a partner in a London city law firm, before moving to senior legal roles within corporates, including Virgin Media and Channel 4.

My areas covered copyright law, competition, commercial contracts and regulation. My fields of interest within law all emanated from my creative interests in the arts, and I mainly worked in the film and television sectors.

What are you doing now?

A couple of years ago I started a company of my own, and set about creating a business called Storychest, which is a private journal meets photo album meets scrapbook for the digital age.

The Storychest iPhone app was launched on the App Store at the end of last year. I'm now busy, with my business partner, working on growing our user base and raising our brand awareness.

How did you feel in your work before you decided to make the change?

I really enjoyed working as a lawyer, particularly after I moved from private practice into the in-house world.

However, I always felt slightly restrained by the nature of my role; it was advisory rather than allowing me to be in the driving seat.

Why did you change?

I wanted to have a go at creating something myself, where I could make the decisions about which direction to take.

I was also keen to be more in control of my work–life balance, having had three children along the way; it appealed to me to work more flexibly around my family's goings-on.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

One busy morning in our household a couple of years ago, I was squeezing in a shower between encouraging our three boys to get out of bed, get dressed, have breakfast and off to school (all within half an hour!) before getting on with my own day.

I'd been trying on and off to sort out the mountain of stuff that a young family accumulates – piles of 'art work', school reports, certificates, scraps of paper recording first words and funny stories. In the shower that morning, running through my mental to-do list, lamenting on the fact that I'd made so little progress with it, and reflecting that all busy parents must have the same problem, I had my light-bulb moment.

I needed a way to digitally organise and keep the best of the endless stream of photos, videos, diaries, keepsakes, years of memorabilia produced and collected by the family, haphazardly stuffed in boxes, buried on computer drives, lost on devices, scattered in social media. But on top of that it needed to be a place to add a few thoughts, and leave a meaningful account of things as they happened and to capture memories from the past before they got lost in the business of life.

I'd also had one of those moments a parent dreads – while sorting photos on the home PC that weren't backed up I'd managed to delete swathes of photos of the boys including the baby photos of our third boy, Archie, so it all needed to be saved in the cloud. I was keen to involve my family back in Australia, and to make it easy for them to be part of our lives, and vice versa; I needed a way to share news with them, but in a private way.

I'd seen a post from a friend the week before that said if you want something done, do it yourself. I ran the idea past my husband who said it could work and there began Storychest.

How did you choose your new career?

Storychest evolved as a way of solving a problem that I faced, and that I figured other people must face as well.

Because I'm passionate about the business, it almost chose me, rather than the other way around.

Are you happy with the change?

I'm really enjoying learning new things.

Every day presents a new challenge, and I'm constantly reskilling or upskilling.

Because we're a start-up, we have a really small team and have to turn our hands to all sorts of things. I love that aspect of what I am now doing.

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

I miss the stability of being in a day-to-day profession, and in particular the financial stability that comes with it.

Starting your own business is a big risk, and there's no guarantee of success. However, I hope that with hard work and real passion for what we're doing it will work out.

I don't miss the all-nighters on deals where I had little or no control of the timetable. But I do miss a lot of my colleagues. Working intensely on deals together really does create strong bonds. I'm still friends with a lot of the people I worked with in my previous career, but of course, I don't have the opportunity to see them as often now.

How did you go about making the shift?

I resigned from my job and took some time out to spend some time with our children and think through what to do next.

I then took on a contract role, again as a lawyer, but at the same time I was putting in place the building blocks for Storychest.

Finally I went full-time on Storychest and haven't looked back.

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

I underestimated how long it takes to develop a product, so didn't get Storychest to market as quickly as I'd hoped.

But it's all learning, and I'm confident that the extra time spent has meant that our product is more robust and thought through than it would've been if we'd rushed it.

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

I saved what I could when I was employed, and was fortunate to have some shares in one of the companies I had worked for, so cashed those in.

My husband works full-time and is the primary breadwinner whilst the business is getting off the ground.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

The most difficult thing about changing was not earning money.

For all of my adult life I'd had a steady income, so adjusting to the speculative nature of starting my own business was unsettling.

What help did you get?

My husband and my family have been a huge emotional support, encouraging me along the way.

I've also been very fortunate to have a great co-founder who is fully committing herself to the business too. We have a history of working together and have been friends for 20 years.

What resources would you recommend to others?

There are lots of networks out there depending on what you're looking for and what sector you're in.

I have found Ada's List to be very helpful. It's a network of women in the tech field and people are so willing to share their experiences, resources and advice.

What have you learnt in the process?

The list is endless.

I'm learning new things every day, from engaging software developers, running our digital marketing initiatives and PR. Without a large team, we have to cover all the bases ourselves. I'm really enjoying this aspect of the business, I see myself essentially as a problem solver.

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

Throw yourself into whatever it is you decide to do.

Take some risks. You'll learn so many lessons along the way, and with a bit of luck and hard work, you'll hopefully make a success of it.

To find out more about Charlotte's business, visit: www.storychest.com.

What lessons could you take from Charlotte'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 [email protected]. and you could win a £25 / $35 voucher in our monthly draw.