“I didn't want to lose my passion and desire to succeed in my career; I just needed to do something that would allow flexibility, on my own terms.”

Image of Gemma Whates
From Marketing to Marketplace

Gemma Whates was being pulled in two directions at once; either her career or home life always had to take second place. Fed up with compromise, she decided to take a gamble. Now she's got the home–work mix she wanted and she's letting her entrepreneurial side shine. Here's how she did it.

What work were you doing previously?

I worked in marketing.

Before I left, I was an Account Director, managing a team of five and working on retail marketing strategy for Disney's key releases.

What are you doing now?

I now run All By Mama, an online marketplace for products made by parents.

Why did you change?

I had the idea to launch All By Mama while on maternity leave.

I've always been very ambitious and career-minded, and felt that I wanted to work to support my family. However, after my son was born I fell in love and couldn't bear the thought of leaving him five days a week, working long hours and missing bedtimes. I wanted to be around as much as possible, especially while he was young.

I also didn't want to lose my passion and desire to work and succeed in my career; I just needed to do something that would allow flexibility, on my own terms.

Starting my own business seemed like the best option. I'm more passionate than I've ever been before about working hard and I'm happy with the time I get to spend with my son.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

I went back to work after my maternity leave.

I needed to fund the start-up and at that point it was still just an idea in development. I also didn't want to throw away all the work I'd put into my career until I was certain I was doing the right thing.

The moment came when I was at work and my son was poorly with a bug; I desperately wanted to go home and look after him but I had deadlines and meetings. I knew this would be a regular occurrence and I knew at that moment I would struggle with that lifestyle. Call it 'mum guilt' (which I still get most days for one reason or another – I'm sure all mums can relate!) but I just knew that I wanted to try a different, more flexible way of working.

My employer was extremely understanding and very supportive of flexible working, but the industry doesn't allow for you to always work at midnight when the kids are in bed!

Are you happy with the change?


I work longer than full-time hours, but I'm so passionate about making the business a success that I enjoy every moment I spend working. I don't work 'traditional' 9–5 hours; I work flexibly around my family. I often spend an afternoon with my son and make the time up in the evening. There are lots of late nights!

I feel much better in my work–life balance, but it hasn't been without stress and sacrifice. All By Mama is a start-up; we're just going in to our second year and I don't earn the salary I earned before. I knew from the start that building a business would take time and I'm prepared to make financial sacrifices for that. I'm lucky to have a very supportive partner!

I still have the challenge that I need to keep my brain alive (more than ever) and I get to set my own work hours, which is so important to me.

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

I miss the office environment.

It can be quite lonely and isolating working from home (we don't have premises yet), but I don't miss the set hours and rigid routine.

How did you go about making the shift?

I had the idea whilst on maternity leave with my son.

It really came from me spending a lot of time on social media (like many first-time mums during night feeds!) and joining mum networks as I searched for answers to my endless questions of why my son was doing this or not doing that.

I found many mums on these networks that were making really cool things from home and selling them via social media, instead of returning to full-time jobs. To start with I was just interested in buying them. I loved knowing that I had bought from a mum who was supporting her family but I did struggle to find more products made in this way.

I started thinking that other mums might enjoy supporting these businesses too, if they could easily access them; that’s where the idea really came from.

At the same time, I was actively looking for ways to work flexibly and thinking about how I could apply my experience and skills to something I felt passionate about.It was the combination of the two scenarios that led me to All By Mama.

Once I had decided to start my business, I stayed employed for as long as possible, working in the evenings and at weekends pre- and post-launch, mainly for financial reasons. I also spoke to my employer about my plans and the possibility of freelance work once I had left.

I was very lucky to have a supportive employer and we agreed a date for me to leave and pursue the business. I was very honest with them and they have been extremely supportive and still help me out wherever possible with my business plans.

I made sure I had enough savings (or the possibility of freelance work) to see me through the first year. I then just went for it and haven't looked back. I do think it's very important not to burn bridges and make sure you have some ideas of ways to make money during your start-up phase if you plan to launch a business.

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

I think, for me, it was a problem not having a defined work space at home.

I was set up at the kitchen table and it wasn't long before I realised my paperwork was taking over the house, and I was replying to emails during family mealtimes.

I'm not sure I thought through the logistics well enough.

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

I think this is one of the most difficult things about making a change: the difficulty of finding enough money to do it and the fear of never earning anything again.

For me, the key was to accept there would be a period where I didn't earn what I did before, and sometimes perhaps not anything at all. I kept in mind my long-term objectives and found ways to support myself during the transitional period. I also doubled the length of time that I thought it might all take and made sure I had a back-up plan in case things got desperate.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

The financial risk and the fear that I would put myself in a weaker position long term.

Then again, fear is a great incentive to keep moving and working hard, so it's not a bad thing.

After all, it wouldn't be as rewarding if it were easy!

What help did you get?

Help came mainly from friends and family.

I asked everyone I could for advice, according to their knowledge and experience.

I realised I had a set of very varied and clever friends and family!

What have you learnt in the process?

I'm not a patient person and I've really had to learn not to expect immediate results.

I've also learnt many new skills in the process.

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

Plan for things to take longer than expected.

Make a back-up plan to help manage the fear of change, and then just pick a date and go for it.

Expect to work harder than ever before, but remember your personal, long-term goal and keep that in mind during challenging times.

What resources would you recommend to others?

Social media is good for networking with others in a similar situation.

And Enterprise Nation offers support for small businesses and hosts some great events.

To find out more about Gemma's business, visit www.allbymama.com

What lessons could you take from Gemma'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.