“I used to wonder, ‘Is this it?’”
From Marketing to Social Enterprise
What work were you doing previously?
I've worked in planning and strategy at marketing agencies for 16 years.
My most recent position was Social Media Director, working with household name brands in food and drink, sporting events, healthcare, and public services.
What are you doing now?
I'm the founder of a not-for-profit social enterprise called The Together Project.
We create joyful experiences that unite young and older people to tackle loneliness, widen children's understanding of society, and integrate local communities.
Our first project is Songs & Smiles, a weekly singing and social group for babies and toddlers, their parents and elderly care home residents. I've been running a pilot since July and am currently crowdfunding in order to take it out to a wider number of care homes.
My long-term vision is that we offer a range of intergenerational activities, for different age groups of children and life stages of older people (newly retired, in residential care, living alone, etc.), operating across the UK.
How did you feel in your work before you decided to make the change?
I used to wonder, "Is this it?".
I was pretty successful, climbing the ladder and well regarded by colleagues, management and clients. But I rarely felt excited or hugely motivated about the idea of going to the office.
I felt frustrated to have to pour time and energy into something I didn't feel passionate about, and be at the whim of clients whom I didn't always agree with!
Why did you change?
I handed my notice about 15 months ago, whilst on maternity leave.
Having that enforced break gave me space to interrogate the way I felt about work and what my priorities were. I wanted to work truly flexibly, so I could spend quality time with my son each day; those types of roles are very difficult to come by (and I spent a lot of time looking).
I also wanted a job that I could feel proud to tell my son about, when he's old enough; that would never have been the case if I'd stayed in a job that didn't fulfil me.
When was the moment you decided to make the change?
I was fairly sure that I didn't want to go back to my agency from early on in maternity leave, but had no idea what I wanted to do instead.
I had a few sessions with a career coach, who helped me find the conviction I needed not to go back. I actually handed my notice in before I had worked out my next move, as I was on a three-month notice period.
My boss convinced me to meet him for a chat in the hope of persuading me to stay, but aside from a few slight wobbles, I stuck to my guns!
How did you choose your new career?
I started looking for a part-time marketing job.
Mostly, I looked in the charity sector, but I was also open to other areas which I thought could be a good fit.
But part-time roles at a senior level are very few and far between, and even if I'd found one, I'm not sure it would have been the right move for me. Marketing always felt like something I'd fallen into rather than actively sought out.
My sister gave me the inspiration for The Together Project. She suggested I take Heath, my son, to visit an old people's home, as he's a very engaging, happy boy who makes people smile. It got me thinking more widely about how this could work on a wider scale, which then blossomed into a fully fledged business idea.
Are you happy with the change?
It's extremely early days, but so far, yes.
A lot hangs in the balance with the current crowdfunding campaign; if it's successful then it'll give me the resources I need to achieve the next part of my vision. If it isn't then it's back to the drawing board in terms of how I move it forward.
But I love feeling more in control of my schedule and working from home, giving me the time I want to spend with Heath. And the feedback from everyone I've told about it has been incredibly motivational.
What do you miss and what don't you miss?
I miss having disposable income.
Money is pretty tight right now, and I know I'll never earn the kind of salary I could if I'd continued in my former career. But that's more than made up for by not feeling trapped, or like I'm letting myself down by putting up with a job that my heart isn't truly 'in'.
I also miss having colleagues to brainstorm ideas, ask for opinions and have a general chat with. My sister is helping on some aspects around her full-time job, but mostly it's just me sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop, which can be a bit isolating. I'm looking forward to adding people to the team when we have funds to do so.
I don't miss office politics, having to put in crazy hours on a new business pitch, finding out I'm working on a client I have zero interest in, or the Sunday night blues.
How did you go about making the shift?
I just decided to go for it, basically.
Sometimes I feel like I've done quite a reckless thing, and it could all turn out not as I expected (these are the types of worry that pop into my head at 4 a.m.).
But then I tell myself that surely it's more reckless to go through life feeling pretty half-hearted about something as integral to your sense of self as work. And then I feel more emboldened about the choice I've made (until the next middle of the night panic, that is).
What didn't go well? What wrong turns did you take?
Ask me again when I know whether the crowdfunding has been successful!
So far I feel it's gone relatively smoothly. I'm definitely learning on the job and I haven't done things perfectly, by any means. The world of care homes is an entirely new sector for me, and I've learnt that things can move frustratingly slowly. But I'm proud of what I've achieved thus far.
How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?
I accrued holiday pay whilst on maternity leave, which I received when I handed in my notice, so that was a useful chunk of money to tide us over temporarily.
My husband covered my share of the mortgage for a while, but he's also starting his own venture so neither of us are particularly wealthy right now. That said, it's amazing how much you can cut your outgoings down by when you have to.
Crowdfunding is my next source of income. I need to be able to employ someone to help manage the care home sessions whilst I expand the business. There's an incredible amount of prep work that needs to go into a crowdfunding campaign to stand a chance of being successful, so I have everything crossed that I reach my target.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
The fear of jumping into the unknown.
It feels quite high risk: people start new companies every day and a high proportion of them don't succeed. Why should I think I can make this work? I have moments of self-doubt on a regular basis. But then, I was always prone to imposter syndrome in my previous job too.
What help did you get?
My husband and family have always been an incredible source of emotional support and strength.
From a practical point of view, I'm very fortunate that my mum and mother-in-law help out with childcare. My sister works in finance for Cancer Research and has been invaluable at helping me with the business planning side of things.
I've also had tremendous support from other family and friends, who've helped with photography, filming my crowdfunding video, designing my logo, and so on.
What resources would you recommend to others?
My borough in London has a fantastic resource called Community Waltham Forest, which is an advisory and training service that helps people starting social enterprises and charities.
They've been a great source of guidance, so I'd recommend seeing if a similar scheme exists in your area.
My career coaching sessions were a pivotal point of the journey too. They helped me to ask the right questions of myself and to have confidence in my gut instinct.
What have you learnt in the process?
I've learnt to ask for help and to accept it.
It's never been something I've been particularly good at, but I couldn't have got as far as I have with The Together Project without it.
I've also learnt to be better at asking for honest feedback, and to act on it. It's an important thing to do generally, but crucial when you're trying to succeed in a totally new environment. I felt like I should have all the answers myself, but that's impossible!
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
One particular conversation with my career coach has really stuck with me.
We were discussing the various options I'd narrowed down, once of which was staying at my then-current job, which I had termed the 'safe' option (as opposed to the 'scary' option of a complete change). She pointed out that perhaps sticking with a job that my heart wasn't in, and feeling stressed for years to come, might actually be the scary option rather than the safe one. It totally reframed the way I was looking at my options and was the impetus I needed to leave.
I'd advise reflecting on whether the same is true for you.
To find out more about Louise's work, visit www.thetogetherproject.co.uk.
What lessons could you take from Louise's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.