April marks the beginning of Flexibility Works’ fourth year in business. Lisa Gallagher, one of our co-founders, reflects on starting and running a social business.
This is the time in the year when Nikki Slowey and I reflect on our journey together as co-founders of our small but mighty social business.
Before founding Flexibility Works in 2020, Nikki and I worked together for several years for an organisation supporting good flexible and family friendly working. But setting up our own business had been an independent ambition of both of us, and eventually we decided to go out on our own.
We believed we could make a bigger impact for employers and society in promoting flexible working agenda – something we both care deeply about – under our own steam, and we had growth ambitions we felt were more compatible with working independently.
Co-founders with complementary skills
Firstly, I’m aware that our decision to work together as co-founders isn’t the way everyone wants to start a new business. But I’ve always enjoyed working as part of a two, sharing good times and bad, and offering up complementary strengths and skills. When I met Nikki, I knew I’d met someone I trusted implicitly, who was creative, hard-working and cared about the same issues around flexible working as I did. I don’t think it happens very often in your working life that you meet someone you can work with so closely but Nikki is one of those rare people for me. And I appreciate her very much. It’s a little like having a ‘work wife’ to be honest. Nikki’s husband has even commented during one of our many catch-ups on Teams: “Who’s that you’re speaking to so directly? That’s the way you talk to me. Oh, it’s Lisa, oh ok!” But what this shows is the level of frankness we have together, which works for our particular partnership.
Launch in lockdown
So our little duo together with two additional colleagues launched Flexibility Works in April 2020. We didn’t plan to set up a business at the start of a global pandemic with lockdowns, our small team at home with their worries. Nikki and I have six boys between us, and they were aged 2-15 at the start of the pandemic. They were all at home and we had all the joys of home schooling and managing childcare with our respective husbands, who were also trying to manage busy jobs and new routines working remotely for the first time.
I remember clearly trying to set up a bank account when all bank workers had decamped to their living rooms with no systems set up. Who knew that setting up a bank account could be so stressful?! This also led to much worry about how could we pay our employees if we didn’t have anywhere to house our initial investment. As it turns out we had to pay them ourselves, then re-imburse. First business lesson learnt – where there’s a will there’s a way! You have to be creative. And our funders were also very supportive. Their initial belief and investment in us was a big reason why we set up at this time.
Lockdown, of course, meant flexible working itself was catapulted into the spotlight. Despite the chaos, it was the silver lining of the pandemic’s gloomy cloud for us. For the first time, many employers were forced to adopt some elements of flexible working and we saw mindsets start to change. We felt added responsibility to help as many employers as possible.
Legacy of flex requests refused
Nikki and I had been working in the space of flexible working for six years prior to the pandemic. We’d been tirelessly campaigning after personal experiences of having flexible working requests turned down. We knew the impact on our own careers and self-esteem, not to mention our bank balances. We soon realised however that this was an issue not just for us, nor was it just for mums or women, but rather that flexible working was something that so many people want and need. People with a disability or health condition, carers, parents, people with portfolio careers, people with volunteering responsibilities, the list goes on.
Running a business
Running your own business is a great experience. For me, having a ‘co-pilot’ working alongside with me to share decision making and contribute our own skill sets continues to be a stand-out for me. You definitely do have to get your sleeves rolled up and get on with all elements of running a business, from recruitment, administration, payroll, creating products, selling, PR, legalities, HR, board management etc.
We were lucky to have the support of an amazing board who we trust completely, have offered much practical advice and support, and have encouraged us to keep going. One of our board members, Andy, keeps telling us: “Keep turning the wheel, keep going. The difference between those who make it in business and those who don’t is who keeps going.”
It’s hard work and of course at times we work more than we are ‘contracted to’ but we also try very hard to practice what we preach in terms of work life balance. Since we started, I have worked between 3 and 3.5 days a week, and Nikki has worked 4 days and now 5 per week with additional time in the evenings/ weekends as needed. But as with our team, we do try to switch off when we can. We are super flexible, as you might imagine, in regards to when and where we and our team work. We’re very open and clear with our communication to make sure our service is always very high quality. And our team tells us that this enables them to balance their own home lives with their working life with us.
Highlights from three years in business
In the last three years, we have been busy; we’ve conducted research on flexible working, developed three flagship products that we now sell to employers, given countless talks to raise awareness on flex, been involved in projects to support more people on lower incomes to have access to flexible working, run many events for employers, run various bespoke consultancy projects and talked many times to the media. We continue to evolve and are so grateful to our funders, partner organisations, employers and networks for continuing to support us.
Learnings from setting up a business
As I reflect on the last three years, these are the seven key points I’d tell/remind myself and Nikki as we started our business journey.
- Build a strong team
I love having a co-founder who I trust implicitly. However, also having colleagues you trust and who share the organisation’s values is key for me. You need good people around you, who are given clarity about where the organisation is going and what their role is in that. We, of course, offer maximum flexibility to our team and we really care about them all as individuals and their wellbeing. Offering a really good, regular 1-2-1 process has been key to this. We have had some challenges along the way but we are in a fantastic position at the moment, where we have a really committed team who can work independently towards our shared goals. Even though we’re always busy, I’ve found that really investing in your recruitment process is important, as is being brave enough to say no if you feel the candidate isn’t quite right – even if it feels easier to say yes because you need the help! We also have good relationships with our amazing board, so investing time in your biggest allies is important.
- Have confidence in your knowledge and experience
You might not have all the answers all the time. But nobody does and that’s ok. You have years of experience and knowledge behind you, so you need to have confidence in yourself.
- Just Start
Using this term makes me chuckle because it was the mantra of a business course I attended in Boston in 2013. But it’s SO TRUE! If you have a new business idea or product, start small, iterate, get feedback and grow it from there. All our best ideas have worked this way. And if it doesn’t work out, you’ve had a useful learning experience.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help (and offer help!)
I’ve realised people are so willing to help you, whether that’s with contacts, information or ideas. And equally think about how you can give back to others who are on their own professional journey. You will, of course, have to prioritise what you ask for and what you offer, but always try to think about how you can be part of someone else’s solution. Having a coach to support your growth ambitions and your own personal mindset has been really helpful for me too. Continuing to grow as an individual is an important part of the business process.
- Be clear about management roles and responsibilities
This has been particularly true for us as two co-founders. In the very beginning we both wanted to be involved with every element of the business. But we’ve learnt this is not time efficient. We are slowly learning to relinquish control and divide and conquer. I find this hard but hopefully I am getting better at this.
- Have a clear plan but be flexible
We’ve benefitted from having really clear objectives about what we want to achieve each year, as well as clarity on what our activities and services are. We’ve made sure our team feeds into this and they feel part of the process. I have enjoyed working with the team on this and while I have had some very clear ideas about where I would like the organisation to go, co-creating our future direction of travel with the team has been valuable for them and me.
- Keep iterating and moving forward
Listen to your customers, talk to them and get feedback about what’s working and what’s not. I feel we should still be doing more of this. We learn so much about the market and what’s most helpful by asking for regular feedback, and it’s enabled us to develop new and different products to best service our clients’ needs.
As we move into our fourth year of operation, flexible working is still a priority subject for employers. Getting it right is so important because 84% of people in Scotland either have or want flex. Employers need to keep focusing on what they’re offering and whether it’s hitting the mark with employees and the business. In particular, I think hybrid working will continue to be a big focus for many employers as they shift to more permanent models.
There’s also a growing focus on more flex for people in frontline roles where traditionally levels of flexible working have been low. This is an area I am very interested in because many of these roles are lower income, and poverty alleviation has been a continuous thread throughout my career. I’d like to continue making a contribution to changing people’s lives for the better through more flexible working for ALL jobs.
So, we’ll keep going and keep turning that wheel.