WEB WISE WOMEN: The founders of Flametree - a webzine, interactive forum and source of information for working women - know all about the daily work/life struggle. They're living it themselves, from concept to start-up. Rob Brown reports

WEB WISE WOMEN: The founders of Flametree - a webzine, interactive forum and source of information for working women - know all about the daily work/life struggle. They're living it themselves, from concept to start-up. Rob Brown reports - When the histor

by ROB BROWN
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When the history of the dot.com revolution comes to be written, doubtless at least one chapter will be devoted to the ways devised by internet start-ups to woo potential investors. Future generations of schoolchildren will read about those strange monthly rituals called First Tuesday encounters, in which chino-clad 20 and 30-somethings donned a distinctive red spot to pitch their ideas to venture capitalists (sporting green spots) at cavernous venues in 34 cities across Europe.

A few pupils, one hopes, will also learn about a wonderfully determined woman in London who successfully endeavoured to woo a key investor in the course of - wait for it - a school recorder concert. Jayne Buxton, you will have gathered by now, is not your typical world wide web wannabe.

Her dreams of launching an exciting new net venture are mixed with far more mundane concerns, such as making sure that her three young children (Olivia, Joely and baby Matthew) are healthy and happy, and, in the case of Olivia, remembering to practise her recorder.

Daily experience of juggling the demands of domesticity and starting up a dot.com is undoubtedly the most precious asset Jayne possesses as she prepares to pitch her stall in cyberspace. It helps too that her founding partner Rosemary Leith (also a mother of three) has to wrestle with the same dual challenge. For the enterprise, they have combined their talents to create the first web site devoted entirely to those women struggling to strike a healthy balance between work and home life. In other words, women just like them.

Actually, not many women have been moved to write an entire book on the contemporary pressures of motherhood-versus-career. Buxton was so fired up about the need for fundamental change in the workplace that she penned a 410-page tome on the subject. Ending the Mother War: Starting the Workplace Revolution (Macmillan 1998) called for a radical overhaul of employment norms and practices to make balanced working lives a genuine possibility for more women.

The book's generally favourable reception has turned its author into a leading advocate of workplace flexibility. As well as promoting this cause at conferences and through the media, Buxton is now a core member of the National Work Life Forum. She has proved that the choice isn't between being a superwoman or an earth-mother, between working 100 hours a week or not at all.

'This issue is now having its day and it's really exciting to be launching a venture when the issue is so clearly on the national agenda,' she says.

'I wanted to take my ideas beyond the book and considered the internet an ideal way to spread the message. But I knew that whatever network we created would have to be economically viable. And I knew straight away Rosemary was the one to make it happen.'

Rosemary Leith has always been commercially minded. Born and raised in Toronto, she went to the other end of Lake Ontario to study commerce at Queen's University, Montreal. Jane, whose parents emigrated from England to Montreal when she was 10, attended the same venerable institution, but indulged in the arts. Consequently, they were no more than passing acquaintances at Queen's, but their paths crossed again when they both came to London in the late 1980s.

However, their friendship didn't really blossom until they had children and were living in the same district of west London.

Buxton worked for 12 years as a strategy consultant with Gemini Consulting, while Leith got a thorough grounding in investment and analysis in Britain, Switzerland and her native Canada. She spent eight years with Talisman Management, a principal investment and management company, where she specialised in new and traditional media companies, and ended up an active investor in several internet start-ups on both sides of the Atlantic.

The pounds 100,000 seed investment for Flametree Life Solutions was raised from a small group of private investors, several of whom were friends.

The company takes its name from an African tree known for its strong roots and its bright, illuminating foliage. A perfect symbol, they agreed, for the sort of well-grounded information and solutions with a spark of inspiration they intend to serve up to women just like themselves.

'We were quite naive in the beginning,' says Buxton. 'We just launched ourselves into this project without being fully aware of what lay ahead.

It was all so much more complicated and hard work than we anticipated, so there's been a pretty steep learning curve. You have to work at a frighteningly fast pace and take big risks. There is no time to research things endlessly. Gut instinct has never been so critical.'

The content on flametree.co.uk is being shaped by Hannah Charlton, a former Sunday Times journalist, who worked in the multimedia division of News International at Wapping before taking her digital publishing and corporate branding skills to the British Council and BOL.com, for which she devised web sites. On being appointed Flametree's content development director, she whipped out her contacts book and called on a host of prominent women's features writers, notably Angela Neustatter, Yvonne Roberts and Melissa Benn.

'We have been looking for the best people who believe in the brand,' says Buxton. 'We are also passionate about the look and feel of the site and didn't go out and seek investors until we had content to show them that we were proud of.'

Charlton's team certainly seems to have had no problem cooking up a rich menu of highly relevant features and information services. But Flametree aims to be much more than just another webzine, providing not just a steady stream of real-life examples of how women balance their lives but also more than 20 interactive forums through which they can compare their experiences.

Buxton says a lot of things can go wrong when magazines take to the web.

'One mistake is thinking that you can simply put magazines online and call them web sites. Magazines online just don't work, and they certainly don't create thriving women's web communities.

'The internet at its best is about empowering people and meeting real needs,' she enthuses. 'We are creating a resource that will enable women to share their anecdotal knowledge on the net, just as they used to chat over the garden fence. In time, our loyal users will come to form a community, albeit a virtual one.'

Leith adds: 'Women go on the net with a purpose, not to play. They have less free time and are solution-driven. They want well-grounded advice that will help them to get things done.'

Responding to this need for speed, the Flametree site has been designed to be simple and user-friendly. Anyone who registers on it will be able to e-mail their own personal queries to a panel of experts, including a stress consultant, a child psychologist and an employment rights adviser. They're guaranteed a response within 36 hours. They will also be offered swift access to a range of time-saving services, and there will be a special jobs section packed with flexible employment opportunities.

Getting the site up and running was no picnic. 'To be honest, the whole process of finding and managing web designers was a nightmare,' says Buxton.

'We ended up using two teams - one on the creative and one on the back-end solution. In the end we got there, but the experience was very painful.'

Much of the content will be exclusive and provided by organisations, such as the key work/life consultancies Parents at Work and Working Options, which share the core aims and values of the founders. 'Through them and my own work, we've been able to source content that's highly relevant and reliable,' says Buxton.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of marketing demographics, she explains that the target audience is ABC1 women aged 30-55 who reside in the UK and command an annual income of at least pounds 25,000. Although the prime pitch is at relatively affluent working mums, Flametree will also seek to service the needs of full-time mothers who are striving to find more time to pursue their own interests. Also covered will be working women with no children, who simply want a better balance in their life.

Flametree aims to hook all three categories and expand from an initial user base of 20,000 to about 100,000 by the end of its first financial year. The primary revenue should come from corporate sponsorship and advertising, with secondary revenues from e-commerce and commissions. Sponsorship, it is hoped, will come from UK companies increasingly exercised about the brain-drain and willing to back a venture that offers resources aimed at improving the work/life balance.

'Many companies aren't able to keep their key staff, so flexibility is becoming an important objective in the new economy for both employers and employees,' observes Jayne, who believes that 'downshifting' should be seen as just one of many possible responses to an imbalanced life.

'We decided against spending several million on a mass-market campaign,' says Buxton. On saying that, she swiftly concedes that they would have no hesitation in diverting from this initially cautious marketing strategy if there was any danger of Flametree becoming lost in cyberspace. 'This is a real e-business, clicks and mortar. Drawing up a detailed plan for four or five months down the line isn't possible or advisable.'

The founding partners have committed much of the first five months of the new millennium to establishing the enterprise and both readily admit that their own work/life balance has been far from ideal lately. The Easter holiday was the first in which they didn't devote their energies to entertaining their offspring.

'No, it's not always been possible to walk the talk,' acknowledges Buxton, somewhat embarrassed that her two daughters (aged eight and five) go into a visible sulk whenever Rosemary turns up. Their mother has managed to assuage her maternal guilt by developing a philosophical outlook on the matter: 'Every new baby causes its parents loss of sleep. To some extent that's what's been happening to us. But we're determined, once our baby is up and running, to re-establish more balance and flexibility in our lives.'

Leith has the same regrets: 'Sometimes we're to be found sitting at our computers at 11 o'clock at night. But we've not forgotten the balance issue. We are determined to not just love but live our brand.'

It has helped that their husbands have been right behind them. Indeed, both have been able to offer valuable advice. Jayne's spouse Patrick Smith is managing director of the branding consultancy Enterprise IG, while Rosemary's husband Mark Opzoomer works for Talkcast, an internet-based telecoms and content company. 'Our husbands have had to step into the breach more often,' reflects Buxton. 'At times there's been a bit of role reversal, but that's been no bad thing. They can now appreciate how women are the consummate multi-taskers.'

If this situation drags on and Patrick or Mark are feeling down, they can always log on to flametree.co.uk. Although pitched primarily at women, much of the advice on the web site should also prove useful to those men struggling to cope with the competing demands of career and fatherhood.

www.flametree.co.uk

JAYNE'S DAY ...

29 FEBRUARY

6.30 Matthew awake much of night.

7.45 Discovered that cardboard robot constructed previous evening needed hasty repair. Applied blue paint to nose (robot's, not own) while feeding Matthew porridge.

8.15 Left for school run. Pouring rain. Oh no, robot may not survive journey.

9.00 Drop off car near house and run to dentist in rain. Dentist senses agitation. Politely suggests I not make another appointment until web site launched.

10.15 Head to meeting with lawyers with alliance partner. Umbrella blows inside out, but I manage to grab taxi soon afterwards.

11.00 Meeting with alliance partner and lawyer. Much talk of complex service agreements and need for insurance against unforeseen circumstances. V worrying.

12.00 Taxi to N1 for You magazine shoot.

12.30 to 3 You mag shoot. Fun, but turns out to be a piece on web girls, and Rose and I are the only ones who aren't girls. Make-up artist hides under-eye signs of sleepless night, and works wonders on hair.

3.00 Return to office to catch up on work.

5.30 Home to tea and bath time. Olivia's birthday in three weeks so get v organised and make 15 phone calls to mothers who've not yet responded to party invite. Olivia spends whole evening popping downstairs for one thing after another. Eventually lose my rag, then feel horribly guilty.

9.00 Spend evening sending e-mails and editing content for life coaching section of site. Thank goodness no robot to construct.

11.30 Fall into bed with Hello. Decide to try 'leave him to cry' method if Matthew wakes up.

... EARLY MORNING BLUES

19 APRIL

4.52 Matthew awake and hollering for third night in a row. Where has my good little baby gone - one who slept 12 uninterrupted hours a night?

Go up and pat his tummy in accordance with the Dr Ferber advice for 'getting your child to sleep'.

5.00 Matthew still crying. Patrick has put pillow over head (own, not baby's) in desperation. Must tell him about woman who suffocated doing that.

5.10 Matthew still crying. Can't sleep anyway.

5.25 Go up and pat Matt's tummy again.

5.30 Oh God. Insurance. Have not sorted out insurance, and will not be able to have expert Q&A service without it. And offices. Where will team go to produce site for two weeks before long-term offices are ready?

Team now too big to fit into incubation space.

5.40 Damn it, haven't sorted out the link to home help providers. Must talk to Rose about that in morning.

5.45 Must face fact that it is morning already. Go up and get Matthew (still crying) and descend to kitchen. Decide will feel better if sit down now and make master plan. First give Matt bottle in front of GMTV.

Research last week said mothers who watch television while playing with babies risk raising criminals. Surely cannot apply to me?

6.00 Sit at kitchen table to work out master plan while Matthew shuffles around floor with dustpan and brush. Am right, feels much better to be working than worrying about working. E-mail plan to Rose (in Canada this week) and Hannah (in France). Feel v accomplished until notice huge pile of bills and untended domestic admin sitting on counter. Take deep breath and start on pile, pay three bills. Vow to do rest tonight.

7.00 God, am exhausted. Is it really only 7am?

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