Mumsnet: Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton

The co-founders share their ‘lightbulb’ moment for the social parenting site that attracts 50 million page views a month

For many mums, Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton are the saviours of their sanity. When the pair launched Mumsnet in 2000, they saved many a mum from the isolation of motherhood, by creating a site that combined unique parenting information with a supportive social network and online community. From the outset, Mumsnet was unlike any other parenting site: it featured real-life parent to parent advice, instead of blanket advice written by ‘experts’. Mumsnet launched just before the dotcom bubble burst, which caused thousands of fledgling sites to go under. Justine and Carrie, however, had bypassed the in vogue, ridiculous venture capital investments, and opted to grow organically. It was a wise move, and the site has gone from strength to strength, registering more than one million users a month, 50 million page views a month and hosting thousands of forum postings every day.

Inspired by a ‘holiday from hell’

Justine Roberts had worked in the City for 10 years as an economist and market strategist before switching to a career in sports journalism. During her first pregnancy in 1999, she met television producer Carrie Longton at ante-natal classes, and the two became friends. Throughout their pregnancies and with their newborns, they both agreed that the best source of parenting information was other mothers. The inspiration for Mumsnet came to Justine during a ‘holiday from hell’ in Florida with her one-year old twins. They were supposedly staying at a ‘family friendly’ resort but she found the level of childcare at the resort appalling. Other mothers she talked to at the resort agreed that it would be a great if there was a website enabling parents to swap information on everything and anything – from recommendations on trusted family-friendly resorts to the best pushchairs to use. They wanted a resource where parents could pool all their information together in one place that all parents could have access to. Home from holiday, the idea came together. Justine did some research to find out what else was out there. She found plenty of sites with parenting advice, but none that gave parents the opportunity to provide their own views, share ideas and give feedback. She wanted to create a site that offered both, and was sure this would be unique. “Having done our research carefully, there wasn’t really anything like our idea in the market at the time”, says Justine. “There was a site called Babyworld but it was more of an e-commerce offering rather than a resource for pooling information.”

An early social network

The idea for the business was an early version of the social networking sites that abound today, a place where user-generated content could be created and shared. Justine would recruit parents and mums- and dads-to-be to generate the content and would finance the site through advertising. The concept was that the members of the site would fill in a brief questionnaire, and receive a range of benefits and incentives in return, such as regular emails highlighting the developmental milestones their children were approaching. They would also be encouraged to give advice and interact with each other. Once the site was up and running, the aim was also to negotiate special offers with relevant retailers for the site’s members. Spurred on by the novelty of the idea, Justine finalised her plans for the site in November 1999 and persuaded Carrie to get involved soon afterwards. Justine recalls another motivating factor for her: she really didn’t want to go back to her job as a sports writer after maternity leave, as it involved too many weekends away from family life.

Booming possibilities

Justine and Carrie spent a month writing a business plan with the aim of having a test site ready by early 2000. At this time, the business climate couldn’t have been better. In 1999, dozens upon dozens of internet businesses had emerged, buoyed by large sums of venture capital finance and a predicted growth in broadband technologies. Many entrepreneurs boasted about securing money on the back of plans scrawled on business cards, so convinced were they that their idea was destined to be the next big thing. And it was clear that dot-coms were the next big thing, as even high street retailers made sure they also had an online presence and got in on the act. Buoyed by the economic climate, Justine and Carrie hoped to attract £500,000 worth of funding from private investors. Late in 1999, work began on the site with the help of a friend of Justine’s from university – a technical whizz who was willing to work on the site in his spare time. He managed all the technical aspects of building the site such as coding it and choosing a web host, while Justine and Carrie built the content pages, tested the site’s navigation and came up with the design. Both Justine and Carrie were working round the clock, juggling work and family life with evenings and weekends spent on the new business. Justine was reluctantly working most weekends as a sports journalist, and both had limited childcare available. Fortunately, they had the support of their husbands, whose jobs paid the mortgage and kept each family afloat. Writing all the original content themselves, Justine and Carrie spent many a day roving around London in search of reviews for the perfect pushchair. To get parents on board, they visited as many playgroups as possible. Justine and Carrie spent a considerable amount of time discussing potential names for the business. The word ‘Parentsnet’, for example, did not seem snappy enough to them and while happy with the choice of Mumsnet, they were worried about alienating fathers and dads-to-be from the site. In the end, they decided to go with their gut instinct – the name was simple, clear and catchy and the strapline, ‘by parents for parents’ would include fathers. By January 2000 the pair had already spent around £4,000 on content and technical expenses. They raised £25,000 from a friend, in return for a small percentage of the company, and began negotiations with other private investors to raise more.

The initial launch

After months of work, the test site for Mumsnet was launched in March 2000. By this time, Justine and Carrie had recruited more than 500 parent reviewers through their contacts and research, and were actively seeking more� This exclusive extract is taken from the Mumsnet chapter, in How They Started Digital: How 25 Good Ideas Became Spectacular Digital Businesses, published by Crimson Publishing. To read the full chapter and find out more about their start-up story, as well as the inspirational inside stories of 24 other top digital businesses (including Groupon, Etsy, Match.com, Twitter, TripAdvisor and Wonga), pick up your copy of How They Started Digital, available on Amazon now.

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