Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.
Mumsnet started just before the Dot Com Crash, a tech investment bubble that claimed many victims nobody cares to remember anymore.
The company not only weathered that storm, it’s gone viral more than once, made a respectable £6.8m in turnover last year and has just joined the first cohort of scaleup accelerator Growth Builder.
Co-founder and chief executive Justine Roberts spoke to NS Tech about exactly what it’s taken to get to here. And it all started with a $50 piece of forum software.
“It took us eight years to really earn enough money to pay anyone a salary,” Roberts says. “We launched before the Dot Com Crash and failed to raise investment. It was eight years before we even got a proper office.”
As with many ‘tech for good’ type ventures, Roberts admits that the idea of allowing mothers to swap wisdom was a useful one, but the “business model took a while to evolve”.
Now the company boasts 100 staff, who are a whopping 85% female, which must be approaching a record for what is ostensibly a technology company.
“We had to rebuild the site to allow us to scale – and add on all the bells and whistles that our users want. So our chief technical challenge lately has been developing in a new language, Ruby, which is more agile and enables us to offer a responsive, mobile-friendly experience.”
She says the dev team of 12 is largely male, but explains: “It’s true of most companies that it’s hard to compete with a cooler, sexier brand – but we put purpose before profit, we’re fairly out there and stand for something.
“That’s proved attractive to developers with a conscience.”
The company’s chief technical challenge three years ago was managing the backend when things scale or indeed, go viral. Penis Beaker, where a member rather bravely asked the crowd about a weird routine her and her husband have, was that moment.
“They are the things that you can’t plan for. But we have since overhauled our systems so we’re now using multiple servers where space can be added on as we need it.
“Penis Beaker broke Mumsnet,” she admits.
Times have changed and the company is now smashing out great apps as soon as an interesting demand arises.
Mumsnet launched three in the last year alone, one for pregnancy, one for when your baby is born and one for accessing that rather infamous forum.
Unlike Facebook, which has begun to insist that users use real names in order to sell ads, Mumsnet allows anonymity.
“Our users say this actually allows them to be more honest, more yourself than under real names. We try to intervene as little as possible – and mainly ask people to be civil to each other.”
Mumsnet now has a full-time team of community managers who are on the look out among the 30,000 posts made per day for comments that break the law – whether they’re racist, homophobic or transphobic, for example.
“But the users are our police people, really” Roberts says.
The company makes money by helping corporates to reach its audience, which is around 85% female, whether that’s through market research, advertising or sponsorship.
But it’s taken a strict stand against Nestle, for example, for its “aggressive marketing of formula [milk] in breach of international standards,” as well as saying no to payday loan ads.
Although politically independent, Mumsnet has taken up a number of different campaigns that its members have felt strongly about, from abortion care to lads mags.
Mumsnet’s Webchat has also become a “rite of passage for any self respecting politician” after David Cameron first took up the opportunity to speak to British mums in 2006.
Gordon Brown famously appeared to refuse to answer the question when asked about his favourite biscuit in what some newspapers dubbed ‘the Mumsnet election’.
“‘I just hate the way that politicians dodge all the important questions,” one member joked.
Roberts actually puts ‘Biscuitgate’ down to the fact that the then-PM was too busy broadcasting what he wanted to say, rather than talking with his audience.
Obviously there were many other factors at play, but in 2010 the Labour Party lost a huge number of votes they could usually expect from women.
Mumsnet is now a strapping 16-year-old company, as well as a pretty powerful voice for parents in the UK, and its next step is global expansion.
It already has users all over the world, but it’ll soon be working with experienced international outfits as part of Growth Builder to work out how to create proper, hyperlocal online communities.
“We’ve got hard-earned experience that it takes a long time to build a genuine online community so we’re hoping to learn from other people about going international, to avoid some of the pitfalls.
“This is going to be bottom up, not top down – we’re not just going to open an office in New York tomorrow.”
Mumsnet has brought a simple idea to life and actually turned ‘tech for good’ into a proper business.
Most tech companies fail to target their products to or hire women into their team, where Mumsnet is positively built for them.