Interview with Naomi Simson, founder and CEO of Red Balloon
Considered one of Australia’s tech success stories, Naomi Simpson founded RedBalloon in 2001. From “just an idea”, RedBalloon has now served more than two and a half million customers. Naomi has many labels: entrepreneur, speaker, director, mother, author, blogger and now TV personality with her upcoming appearance on Channel 10’s Shark Tank.
Before founding RedBalloon with business partner Peter she worked with big brands, IBM, Apple, KPMG and Ansett Airlines, all of which influenced her views on workplaces. There are many different areas that people can take their careers in child care, and as a busy mum and entrepreneur, we thought we’d ask Naomi to discuss her views on the child care industry in Australia.
She has many opinions on family friendly workplaces and ideas on ways that women might be able to remain in the workforce, or return more easily after having children.
As a successful entrepreneur and mum - how did you juggle the demands of work whilst raising a family?
I left corporate life when I became a mum because I wanted to spend more time with my kids. I thought I could run a business at night and play with my kids during the day, but it didn’t quite work out that way - my kids wanted to know why they had to go to bed at 5:30pm!
I’d be lying if I said I “did it all.” What I did was focus on being in the moment. As a mum, there is no point yearning to be somewhere else, or playing the guilt game. As women, perpetuating the myth that we have to “do it all” does everyone a disservice.
The reality is that life is chaotic – and I still don’t necessarily have it sorted out because family and business is a juggling act. My daughter (in the early days of RedBalloon) would fold envelopes and blow up balloons before school, as we worked from home in those days. There were vivid and robust discussions around the dinner table about business, and as a tiny tot my son would invent new experiences and offer to test them out.
Life was hectic, but we were all in it together. I never had to compartmentalise my life. I was both a mum and a CEO. Whoopi Goldberg famously said, “Normal is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine”. There is no normal. We just do the best we can and focus on being truly present.
What are your top 3 ideas on how we might improve access to child care in Australia?
#1: Making child care (including qualified in-home child care) tax deductible could be an advantage to keeping more women in the workforce.
#2: In an ideal world, Australians would have access to free publically-funded child care. We have public primary and secondary schools so why not public preschools that feed into our publicly-funded primary system?
#3: Businesses can help. Part-time roles, the flexibility to work from home or take time in lieu are not ground-breaking, yet the spirit in which all these are offered may well be. It’s important to recognise that this is not simply a women’s issue; it’s a community issue and one that needs structural economic reform.
How can we encourage more employers to create family-friendly workplaces?
RedBalloon thrives because of its great team. Part-time roles, the flexibility to work from home or take time-in-lieu all play their part. Everyone's contribution here is valued equally as highly, no matter the hours they work, or whether they are working virtually.
As business leaders, we all need to be willing to embrace change and lead by example. We need to change the notion of what is an appropriate working week. We need to change leadership expectations and, as my friend Margie Hartley said, "Have leaders demonstrate flexibility that is really flexibility. Not a five-day week squeezed into four days or the ability to work 14 hours a day through technology."
A family-friendly and flexible workplace is about giving people flexibility in terms of the hours they work and where they are working from. To bring this to life, while still increasing productivity, it must be all about trust, connectivity and measurability. You need to trust your people, ensure they have the tools and technology to remain connected and ensure clear measurability so that you can gauge productivity and achievement on targets set. The rewards of being a flexible workplace are endless – our people are more productive and the strength of our employer brand helps in the recruitment process, both in terms of the volume and the calibre of people we attract.
What advice would you offer someone looking to start a child care business? Any tips to improve on the existing models?
Employers need to think about how they can offer greater flexibility in child care. For example nurses working shifts, where the usual 7am opening and 6pm close of a long day care is no help. Actually, nor is it much support to the corporate working woman either, given the hours often "expected" in that world.
Paid parental leave isn't the answer to encouraging women to return to work. It's what we do to make child care accessible and available to people all the time, without prejudice, whether it's a mother, father, foster parent or guardian.