Voices

Glass Ceiling Smashers

In our new section celebrating ace businesswomen, startup owner Christine Townsend has some sage advice.

Shoulderpads: Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.

Shoulderpads: Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.

Not a weekend goes by when there isn’t a piece in a newspaper supplement about a female entrepreneur. Usually it’s a smug picture of her in the kitchen/study/spare room, “where it all started” and how she’s now worth £80bn and still manages to bring up children and work for a charity – and in just two years! Amazing.

Amazing PR, more like. I am the founder and CEO of MusterPoint – a social media management platform for the public sector and emergency services here and in Europe. But I can’t call myself an entrepreneur. I just like to solve problems and I’m not keen on working for other people.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent but I grew up in the 80s in North Kent, spitting distance from the Emerald City (London) and I was led to believe that in the Tory south east, I could have whatever I wanted; big shoulder pads, a chunky mobile phone, a Barbour jacket and Findus Lean Cuisine meals.

There were no rags (I was well looked after; I didn’t go to uni but I did OK at school) and there are no riches (no diamond-encrusted flip flops for me). I didn’t start selling muffins to my neighbours and wake up one day being bought out by Wal-Mart and I’m not really into networking and nibbles.

I worked as a journalist, then in consulting (continuing to sell my soul) and then the public sector as a crisis comms specialist. I also served 10 years as a special constable, being the public punchbag for the frustrations of a nation. Naively, I wanted to make a change and be able to manage my own life without obligation.

But the one thing I wasn’t expecting was how long this takes. Or how earth-shatteringly exhausting and lonely this business is. I worked for three years full time while trying to set up MusterPoint. It meant getting up at 4am, heading to London, working before doing my highly stressful day job managing a crisis, working way into the night then going home to sleep. Repeat every day and then at weekends take out the life-sapping commute and chuck in a voluntary shift as a special constable – just to take my mind off things.

It’s no surprise that in this time, I managed to get ill. I already had lupus but was managing, somehow, to fight this off. I had experienced a close family bereavement which had knocked me for six but I couldn’t let go of my dream. In the same week that I managed to get first-round funding for MusterPoint (more of that later), I was also diagnosed as having epilepsy. With that, my driving licence was taken away, my independence, my police badge and eventually, my home. A frightening time.

No shoulderpads: Christine is still the boss.

No shoulderpads: Christine is still the boss.

Nonetheless, the last five years have been amazing and I have learned some invaluable lessons about being an entrepreneur (or whatever you choose to call yourself):

• Don’t stop learning. Learn about yourself, other people and acknowledge your weaknesses so you can make them strengths. Also have a basic understanding of business processes so you don’t get shafted. Because you will.

• You’ll feel isolated. No one will understand you, your frustrations, your fears, your dreams or why you’re doing it when you could have a reasonably paid, safe nine-to-five and be home in time for tea. You’ll feel like a teenager all over again, which leads me to…

• You might have to move back home. If you’re lucky enough to have the support of your parents, take it. I moved back home at 39. CEO by day, surly teenager by night. Accept how humbling it is to have your mum go through your room to pick up dirty underwear, holding pants up to the light and saying, “A bit of Vanish will shift that,” while you’re on the phone to someone really important.

“The wee small hours are great for fostering fear and self-loathing. Suck it up or give it up. You’re doing this because you’re awesome.”

• Look after yourself. It’s not selfish to want time out. I made the mistake of not looking after myself and am only just learning how to build up my resilience again. Don’t be a slave to your email. You did this because you want to be your own boss. So take control of your time and resources. You are more effective if you sleep, lay off the booze and do a bit of exercise.

• Call your friends. They will think you’re too busy and important now. It’s not the case. They are your touchstone and changing their kids’ nappies is a real leveller.

• Look after the pennies. If you get investment, it’s not your money. You’ve been given that money to make money for someone else because they believe you can. It’s a true gift. It comes with many, many responsibilities so use it wisely.

• Keep at it. Every day you may think, “I’m getting nowhere.” You are, you just don’t realise it until you look back. That’s why I keep a diary. Nothing overly self-indulgent, but it makes me realise how far I’ve come and that actually, I’m enjoying it despite what my night-time demons tell me.

• Believe in yourself. You will have more moments of self-doubt than you ever thought possible. The wee small hours are great for fostering fear and self-loathing. Suck it up or give it up. You’re doing this because you’re awesome. Do you talk to your friends like that? No. Don’t talk to yourself like that then.

• There’s no failure, just experiences. I’m still alive, I can still afford to eat and I get to be creative. I am surrounded by good people and I have more opportunities than many women before me and from other countries. That’s surely got to be worth it?

Meet more of our Glass Ceiling Smashers here.

@ctownsenduk
@muster_point

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Written by Christine Townsend

Christine Townsend was a Special Constable for 10 years, while managing the media for the emergency services and various central Government departments. She recently set up MusterPoint, a social media management platform for the public sector and education. She also advises on crisis communications and regularly speaks about digital policing and social change. Often in a dress.