Elizabeth Moody-Stuart went freelance after having her first child and was looking around for flexible childcare to fit around her work patterns. “I couldn't believe the kind of flexible care on offer. For any flexibility you had to have a steady income, which is not the case for many freelances,” she said. The idea gained momentum over the next months and she launched Officreche, a Brighton-based flexible nursery and office space, in September when she was eight months pregnant with her second child.
“I didn't know anything about childcare apart from for my own children,” says Elizabeth, who is a writer, facilitator and mum of two. “It was a steep learning curve. None of it was easy, especially if you add in the fact that I was pregnant at the time.”
Her first task was to find the right building for Officreche which was appropriate both for office space and a nursery. Raising money to fund the business, which charges between six and seven pounds an hour for childcare, was another challenge because her earnings had not been high since she had been on maternity leave followed by a period of working freelance and part-time. The banks wouldn't loan her the money she needed so she had to find private finance. Several members of her family are major shareholders, including her mother.
She says recruiting the right staff was crucial. “I did focus groups and the mums were all for a professional office environment for them which was also funky and chic. As soon as the discussion turned to childcare they all said they wanted the best,” says Elizabeth.
For that reason and because she wanted to spread her net of potential customers the widest she could, she went for a full Ofsted-registered nursery rather than a creche. She also invested heavily in her staff, paying better than average wages in recognition that it is not a normal childcare job because of the flexibility. “The first five years of a child's life are unbelievably important so we needed to have a good team. I wanted smart people with initiative. All are level 3 NVQ and above except our most recent seventh member of the team, who is a level 2,” she says.
The business got a tremendous boost when one of the two childcare development experts at Brighton and Hove council joined the team as manager. Elizabeth describes her as “a blindingly good manager” who has been instrumental in getting the nursery an outstanding report from Ofsted in just six months. “She knows the legislation and knows about best practice plus she loves kids,” says Elizabeth. “It was the best pat on the back we could have had when she joined the team. The idea that a smart university graduate with a masters degree was willing to leap from a secure job with flexible hours and a pension into a start-up was a massive vote of confidence about how I was communicating my vision.”
She sees the demand for flexible childcare as likely to grow significantly in the coming years and her ambition does not just stop at Brighton. She eventually wants to franchise around the UK and abroad and also to work directly with employers.
“The hard thing, though, is creating a business model which makes it possible to provide that flexible childcare,” she says. That means negotiating all the red tape around childcare and providing continuity of care for a child who might only come to the nursery once a month.
Retaining good staff addresses the continuity of care aspect. To make booking flexible childcare as easy as possible for both parents and managers, Elizabeth has set up an online booking system which allows parents to book their hours several days before they need them and to pay for them online. That allows managers to sort out staffing. Only the manager and deputy manager are full time at the moment. Elizabeth says that it has not always been possible to predict patterns of usage so far. Partly this is because of the varied nature of the people using Officreche. They include a screenwriter, a psychology student, an accountant and a reflexologist.
Elizabeth is developing innovative ways of funding and promoting the nursery. Her marketing budget is low and she relies on word of mouth. She has a system of parent ambassadors who can get a discount for spreading the word. She also offers free space to the NCT for meetings and holds baby massage and pregnancy yoga sessions at Officreche. The Green Party has inquired about holding political meetings there during the daytime to engage a non-traditional political audience.
Elizabeth also has a system of parent carers who are CRB-checked. They get free some childcare if they do a session as assistant carers during the lunch hour. They are not allowed, however, to do a session in the room where their own child is [the nursery is divided into two sections – 0-2 and 2-5] as it is deemed too disruptive for the children. Elizabeth, who is still on maternity leave, is a parent carer herself.
She says she had three main reasons for setting up the business: to get a good work life balance for herself [she says the way she was working before was "not sustainable" with two children since it required periods of very long hours]; to make money; and because “our society needs a different way of providing childcare because more and more people are working flexibly”. “Why are we squeezing square pegs into the round hole of nursery?” she asks.