An office in the sun


Maya Middlemiss talks to about running a UK business from Spain.

What if you could set up your business anywhere. Where would you work? Maya Middlemiss established her market research company and when it went virtual she not only decided to move house but to move country. The family now live on the Costa Blanca and Maya commutes to London every few weeks for meetings.

Her life started to change 14 years ago when she was working as an equalities manager at a university and was due to go on maternity leave. Her organisation underwent a restructure while she was pregnant which meant she would have had to move to another site with no creche when she returned from leave. While on maternity leave she spoke to a friend who had set up an international market research bureau who had given her some work when she was a student. “She was always complaining about UK recruitment standards,” says Maya. The two decided to look into it together and decided they could do something to address it. Maya wrote a business plan on her bump. Her friend agreed to pay her her salary while she market tested it.

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Within a year the business idea was delivering quality research participants, although it was not yet turning a profit. Over the last 13 years, Maya has built up the company, Saros Research, although she admits that initially it was hard work to get people to register as participants. She sent out leaflets to advertise what the company was doing and as the technology evolved she soon got a website set up. “Market research is great. You get paid well for a couple of hours work and get wined and dined for focus groups. It’s not going to replace your income as you can only do it a couple of times a year since clients don’t always want the same people and they don’t want people to be too knowledgeable about the process. But you can earn good money and have an influence and change people’s lives in some way,” says Maya.

Those who apply are screened by email and telephone interview. “We need to check if people are articulate and confident,” she adds. Some projects require people to be creative, for instance, if they are brainstorming product names.

Au pairs

Maya was running the business from her home in London which allowed her to hire a series of au pairs to look after her daughter. It meant her daughter was exposed to different cultures. “It was the best solution,” she says. “When you are setting up a new business you cannot finish at 5pm.” Once she had got to know her au pair well she could go to meetings and leave her daughter with them. At times, she took the au pair and her daughter to London and the au pair would walk around outside while she was in a meeting.

As she has grown the business, her family has expanded – she has another daughter aged eight – and she has taken on staff. She now has 11 full-time employees. Initially her first employee – a part-time administrator – worked in her house. After five years, Maya and her family moved to Surrey and she had a big garden office. At one point there were four staff working in there. However, after a breach of trust, she decided to encourage everyone to work from home, and to plan for future growth with that preference in mind. “Technology was changing and making it easier for the business to be more decentralised. We weren’t sitting in the office with our clients so why did we have to sit next to each other to do our work?,” says Maya.

Most of the staff are project managers and she works with six interviewers on a self-employed basis. These tend to work part time. Some are parents or carers; one is a special constable and another is a student. Maya says she is very flexible, but project managers need to manage their hours well so clients know who they can contact at any time. She normally meets clients at their offices or arrange to Skype them if it’s urgent.

Having got to grips with a virtual office, Maya decided five years ago to make a further step. Since many of her project managers were living around the UK, she started questioning whether she too could move from the south east. Her mum had property in Wales and the family were thinking of moving there, but Maya and her husband spent a weekend in Spain while they were deliberating. They wondered if they had not thought big enough. “Everything we wanted was in Spain. The outdoors life, a Mediterranean family culture, sun, a good education and health structure. And there were cheap flights to London,” says Maya.

Life in Spain

Her husband is a locksmith and they thought he could find work easily in Spain, but when they moved the crisis was just hitting so instead he has trained as an interviewer and joined Saros Research, also managing its database. “It made sense. We share similar interests and motivations for the business and it is much more common in Spain to have a family business,” says Maya. 

Maya says living on Spain's Costa Blanca has been good for her children too. They are bilingual and attend a language speciality school where there are also a lot of German and Dutch children. “They understand different cultures and having grown up with Saros Research they have an entrepreneurial outlook,” she says.

The business itself is very family-oriented. There are three couples currently working for Maya, several other staff are based in Spain and she has one project manager in Egypt. All, though, are very well versed in UK culture. “We recruit based on business and life experience rather than experience of market research as we can train that," says Maya. "Everything we do can be learned. What cannot be taught is the right attitude and an independent, entrepreneurial mindset."

Many of her employees, most of whom started at interviewer level and all of whom are parents, have been very loyal to the business. “I do believe that it is being part of a flexible team with a results-oriented approach where you can be honest about what is going on in your life that has made a difference,” says Maya.

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