Justine Leetham was looking for a new challenge work wise and wanted to be around more for her eldest son as he started school. Just over a year and a half ago she took a big step and made a complete change in her career. She switched from working as a Fabric Technologist to becoming a franchisee for ARTventurers, running colourful, creative art and craft classes, workshops and events for babies, toddlers and children.
Justine says it was a ‘now or never’ decision. She wanted a change and she was also worried that her eldest son, who is quite anxious, would have problems settling in at primary school and would have to go to breakfast and after-school club every day.
Justine did her degree in Textile Management at Leeds University. When she moved back to the North East she didn’t think she’d find a job in a related field, but the Fabric Technologist role came up at Barbour in South Shields. There she worked with designers and suppliers and did fabric testing and trials. Her wardrobe is full of Barbour jackets and she loved her team, but after doing the job for several years and with no prospect of promotion, she was ready for a new challenge. “If I had stayed I would probably have been there until I retired,” she says. “Many of the other clothing manufacturers in the North East had closed and there were not many other options. “It was a now or never moment,” says Justine.
She knew she was taking quite a risk in changing careers, “I had worked hard to get where I was and I had a great boss,” she says. She had also been able to reduce to four days a week after returning from her first maternity leave with her son Ellis, now aged five.
A now or never decision
It was while she was on maternity leave with her second son Toby that she saw an advert for a discovery day with ARTventurers, which won this year’s Workingmums.co.uk Overall Top Franchise Award. The discovery day took place at the weekend and Justine was due back from maternity leave the following week. She was totally inspired by Fiona Simpson, the founder of ARTventurers, and there was no other franchisee covering the Tyne Valley. “I thought if I don’t do this now someone else will,” she says. By Sunday she had made the decision to take the plunge and buy into the franchise.
She returned to work in September 2015 and handed her notice in the following month. However, to allow her time to plan her classes and also give her employer time to find a replacement, she didn’t launch her business until the New Year.
She says the support at ARTventurers has been great. “I get lots of advice from Fiona and the other franchisees are always there to help too. Most of them are parents themselves and there is always someone around to answer a query on our Facebook group at any time.”
Her biggest worry when she started was whether anyone would actually come to her classes. However, some of the parents who attended her very first sessions are still coming along 18 months later. Justine started in Hexham where she has family and friends. They helped with getting the word out. She also used social media – mainly Facebook, but also Instagram and Twitter – and got a lot of marketing and mentoring support from head office, including help with writing press releases for local media. She also visited a lot of baby and toddler groups. Last year she hosted 12 parties in addition to other sessions and this year she is on course to more than double that number.
Justine’s eldest son is now at school, his brother goes to nursery two days a week and the boys’ grandparents also help out. Justine holds her classes and attends networking sessions during the day and does administrative work in the evenings when the children are in bed. There are webinars in the evenings on topics such as blogging and Facebook marketing as well as sessions by guest speakers. Usually the kids are in bed by then, but Justine says it is very relaxed and everyone understands if they are still around. She has mentoring catch-up calls once a month with Fiona too although she is on hand at any time should she need her. Justine has also recently taken on the role of North East area leader, providing local support and guidance to the other franchisees in her region.
When she started out she thought that if she could earn as much as her maternity pay at the time she would be happy, but she says that as the franchise has grown, she has been able to earn much more. She has just added a monthly Saturday class to her timetable and would also like to take on an assistant in the not too distant future.
“The time has flown by,” says Justine. “I have met so many lovely families since I started, the children are all amazing and I really do love my job. I am also around to drop and pick Ellis up from school which has really helped him to settle in and have a positive first year at school. The flexibility of the job also means that both my children can come along to my holidays classes which they love. It really is so much fun. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else!”