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Single mum Stella James not only set up a tech business with no background in tech, but also launched it while battling breast cancer.
Her achievement in founding and growing Gooseberry Planet has brought her recognition as a finalist for the Startup Founder Award in the 2016 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. The winners will be announced tomorrow [23rd February].
In 2013, when her son was starting secondary school, Stella was looking to see if there was anything that could teach him how to stay safe on the smart phone he wanted. She found information for parents, but nothing for kids. “He was a cool dude. Nothing I found was fun enough or was something he would take notice of,” she says.
He loved playing games. Stella thought why not create a game which young people could play to find out how to stay safe online by acting out certain scenarios. Each would have strong messages and show the consequences of unsafe actions. Stella is very passionate about keeping children safe online. “You wouldn’t let children drink under age, but we let them have access to 18 material quite easily,” she says.
Her background is in sales and marketing of software and she was running her own telesales business until last June while developing Gooseberry Planet.
Through her work, she had contacts with software people in India and set about finding a developer. The first one she tried wasn’t successful, but she found another and funded the whole thing herself. She created the visuals and knew exactly what she wanted and what the characters should be like – they are named after her brothers’ nicknames.
Stella had started development when in March 2014 she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Everything stopped,” she said. Her treatment started and continued for nine months. However, by June 2014 she felt she needed something else to focus on. “It’s so easy to crawl into a hole,” she says. “I lost my long blonde hair, I put weight on. Everything about me was stripped away. Gooseberry Planet became my focus so I didn’t go into a really dark place. It was my medicine.”
When she felt well enough she started working with developers again. They understood that she might not be available for certain periods when she was having treatment.
Gooseberry Planet includes a game for children, aged 9-14, plus a free parallel parent app. This enables parents to see how their children are progressing in the game and includes tools, tips and ideas for starting conversations about child safety online.
It finally launched in January 2015. “I’m not sure how I did it,” says Stella, “but I had amazing support from friends and family. My family set up a care plan for me so there was always someone with me when I was having chemotherapy. I had lots of complications. I got infections and they could not find veins to get the chemo in,” she says.
Her oldest son shaved all his hair off to raise money for Cancer Research. There were also some very dark moments, for instance, on one occasion she just didn’t have the physical energy to get her son to school when he didn’t want to go.
Fortunately, she had invested in employment insurance the year before she was diagnosed with cancer so was able to get by financially.
All her savings were invested in Gooseberry Planet, but by Spring 2015 she needed to get more money in. She cold called angel investors and since June has raised over £150,000. She is now seeking to raise more so she can take her business to the next level. She persuaded her investors that she needed to pay herself a small salary so she could keep her family going. She also pays her small staff who do the telemarketing and customer services.
In keeping with her professional background, Gooseberry Planet operates on a telemarketing model. The games are sold to schools over the phone and through her website. Stella has also done a lot of visiting of schools, talking to teachers to see what they think and doings sessions telling parents how to keep their children safe, for instance, how to adjust their privacy settings. The feedback has been very positive and she says the business has now reached a critical point. “Every day is very exciting,” she says.
She admits she has made mistakes since she started the business and that it took a lot longer because she had to learn so much about developing an online game, but she is now keen to create other games aimed at the PSHE curriculum, for instance, on sex and drug and alcohol education.
Work life balance
Another challenge has been trying to maintain a work life balance while building the business and she says learning to switch off is something she has battled with. She lives in a small village in Hampshire and there are no after school clubs. That means she has to rely on friends and family to help out with childcare if she has meetings in London. Her ex-partner has the boys on Tuesdays and Thursdays so she does longer days then. She says her sons understand she may have to work in the evenings, but she knows they are proud of what she has achieved.
Healthwise, she is feeling good. She has been in remission from the breast cancer since October 2014, but recently had to have an ovary removed. She had feared it might be cancerous, but she has been given the all clear.
Stella is excited about the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. She says awards are not only good for the credibility of the business, but that being nominated is a huge boost for her and for women in tech. “I do not consider myself a woman in tech, but I have created something quite unique in the technology world,” she says. “It shows you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. I am not a coder, but I came up with the idea for Gooseberry Planet and made it work.”