We chat to Julie and Sophie Phillipson, mother/daughter duo who founded HelloGrads, the go-to site for graduates after university.
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
HelloGrads is the go-to site for life after university. It helps graduates and final year students make the transition between university and the big wide world.
We have interviews, Q&As, blogs and vlogs with industry experts and recent graduates spanning careers, money, housing and wellbeing.
Sophie: I graduated from Loughborough University in 2013 with a degree in visual communications. I started HelloGrads as a side project when I was searching for my first job and getting to grips with being an adult in London. When the side project took off, the job hunting ceased.
Julie: I also graduated from Loughborough – centuries ago! – and I have business experience in buying and marketing, as well as other useful insights as a mum of three. I helped both my daughters and their friends set themselves up after university, and my son is still doing his degree.
What time does your day usually start and end?
Our days vary completely and no two are alike. We try to keep ‘normal’ hours but sometimes we’re working well into the evening or at weekends. Most startup owners will tell you weekends are a good time to work, because it’s the closest you’re ever going to get to time standing still.
What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?
Unfortunately, we both like the same parts of the job – the creative bits, the design, the research and interviewing our guests. We are far less keen on the admin, finance and legal side. Fortunately, we have good resources and a network willing to help.
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
Sophie: The business stemmed from recognising a gap in the market rather than a desire to run a company, although I now love the autonomy and the flexibility of being my own boss. The idea emerged from our shared experience of life after university: as a recent graduate and the mother of two graduates and a student.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
Sophie: After graduation, my friends panicked about what to do with their lives, where to start and how to get jobs. Some people leave university with a very clear career direction – but could still do with some help overcoming the administrative burdens of adult life – while others don’t have a clue what they want to do, haven’t done any preparation – and need all the help they can.
Julie: The trouble – and we realised this when we researched the market – is there’s no unbiased central source for graduates negotiating life after academia. This inspired us to bridge the information gap. Graduates leave the safe university bubble and are suddenly expected to behave as adults and fend for themselves. But young people don’t know what they need to know, or even what questions to ask. It leaves them vulnerable to scams, susceptible to sales pitches, prone to make costly mistakes and it can feel really daunting.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
Julie: Monetisation is our biggest challenge. Because our target audience is students and graduates, who don’t have cash to burn, we don’t want to charge for our service. Nor do we want to clutter our site with advertising, which could adversely affect the user experience. With that in mind, we are looking for sponsorship, and trying to find other creative ways to monetise.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?
Sophie: The administrative burdens of compliance – and GDPR is a good example of this. There’s very little help or support offered beyond the initial order of: get this done or else.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
Yes, but we view our mistakes as part of the journey. Dealing with third party agencies has been quite tough. Like our graduates, we don’t know what we don’t know in terms of the possibilities and constraints, and we haven’t always asked the right questions. We have overcome this by having more exploratory discussions initially.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
Sophie: Make a start now. You will learn everything you don’t already know as you go along. Talk to people – we have been amazed at how willing people are to help.
Julie: Research, plan and really understand your target market. Ask yourself: What are your aims? How will you achieve these? How will you make money?
Would you do anything differently if you could start again from scratch?
Julie: Possibly we would have launched a more simplified version of the site, with a single section. HelloGrads has evolved from what we intended because the need is so great, but we made things harder by trying to do everything with so few staff.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
Sophie: We both like to cook. Mum loves tennis and she’s a brilliant artist. I swim, spend all the time outside I possibly can, and walk dogs from Borrow My Doggy.
What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?
Julie: I’d be playing more tennis and doing more art! Sophie would be in design strategy or market research, but we’re both absolutely determined to make a success of HelloGrads.
Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?
Sophie: Yes. I only work on weekends when I have to and when my boyfriend comes home from work, I close the laptop. If I do need to work on weekends, I will make sure I’ve lined up something fun for later.
Julie: Yes, but the most difficult aspect has been to spend quality mother and daughter time together without the conversation drifting to work.