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Enterprising parents running start-ups from home

Enterprising mums and dads are ditching the corporate grind to run online ventures from home, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 3:03pm

Greg Stockdale and his wife Julie consider themselves fortunate parents. They get to have regular meals with their two-year-old daughter Kelly, and take her to the park and swimming pool almost every day. This became possible only after the couple turned their backs on conventional work to run an online business from home last November.

Stockdale, a technology consultant and former IT director for the Shangri-La Group, recognises the new venture has its risks but says the time he gets to spend with Kelly makes it worthwhile.

"With a corporate job, you have a salary and incremental benefits … The trade-off is you have to give the company your hours and have long quality time with your child only on weekends. Now I don't need to wake up [at a fixed time] and put on a suit. I can eat with my family three times a day. I play with Kelly in the afternoon and let Julie take a break and do the grocery shopping and her own things."

Busy working couples often wish they spent more time with their children. Some parents - mothers especially - decide to put their careers on hold while the youngsters are growing up. But a few enterprising types, such as Stockdale, have made the most of IT advances to start online business that give them the flexibility to combine parental duties with work.

"As parents, we need to be aware of the financial risk in what we are doing. But after working [in the corporate world] for 20 years, we are able to buy our own flat in Hong Kong. So the risks are managed risks. Before, I got only two weeks holiday a year but now we can take a month off for Christmas. It's a really good trade-off."

Stockdale and his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, run sqooll.com a company producing monthly learning packs for children aged one to four, with a calendar suggesting daily activities for parents to do with their children to improve their motor, language and maths skills. The packs are mailed to subscribers' homes, with online materials provided as a backup.

I can't do both motherhood and banking successfully as there are not enough hours in a day
Karola Szovati, Twopresents

Because the business involves early years education, playing with Kelly is part of their work.

"As it's a learning business for toddlers, we can try the activities out on our child and see the responses and improve on the design," Julie says.

"I love teaching kids. Running this business allows me to care for my daughter while also educating children."

A home-based e-commerce venture is a 24/7 operation, but Stockdale has no regrets about quitting the corporate world.

"Our customers, who are mums, can place orders at 11pm. After I put Kelly to bed, I can get back to work and talk to Julie about our business."

As he and his wife now work from home, he says, their daughter can get to know both parents equally, rather than bonding deeply with either mum or dad. "Children are only young once and I don't want to miss out on this time."

For Karola Szovati, Mia Ejendal and Mike Walshe, the founders of Twopresents, running their party invitation service with a charitable twist gives them the satisfaction of working while still being full-time parents.

Twopresents is the brainchild of former banker Szovati. The idea is simple: instead of buying birthday presents for a child, party guests receive Twopresents invitations to contribute to a fund, part of which buys a gift of the child's choice, while the remainder goes to a nominated charity.

Since the launch last January, the social enterprise has helped raise tens of thousands for the 10 local charities it partners with.

Szovati came up with the idea after attending many parties in Hong Kong overflowing with gifts, decorations and cards.

"I grew up in communist Hungary with basically nothing. For my birthday, I might receive a book and my mum made a cake. That was it," she says.

"For the first 2½ years after my son, Benjamin, was born, we lived in Zurich, where birthday parties are very low-key. A couple of friends came with [only ] small symbolic gifts.

"In Hong Kong, my son was showered with lots of presents. After opening them, he quickly lost interest and many of the gifts ended up on shelves and in corners. I wanted to change that.

"People feel compelled to bring something for the birthday boy so they don't come empty handed. With Twopresents, the child can still get a meaningful present that he really wants and the rest can be given to people who have less."

Szovati quit her job after becoming a mother six years ago, and relishes this return to business although it's a far cry from the adrenalin-fuelled pace of the bank, which involved frequent travel and late nights, often not getting home until 3am.

"I wasn't prepared to put my work before my family. For a banker, you partially put up with all that as you hope you will be financially rewarded for it. I love challenging things. When you work, you want to give your best. As a mum, I also want to do my best for my children and me."

The idea of having her children cared for by helpers also didn't appeal as they wouldn't be able to teach them Hungarian.

"If I am in the office all day long, my children will just hear English," she says. "I can't do both motherhood and banking successfully as there are not enough hours in a day. For Twopresents, [with] my banking background, I can help with execution, financials and the business model."

Ejendal, a former management consultant, was eager to join the venture after having stopped work when her elder son, Alex, was born four years ago. She says the lack of support systems in Hong Kong make it harder to be a working mum here than in her native Sweden, where there is 15 months paid parental leave, and affordable quality childcare.

She says: "Someone needs to stay home with my children and I want to be the one. It has a bit to do with jealousy as I don't want them to be brought up entirely by somebody else."

So she was delighted to be able to put her professional skills to good use while staying home with her children.

Former advertising executive Walshe, who designed the Twopresents website, echoes the feeling. After his wife was transferred to Hong Kong five years ago, he became a full-time dad to look after their daughter Kira, now six.

"If we had stayed in Canada, I wouldn't have left my job and my wife would be back at work when Kira was older," he says.

"I am happy Kira grew up with me instead of being put in a daycare centre to be looked after by others."

elaine.yau@scmp.com

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