Shea Stanley, mumpreneur and founder of the iconic ‘Little Steps’ website, spoke with the newsDesk about how she grew her successful online business while juggling the demands of being a mum of two.
Shea Stanley’s passion and energy are inspiring. Her travel and lifestyle media career has taken her to over 50 countries. Before setting up Hong Kong-based Little Steps in 2011, she worked on television, print, and digital projects, and launched travel and lifestyle products and businesses.
Today, her web business is one of the region’s longest established and most respected family sites, filling a niche by targeting parents who wanted fun insider tips in cities across Asia.
Stand out moments
With so many careers already, I wondered what Shea saw as the stand out moments “I would say that starting my own business has been the highlight,” she immediately replies.
“I’ve had a lot of fun in my careers, but I’ve always needed more. Being an entrepreneur and having my own business, there’s no stopping me. I can keep on innovating, keep on trying new things.”
“There’s no point at which I think ‘OK, we’ve reached the goal’. One thing can’t contain me. I have too much energy,” she laughs.
People – female or male – often worry about failure when starting up or running their own business. But for Shea, defining the meaning of success was more of a consideration.
“There are always struggles. But, I haven’t had a fear of failing. I have more of a drive to be successful. More important for me is to figure out what success means.”
“When I first started Little Steps,” she explains, “success was more about the amount of revenue or whatever monetary success people typically associate with business. After having kids, success for me became more about being happy and being able to steer my drive for innovation and the way I wanted to grow my business.”
Finding the balance
The reality of caring for small children while growing a business can be tough. It means finding the right balance between the different roles you need to take. Women particularly have needed to redefine their priorities in work and life. “I think I’ve grown to see that,” she says. “In the early days of my company I was so busy trying to grow the business.”
“Having kids makes you look at things differently. It makes you think about your priorities and how you manage time. You look at life and happiness in a new way, and a lot of it comes back to having time with your kids and your family. If you’re happy with your work and your business, and you’ve got the flexibility – even if it means working late at night – that’s OK. Because you’re happy and you’re not dreading work.”
“There’s no point at which I think ‘OK, we’ve reached this goal.’ One thing can’t contain me. I have too much energy!”
Drive and commitment
Starting up and growing a business requires passion and commitment. For Shea, sustaining this energy and drive comes down to one simple thing: delighting the many parents who regularly visit the website. “The primary driver is knowing that we are making a difference,” says Shea.
“When we share content or release a video we’re motivating a lot of people to go out and do things. Not just the fun stuff like weekend activities or where to get a brunch, but where to send your kids to school.”
As the digital media environment becomes more competitive, Shea recognises that her competitive nature helps her maintain that drive. “I’m a competitive person, so I like to stay ahead of the curve. If the curve increases, I want to do more. That pushes me to keep innovating.”
“I’m a mumpreneur and I’m a businesswoman, so I don’t take a stance on one side or the other. In fact, I don’t really care! I’m both.”
I wondered how Shea represents herself as a woman in business. “I’ve gotten into this conversation quite a bit,” she smiles. “I’m a mumpreneur and I’m a businesswoman, so I don’t take a stance on one side or the other. In fact, I don’t really care! ” she laughs, “I’m both.”
Does Shea take objection to terms like ‘mumpreneur’? After all, there isn’t an equivalent term for men. “I’ve interacted with a lot of mumpreneurs, and I’m a mumpreneur among them”
“Some women will warn others to not classify themselves as a mum because it’s a kind of stereotype. They say ‘label yourself as a business person first, and then a woman’ For me, families and kids are such a central part of my work and my life. It would seem strange if the founder of Little Steps wasn’t passionate about that.”
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Having it all
It can be tough for anyone to start a business. Balancing a demanding career with family/life activities can often make women feel guilty of not being successful in either area. I asked Shea if this is something she struggled with.
“Yes,” she replies, “The whole idea of ‘having it all’ is, well, impossible. The way I see it is that if you try to have it all – trying to be 100% in terms of kids, work, husband, and even exercise and sleep – you’re going to fail.”
For Shea, keeping a healthy balance is about realistic expectations, and being present in the moment. “I’ll be on holiday with my husband and kids, and I’m 100% with them. When I come back, it’s like I’ve switched sides.”
“I think the hardest thing for me was accepting that. Now, I try to be present in whatever I’m doing. If I’m with the kids, then I need to be with the kids. I don’t need to be checking my phone. It’s tough to do, and I’ve not always been that person.”
Dealing with challenges
I wanted to know what kinds of challenges Shea has needed to address since setting up her company. “Well, we’ve entered new markets, which is always challenging,” she replies, ”And we’ve grown a team, which can be tough as well.”
Since 2011, technology has dramatically changed the world. Shea explains that keeping up with the times has been a key factor in turning Little Steps into a successful web-based business.
“When we launched, mobile didn’t exist,” she reflects. “Believe it or not it was only 6 years ago! In the beginning, we didn’t know anything about analytics or the details of which tools to use, only the basics. Luckily, we were focused on creating good content and being the first in this space we got a lot of good SEO, which is a backbone of the business.”
“Back then, we only shared our content online, and through our eDM newsletter. We thought that was a lot of work,” she laughs.
“But now we have to keep up with social media trends and invest in different platforms to reach our parents. There are more places where parents spend their time, so we have to be there too. It’s a bigger investment in time, energy and content. We’re still learning.”
“The whole idea of ‘having it all’ is, well, impossible.”
Working across the region
Little Steps now operates in six cities across the region. What kinds of differences does Shea see in different markets? “Well, in Hong Kong our audience is 60% expat and 40% westernised Chinese,” she explains, “so we have to make sure that our content is broad.”
“Definitely, there is a crossover of interests. For example, topics like nutrition and education are relevant to many of our parents. But, things to do at the weekend can be entirely different. Also, 25% of our readers are dads, so we have to work hard to keep a nice, happy medium.”
“Another thing that’s interesting to see is how far people will travel, depending on which market you’re dealing with. We find that in Hong Kong if there is an event happening then people will travel from all over to go. In Singapore, we notice that people on the east coast stay in the east. The west coast is the same. So, we have to adapt to those kinds of content needs.”
Shea’s business also differs in other cities “We’re an English site in Jakarta,” she says. “We focus more on the demographic who search in that language. They’re looking for a certain calibre of hotel or store”
“Our sites in Bali and Macau are more travel oriented. About 80% of readers are outside those places. They want to know where to stay, where to eat, and what new hotels are opening. The content on those sites is less about the needs of the local families and more focused on people who are visiting.”
Expanding into new cities was always part of Shea’s plan for the business. “From the start, we planned to be pan-regional. That helped because we built the site so we could launch in a city with a click. We didn’t need to go to a tech company to get the site updated or add new features.”
The company also needed to take different approaches when they launched in new locations. “Singapore was our second city. We knew we needed to have a marketing partnership to get into that market. We piggybacked on a collaboration with Luxe City Guides. At that time they were a big brand, and we were unknown.”
“We did an event with them which had a lot of press coverage and other resources that propelled our business. It was the same in Bali. From those experiences, we established what had and hadn’t worked. We were able to take some of those ideas and use them in other markets.”
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Looking to the future
Having achieved so much, I asked Shea what plans she has for evolving the business. “At the moment, we’re getting ready to launch our new site,” she beams. “It’s a big project, and it’s been a long time in the works. We’re excited about that.”
Regarding content, Shea sees that video is a central part of her strategy. “Video is where we are investing heavily and what we consider to be the next phase for our content and partners. We’ve been producing video content for about a year – everything from Facebook Live, developing our own to creating professional videos.”
“It’s about taking the content that we have and adding a visual element that makes sense. We took our time with video. It’s so easy to create, anyone can do it in a few seconds. But to get it right with our brand took us a while to figure out. We’re happy with where we are. It’s nice when people comment that our video is so on brand because that’s tough to achieve”.
Love what you do
I asked Shea what advice she would give to mothers who are starting up or running a business. “You have to love what you’re doing,” she immediately replies.
“It sounds super-cliched, but I couldn’t have done this if I didn’t love what I was doing; when my babies were crying in the middle of the night, and I was on my computer. You have to be passionate about your work, especially in the early days because you’re not making money in your business and you’re also sleep deprived. It’s messy!
“Be 100% sure that you love what you do.” Shea smiles. And who, female or male, would argue with that.