Founders and Family
We spoke to Ben Drury, co-founder of Yoto; audio players designed especially for children. Ben has two children aged 8 and 6 years old and launched Yoto in 2016 when his boys were still very young. We talked about how being a founder with a young family has presented both challenges and opportunities in business, and how Covid-19 has changed the way the family unit operates. At the beginning of the call, Ben tells me he’s actually at home with his 6-year-old as his son tested positive for Covid-19 the week before – a juggling act most parents of young children will be very familiar with.
Yoto isn’t your first start-up (Ben co-founded 7digital in 2004). How did the launch of Yoto compare to your previous business endeavours now that you have small children in tow?
We started in 2016 when I was exiting my previous start up and had a couple of years of Research and Development, which was when the kids were very young. During that initial phase it wasn’t a full-time thing, so it dovetailed quite nicely as I was able to be with the family a lot. We didn’t have an office, so I was fully home-based at that time.
We launched the first version of Yoto Player on Kickstarter at the end of 2017 and spent most of 2018 building it. The intensity increased as I was out and about much more, although we still didn’t have an office at this point, so I was again able to spend a fair bit of time with the kids.
I remember thinking when I was launching 7digital in my twenties “There’s no way I could ever do this with a family”! However, it’s certainly possible. I think the fact that our product is exclusively designed with children in mind helps; both my co-founder and I have kids and there’s no way we would’ve come up with the idea without them. We were able to test the product with our own children day in, day out which was extremely useful!
Where are you working from currently?
We’re completely hybrid now. We have an office in King’s Cross which is quite local to me, so it allows quite a lot of flexibility. I find if I’m having to work on anything that takes some level of concentration or creativity, I’m actually better off at home. I’ve got a good set up here. The office is more about meetings and creating a culture within the team.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered as a father during the whole process?
When we had the transition of getting some serious funding into the business, we then started to have to work on it more full time and secure ourselves an office. That was definitely the point when I was less involved with the kids. It happily coincided with my youngest going to primary school and so they were becoming a bit more independent themselves. That absolutely helped but becoming more immersed in the company did pull me away from my family.
Speaking of school and big challenges, how did you cope during Covid-19?
The first lockdown was a bit of a novelty initially and very surreal. My wife is a secondary school teacher and was teaching remotely three days a week. Luckily, our kids’ school were great as they supplied a full timetable over Zoom. I was working super hard as we’d only just launched the product so that period was particularly tough on my wife as she was adjusting to teaching her own students online as well as providing full time childcare.
Have there been any long-term changes in your business since the pandemic?
The hybrid way of working has been normalised so quickly, so we now have an office with 24 desks for 65 people. It’s opened our eyes to hiring outside London which is great as it widens the talent pool. (We pause as Ben’s son asks for a snack. A classic 6-year-old move). A lot of our staff do have young children – although it’s not a pre-requisite! – and having flexible working patterns has been really positive for us all. We’ve been able to build on family-friendly values for the business. It would be pretty disingenuous of us if we weren’t a family-friendly company! I think I’ve also become more environmentally aware – that definitely feels more front of mind. As a company making products for children which have some kind of educational value, we have a duty to ensure we’re working as responsibly as possible where the environment is concerned. The pandemic has really made me pause and think….what are we doing to the world? How can we do better?
And how about things that have changed in the day to day of your family life?
The school, my workplace and home are all within walking distance which is really lucky, so I’m able to nip out and collect the kids from school from time to time. When we organise meetings now, we tend to steer clear of the 3.30 slot in case people need to do that. We’re fortunate to have been able to establish a really decent work/family balance and we try and encourage our team to do the same.
What advice do you have for a founder who is trying to balance business and family?
Hiring the right people is essential. You have to have built in flexibility and complete trust in your team. No keeping tabs on them, no clocking in and out, just trust that they are going to deliver the work when it suits them. If people want to attend their child’s sports day, for example, and catch up on work in the evening, you can build a culture that really facilitates that. Balancing business and family is certainly not easy but it’s absolutely achievable.
Written by Lizzie Rule.