Monday 19 March 2018

'You don't want to miss your kids being young. It's the perfect time to start a business'

After the death of her baby daughter, Annabel Karmel turned her back on a musical career to write a cookbook for babies - and became an overnight bestseller. Now she's on a mission to to inspire 'mumpreneurs', she tells Liz Kearney

Personal tragedy drove Annabel Karmel on to write her bestselling book
Personal tragedy drove Annabel Karmel on to write her bestselling book

Annabel Karmel can't be much more than 5ft tall. She's tiny-waisted with an immaculate blow-dry, perfect make-up and a beautifully-cut red suit jacket and as she bobs into the foyer of a smart Dublin hotel, heads immediately turn.

If you had to guess, you'd say she was a celebrity stylist, or maybe Joan Collins's (much, much younger) sister. But in fact, this is the woman who made her name almost a quarter of a century ago with a groundbreaking book of recipes for fussy babies.

'The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner' sold out within three months, becoming both an instant classic and a bible for terrified new mothers desperate to get their little darlings to eat something other than an occasional spoon of baby rice.

On the morning we meet, she's fresh off the plane from her home in London on a freezing, windy early spring morning, but won't accept any sympathy about an early start or grim flying conditions.

"Coming to Ireland is a doddle," she laughs, speaking in her cut-glass English accent. "I'm also working in Australia, so this is just a short hop."

Her latest book is a departure from her food writing; Karmel, now 51, is in Dublin to promote 'Mumpreneur: The Complete Guide to Starting and Running A Successful Business'.

It's a common-sense, easy-to-read guide - she calls it a self-help book - which includes sections on how to write a business plan, how to access finance, promote and grow your product, build a network, and even sell your business at the right time, which, let's face it, is something most puree-splattered new mums can only dream about.

Still, it can happen, and Karmel's book includes inspiring tips and stories from the likes of Jacqueline Gold, Chrissie Rucker and Sam Roddick - all successful enterpreneurs who started their businesses after they had their own families. And it also draws on her own expertise; Karmel has raised a son and two daughters while publishing her baby food books and building an empire which includes supermarket food ranges and weaning apps. It's now worth around £10m. She wrote 'Mumpreneur', she says, because she could see that growing numbers of women were finding it increasingly difficult to juggle the demands of office work with the demands of a raising family.

"From being with mums over the past 20 years, I realised that a lot of them were quite frustrated," she says. "They would say to me, 'you are so lucky: you found something that you love to do'.

"And I would think, well, no, I'm not lucky - I made it happen. Then I thought, maybe I can help other people and explain all the things that I did, and how to do it slightly better than I did and not have all the pitfalls."

In person, Karmel is eloquent, measured, even a little cool - but she's had a life filled with drama, divorce and tragedy. She enjoyed an affluent upbringing in central London, and was working as a professional harpist when she got married in her early 20s. After two years of trying, Karmel was delighted to fall pregnant and give birth to her first daughter, Natasha.

But tragedy struck when, three months later, Natasha fell ill with a viral infection which spread to her brain. She never recovered. Five days later, she died, leaving Karmel devastated.

"It's very difficult to come to terms with a child dying. I can't even explain the depths of despair that you get into," she says. "You cannot drag yourself out of bed and everything seems bleak, and yet the world carries on.

"You can't understand why everyone is acting normal, and your life is like - well, you have no life. You just walk through the house and all her things are there. It was so terrible."

Four months later, Karmel was pregnant again with her son, Nicholas. "But Nicholas was the worst eater, and that's when I started to think about writing a book on feeding children. It's almost like the book was making some sense of Natasha's life, by having something that helped other people.

"The writing of the book was cathartic and it helped me make some sense of it, because I would never have written the book had she not lived. She lives on through what I do. She was my inspiration, as well as my other children."

The tragedy also confirmed to Karmel that she no longer wanted to work the long hours outside the home that her job as a harpist demanded.

Many women have the same experience, she says, and find that returning to their former job after starting a family isn't viable.

"Childcare costs are very high, so if you go back to work, you're spending a lot of that money just on childcare," she says. "If you want to get a job and you're a young mum, people would probably rather not employ you because they're thinking if the child's ill, you won't be there, and if she has another child she'll go on maternity leave.

"It's almost as if you've got a black mark against you. And you don't want to miss out those years of your child being young. So you can combine it by working from home, having flexible hours and being your own boss. It's a perfect time to set up your own business."

For most potential mumpreneurs, securing finance is one of the biggest hurdles. Karmel says women need to think beyond traditional models of funding.

"Things are changing," she says. "There's crowdfunding, and that which is open to anyone, wherever you live. If you've got a good idea, and you have a reasonable business plan, and you do crowdfunding, you can raise the money.

"Anyway, sometimes you don't even need any money. I didn't need any money to start my career, because I was writing. I worked from my home. There are always ways to earn money, and there are always investors."

Karmel herself has just taken on an investor for the first time.

"You might ask why now, when I'm already successful? Well, there are certain things that I want to do that would maybe take £1.5m to do."

Stepping up to the plate is multi-millionaire businessman Nigel Wray, owner of Saracens rugby club. who has, she says, made a 'substantial' investment to fund an expansion of her website,

"People come to me for advice and I've become a bit of a guru, but only in food at the moment. But I'm really good at other things, like sleep and pregnancy and helping you build your business. And that's part of our site now, it's all about 'Mumpreneur', and how to help you achieve your passions.

"You might want to quit your job and do something you love, but you don't have the confidence to do it. So I want to have that whole community for women. It's expensive to do that and so he (Wray) is helping me do it. I've never had funding before, so I'm so excited about it." As Karmel says herself, if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life, and she's walking proof of that.

'Mumpreneur: The Complete Guide to starting and Running a Successful Business' is published by Vermilion.

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