How an Aussie new mum turned her side project into a multi-million dollar business.

Jess Thomas was looking for an escape from the ‘corporate world’ when a home-made snack shared with co-workers inspired her to start her own business.

Two years later the owner of multi-million dollar healthy snack business Health Lab and mum to eight-month-old Gigi reflects on “mum-guilt“, entrepreneurship and the impossibility of having it all.

In 2014, the Melburnian was working at a massive Australian retail group, having built a career in marketing. But the 31-year-old was getting tired of endless meetings and found her passion for the work drying up.

Jess Thomas and daughter Gigi. (Image supplied.)

So when a batch of protein balls she shared with her colleagues was "demolished" in minutes, Jess knew she was on to something.

Within weeks the young entrepreneur had started creating batches of guilt-free balls to sell to cafes, enlisting help from family and friend to deliver to her health-conscious customers.

"I could see things were taking off," Jess said, as she juggled full-time work and the side-project she hoped could become something more.

So in January 2015 Jess resigned her full-time job, risking her "safe financial position" to put all her time and energy into Health Lab.

Creating a mum-friendly workplace... with no set hours.

Within months the business had grown and Jess was able to put on more staff, eventually building her team up to nine - outsourcing the production to a company in Melbourne and keeping the marketing and strategy in-house.

For Jess, starting her own business didn't just mean creating a product she was proud of, but building a workplace culture she was happy with.

"We are 90 per cent women. The only man on the team is my husband."


"Something I wanted to be different was our culture - I tried to create a supportive workplace culture."

Listen: Naomi Simson shares the reality of starting a small business from home.

Jess said this involved making hours as flexible as possible for her staff - two of whom are mums - so much so that she abolished start and finish times.

"We're big believers in being refreshed and being productive, not sitting around and putting in face time when you're not being productive," she explained.

She said this means that staff can start and finish when they like and arrange work around family commitments or gym classes, adding that she regularly checked in with her staff and their workloads.

Juggling motherhood and work.

While Jess found managing her staff's workload an achievable task, it was her own work-life balance that was becoming an ever growing problem.

Just six months into her adventure as a business owner, Jess fell pregnant with daughter Gigi and with "no time for maternity leave" she continued to work throughout her pregnancy and immediately after Gigi's birth.

The decision she made out of necessity, but also passion for her start-up, didn't come without guilt, however. Especially because she, like most new mums, found motherhood to be an "overwhelming" new world she was quite ready for.

Jess Thomas initially had family and friends help out with the business. (Image supplied.)

"I don't think I was prepared for how hard it was going to be. I felt overwhelmed at the start of being a mum," she said.


"I don't know what I was envisaging... but I was being bombarded with the glamorous images of mums on social media.

"(This was) the most challenging time in my life, and not glamorous. There were tears and there were really long days, and a lot of coffee."

But Jess knew coffee was only going to get her so far before it would all become to much - so, realising something had to change, she and her husband made some serious lifestyle changes about four months ago.

The couple sold some investment properties and rented a home closer to work instead so they could afford a full-time nanny. Her husband, who had sold his own business when Health Lab became a supermarket health food aisle fixture, began working from home in the afternoons so he could care for Gigi.

Though these changes went a long way to taking the pressure off - it's been the recent shift in mindset that has helped improved Jess' wellbeing the most.

Jess said until recently, she, like so many working mums, struggled with guilt, as well as coming to terms with the reality behind filtered images of motherhood.

Heavily filtered images like this of Ivanka Trump at work. (Image via Instagram/ivankatrump.)

"When Gigi was seven months (old) it got to the point where I was like 'okay I'm going to make this work' and stop feeling guilty. It took a while to get my head around."

Jess said losing the guilt involved accepting that she couldn't do it all - and that was okay.

"In the traditional sense of work-life balance, I personally don't feel it's possible... to devote your time in equal parts to friends, work, family and 'me time'."


So instead of struggling to find the balance, she decided to let some things go, like time she spent catching up with friends and networking after work.

"For the next little while this is how we balance it," she said.

Encouraging other women to build businesses.

Gigi wasn't done changing Jess' life, however. Bringing life into the world inspired the new mum to find a way to "contribute to the next generation".

Jess was shocked to learn that less than a quarter of new businesses are started by women and wanted to find a way to change that.

"There's nothing out there really helping groom and develop and nurture entrepreneurship in young women," Jess said.

Jess Thomas wants to help other young entrepreneurs. (Image supplied.)

So she developed Fuelling Female Success - an educational program she will start to roll out this year, with a YouTube channel acting as a resource for parents, teachers and students.

The main thing she wants budding entrepreneurs to know? Success doesn't happen without a lot of hard work.

Jess said along with many hours of work to get it right, launching her business also required the confidence to back herself and her ability and take a chance - something she thinks others need to do more of.

"I think a lack of confidence and fear of failure is common, from young women all the way up to older women - we hold ourselves back."

She told others "not to be afraid to take the plunge" and to focus on taking the first steps and just giving it a go.

"Once you start, momentum starts to build and it's a really exciting."