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Part 2: The Inspiration behind TV show Strife: How Mia Freedman built a media company from her lounge room.

This is part two of an edited excerpt from Mia Freedman's memoir Work Strife Balance, which inspired the TV series Strife. You can read part one here.

How Mamamia was built... PART 2.

Step 1: Identify a gap in a market and make sure there's a market in that gap.

In 2007, the online offering for women was very limited. Facebook and social media were not yet mainstream and the most interesting places to find content were personal blogs where people – mostly women – wrote about their lives.

While magazines were myopic in their insistence that women ‘wanted fantasy and glamour’ and delivered this via Photoshopped images of impossibly flawless women and repetitive stories about sex, fashion and relationships, mainstream websites for women in the mid-noughties were just as limited. 

There were four different types of women’s sites and they were either about parenting, celebrities, fashion or cooking. If you were interested in news or current affairs or politics or sport or money, you could go to a news site, but they looked at the world exclusively through a male lens and were intimidatingly aggressive in the comments sections which were dominated by... men. Any dedicated women’s websites at the start of the mainstream Internet weren't yet pushing women's content forward beyond magazines, they were throwing it backwards to a very dated concept of what women cared about: kids, cooking, clothes, gossip. 

This baffled me.

Like every other woman I know, I’m interested in everything. News, politics, celebrities, body image, clothes, lipstick, current affairs, parenting, health, career... all the things, all the time. Put any two women together and in five minutes they will seamlessly traverse vast terrains from pelvic floors to politics, Trump to TikTok via the medication they take to treat their anxiety and the shoes they bought from Zara.

Given this insatiable hunger for information about all sorts of things – not just ‘women’s things’ – why in 2007 was there no single website for women that treated us like multi-dimensional people? 

So I tried to make one. Working on the basis that if I wrote about things I was interested in, other women would be too. 

It was a brief that existed only in my head. No business plan. No elevator pitch. Nothing written down on paper. "What’s your tagline?" Jason kept asking me before he joined the business. 

I’d look at him blankly. It was just... a vibe.

Step 2: Walk in her shoes and look through her eyes.

"A website for women?" exclaimed a male ad agency executive in the early days of Mamamia when I was trying to explain to him what I was doing. "Now that’s an interesting niche!"

My intention in starting Mamamia had been to take back my voice. Blogging has helped so many people – so many women in particular – express themselves. I was already a published journalist and author but blogging was the first time I had a direct line of communication to my audience. The first time I wasn't hiding behind or sheltering underneath the famous masthead of a magazine or newspaper.

Writing my monthly editor’s column at Cosmo, I still had to stick within the boundaries of the brand and company I worked for. Same with my weekly newspaper column. During my career up until starting Mamamia, I’d been fortunate enough to have a degree of success that gave me some power over what and how I wrote, I was still building my own brand inside much bigger brands who had their own constraints which in turn constrained me.

This is what everyone does when they work for someone else. Like every other blogger back then and anyone with a social media account ever since, I became quickly seduced by the ability to have a thought or an opinion, bang it out and broadcast it instantly. 

From thought to audience in moments. As someone who used to have to write my editor’s letter three months before it was printed and my newspaper column a week in advance, this was a revelation. The Internet and its endless capacity for instant gratification is purpose-built for people with ADHD, for better and worse.

Suddenly I had the ability to write about things that had just happened or were still happening. I could update my posts in real-time. It was exhilarating.

Mamamia was founded on the principle of ‘what women are talking about’ because I’ve always been preoccupied with the zeitgeist. I’m a creature of FOMO. Curious and reactive, I want to know things first and be part of the conversation. With Mamamia, I could finally indulge my twin passions: speed and currency.

Not that it happened immediately. It took me much longer than I expected to find my groove and far longer to understand how it could become a source of income. But my guiding principle then was something I learned in magazines, and what was reinforced by those early posts; it’s a maxim that infuses every atom of Mamamia:

Walk In Her Shoes.

Too many people make the mistake of looking outwards at their audience and thinking about what they want to give them. Wrong. Turn around. Look back at what you’re doing through their eyes. It’s the only view that counts. 

This is how I came to move into the digital space years before our competitors even understood what a powerful commercial force women were, responsible as we are for 51 per cent of the population and 85 per cent of household purchasing decisions.

We have a powerful influence over the remaining 15 percent, it's usually shared.

I cannot emphasise this concept enough: Understand who you are talking or selling to and use that knowledge to inform everything you do. 

No matter what business you are in, you must master this skill or you will fail. 

In our business, we have two groups to understand: our audience and our advertisers. The editorial team walk in the shoes of our audience and the commercial team walk in the shoes of our advertisers. 

If you’re not able to do this from inside your business, whatever it might be, I don’t believe you can succeed. Because if you’re relying on the behaviour of others – to consume your content or buy your goods or services – you need to see yourself as they see you and modify your practices to appeal to them. 

Step 3: Become familiar with The Deep Trough of Pain.

This is a phenomenon well-known in start-up culture. As a business owner/operator, you will fall into the Deep Trough Of Pain many, many times and it’s as bleak as it sounds. It’s from the depths of the trough that I have tried to quit my own company more than once.

I have despaired and insisted to Jason that I couldn’t stand another day of it. At various trough times, I’ve felt burnt out, fed up, f**ked off. It always passes. Maybe one day it won't and then I'll know it's time to make a change.

Often I’m asked if I’m surprised by how big Mamamia has become and I’m never quite sure how to answer. It’s true that Jason and I have always had big ambitions for it (his far bigger than mine because he is far more future focussed and has much better entrepreneurial vision than me) and I’ve always chased big audiences in whatever medium I’ve worked. 

In digital content, it takes the same amount of work to create something consumed by one person or seven million people. I like mass very much, thank you. I’ve never been a niche girl.

Having left a big status job to go start-up, I was warned about Relevance Deprivation Syndrome and it kicked in for me when Mamamia was about nine months old. I felt restless even though I was enjoying watching the website become a fast-growing online community where real-world friendships were being formed in the comments section. Sometimes there would be thousands of comments on a single post.

Within a year there were meet-ups in various cities around Australia as commenters and readers followed the ins and outs of each other’s lives, particularly via a regular Friday post called ‘Best & Worst’, where I shared the highlight and lowlight of my week and encouraged readers to do the same. It was an ideal way to build a community, and it became part soap opera, part therapy session as we all gathered to hear the latest about each other’s love lives, divorces, infertility issues, medical diagnoses, mental illnesses, job promotions and losses, financial hardships and all the various plot points of suburban life. 

Working at home was lonely though, and the pace of growth wasn’t fast enough for me. I’d had absurd fantasies of someone calling me up six months after launch and offering me a million dollars to buy Mamamia. When that didn’t happen, I was disappointed. That's how clueless I was. I had nothing to sell. It was just me and my laptop making no money for 18 hours a day.

You can see how much I needed a co-founder. I just didn't have the skills or capacity but mostly the skills required to turn my hobby into a business.

As many of us learned in 2020, the best part about working from home: you never have to go to the office. The worst part: you’re always at work. 

As Mamamia continue to grow slowly, I missed real office life. I missed getting dressed every morning putting on makeup and having a desk to sit at and an office door to close. My kids were then nine and two and we had a wonderful nanny called Mel who was my wife. She came four days a week to look after Coco so I could work and in some ways; we were a workplace of two. The flexibility and freedom of not having to answer to a boss or be involved in office politics was dreamy. But I missed working with a large group of women and being part of something bigger. I live for the warmth and camaraderie of working with women. It’s life-affirming. Hilarious.

Mia Freedman as a blogger, working from home. Image: Supplied.

For that first year at home, I’d wandered around our house schlepping my laptop from surface to surface like a cat, looking for just the right spot to settle. Eventually, I found it in the lounge room where I erected a makeshift desk behind the couch. Six days a week (Sundays off), I spent most of my waking hours sitting there, long after my family had gone to bed. 

Balance? Please.

After 10 years as a media executive, I was struggling with my new life as a blogger. It wasn’t the PA or the fancy invitations I missed; it was... I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but it was tied up with my identity. Since I was 19, I’d been able to say I’d worked for a well-known brand at a large media company and suddenly I had no status in my industry, despite having worked my arse off for more than 15 years.

It felt like starting my career from scratch and it was my first plummet into the Deep Trough Of Pain. Thankfully, I had no idea how much deeper I would tumble in the future and how many more times. This was a very shallow trough. A baby trough. 

Just when I began thinking I might knock on some doors and explore the idea of returning to a big media company in a senior role, I became pregnant.

I’d been begging Jason for a third child and he’d been resolute: NO MORE. 

We were both having major changes in our careers so I made a vision board to help nudge the process along and I snuck in a tiny photo of me pregnant in the corner where I thought he wouldn’t notice. It worked, aided and abetted by a lax attitude to contraception admittedly. 

And that’s how our third child and another accidental-on-purpose pregnancy saved me from a reactive backwards step into my old corporate life that would have been an epic mistake. Pregnancy meant I had to persevere with Mamamia. I couldn’t – or didn’t want to – take on a new job and prove myself to a new employer while pregnant. 

So I stuck it out, grew my baby, wrote a book called Mamamia: A Memoir to draw a line under my magazine career and open up about motherhood and pregnancy loss, and really committed myself to building the site.

Giving birth while running Mamamia posed new challenges. It was still just me and my laptop and with traffic growing, I knew I couldn’t simply take maternity leave as I had with my last two babies. 

The idea never occurred to me, frankly. Once you start a blog or a business (I use this term loosely, as I was still losing money), you can’t just stop.

I mean, of course I could have stopped publishing and pressed pause but I was terrified of losing the audience and momentum I’d worked so bloody hard to build. 

Practically, though, I knew there would be at least a week post-birth in which I wouldn’t be able to create new content. And I wanted to give myself that time to immerse myself in the baby bubble. Those few days are always one of my favourite parts of giving birth, where I mentally disconnect from the world in a way I’ve never been able to replicate without pushing a small human out of my vagina first. Not even when I went on safari in Africa with no Wi-Fi. 

In the months leading up to my due date, I stockpiled content, pre-writing and loading posts into the back end of the site and scheduling them for the week around that day. I scheduled four posts a day for two weeks. It was a little less than my usual output of six daily posts but I figured my audience would understand.

On the day I went into labour, 10 days early, I spent the first hour frantically amending the scheduled dates of posts between contractions in order to accommodate this unexpected change of plan. Jason happened to be doing tuckshop duty at Luca’s school for the first and last time in his life and 25 minutes after arriving, having made one sandwich, I called him to come home. He apologised to the tuckshop mums who gave him a hearty round of applause as he jogged out the school gate towards his car. Men are heroes.

The birth went splendidly – a corrective experience after my daughter’s birth when no epidural was available – and I lost myself in Remy for a full 10 days before venturing back online. We stayed mostly in bed and watched the Olympics on TV. I think they were in Beijing.

I felt relieved that I worked for myself and could control the hours I worked.

Except that work was out of control. I’d never worked so hard or for so many hours in my life. I was delirious. Each day started at 5 am when I’d wake with the baby, having already been up with him three, four or five times during the night. 

Self-employment meant maternity leave wasn’t an option but at least I didn’t have to change out of my pyjamas, commute further than my lounge room or speak in sentences. As soon as Remy woke up, I’d feed him while checking the comments that had been posted on Mamamia overnight. This was becoming increasingly fraught. 

I needed help.

Jason came on board soon after as co-founder and that was when things really took off. We went from being a blog to becoming a business. We moved into an office, began hiring staff and Jason and I both ran hard at making Mamamia into a women's media company.

STEP 5: Grow fast but not too fast.

The Mamamia website was like a small bar in those days, where everyone knew your screen name. Many of the commenters became mini-celebrities themselves and three of them threw me a lifeline – agreeing to help me behind the scenes, moderating comments, giving me advice about content and eventually writing and editing posts themselves. Lana, Kerri and Amanda quickly became friends and saved my arse. Lana eventually became our first paid employee and was the managing editor of Mamamia for several years while Kerri and Amanda went on to develop their own thriving careers in the media. 

Other regulars went on to start their own blogs or create private groups on social media where they could talk about other commenters. There was lots of gossip and a few dramas. It was part bar, part high school, part support group. 

And still, I was earning nothing. 

Mamamia was about 18 months old, and traffic was growing rapidly. I’d had a few approaches from venture capitalists but not to buy Mamamia. Most of them hadn’t even heard of Mamamia. It was tiny. They were looking to start their own digital ventures and wanted me to come on board as a partner. 

I took a few meetings and Jason came along to advise me but nothing appealed. As he noted, it made no sense to help someone else build their business when I could do it myself.

Except I couldn’t do it myself. 

I was working 18-hour days, six days a week on Mamamia. I’d maintained this pace for more than a year with a new baby, a pre-schooler and a tween. 

Two years earlier, Jason and I had sat down to discuss our future. I wanted out of the TV executive hell I’d got myself into and he had built, run and sold a business over the past decade. 

While I’d never worked for myself before – and never wanted to – Jason had always been his own boss. These days it’s called being an entrepreneur but when he did it, it was just called self-employed. 

We were both often stressed by our jobs but in different ways and for different reasons. I was stressed by the politics of working in a big company with no control over my working hours, conditions, pay or holidays. 

"But why don’t you just work from home if you’re getting nothing done in the office?" he once asked me after I’d called him to whinge. "You don’t understand!" I hissed down the phone. "I can’t just do that. It’s not just about how busy I am, it’s how busy I look."

However, I slept much better than him. I knew that no matter how much I cared about my job, at the end of the day if something really bad happened to Cosmo, it didn’t impact on my personal finances; the bottom line was my employer’s responsibility. When you’re a business owner, all roads lead to your bank account which is a much higher and deeper level of stress.

With the proceeds of his company sale and my redundancy, we had both gained a precious commodity: some time to figure out what we wanted to do next. I was wary of a gap without working because I knew I needed to be busy so I went straight into stating Mamamia. My income had dropped by 95 per cent overnight but I was able to ride out the next year without putting pressure on my fledgling blog to pay any bills. I could invest my redundancy in myself and the idea of a website for women.

Jason took more time to decide on his next move. He went to Harvard to further his business education before he actively started seeking his next project.

One night, as he looked around for an investment opportunity to which he could turn his entrepreneurial mind, he noticed me working behind the couch at 2 am yet again. Writing, coding, loading, publishing, editing, fighting trolls, repeat.

I was burning out. Jason could see it. He could also see an opportunity. Right there in his lounge room. 

"What if I come on board and we try to monetise Mamamia together," he suggested one night. "If we can’t do it in a year, it might be time to get an actual job."

I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I couldn’t make less money or be more overwhelmed than I currently was. And I had no money to hire anyone so the idea of having a partner who was also working for love sounded sublime. I felt cautiously thrilled.

Our areas of responsibility split naturally. I continued producing the content while he took over the tech side, the financials as well as the advertising and the strategy – of which there was neither and hence the problem Jason was faced with.

From those first days in 2009, the differences in our styles were apparent and caused huge friction until years later when we would understand how useful they were and how to harness them to propel us forward. 

The rules of engagement are different for start-ups than established businesses. Simply put, there are no rules except you must do everything, earn nothing, shelve your life and work insufferably long hours. That’s not sustainable long-term and if your company is growing, you have no choice but to evolve your structure. We were years away from that point.

There are some fantastic things about starting a business in your lounge room. You get a thorough understanding of every part of what you’re doing because you’re doing all of it yourself. You must also decide when you need to pay for expertise and how much you can afford to spend. When you have momentum, start-ups move so brutally fast it can be hard to keep up.

Jason and I moved Mamamia out of the house soon after he came on board so we could start hiring staff. After almost two years of working at home and living at work, it was time.

We relocated to what seemed like a large office (it was in fact the size of a small apartment) on the outskirts of the CBD and at first it was just the two of us, sitting at desks at either end of the space. For the first few months, we didn’t even have a landline or Wi-Fi (Actually we did. We stole it from the office upstairs. Sorry and thanks). 

Slowly, cautiously, we began to hire. Editorial assistants, sales reps, developers. 

The recruitment never stopped, and it still hasn’t. Our leadership team is always interviewing because when you employ more than hundreds of women and you work in digital media, there’s inevitable churn and you always want succession plans.

Within a year, we were sardined into that space with 35 of us sharing a single toilet. I’d gladly given up my own office as more people joined the company and by the time we left, I sat around a large desk in the editorial room with 12 other women. It was the best fun.

Step 6: Know your strengths and ask for help.

2015 was one of my most miserable years at work and at the end of it, I finally realised this was because I was doing less ‘making/creating’ and more managing. I was in back-to-back meetings, looking at reports and spreadsheets and I was miserable.

My enmeshment in management was at first fuelled by ego. I wanted to be the co-boss. Until I admitted to myself that I didn’t really want to be the boss because what Jason’s role involved did not appeal to me even remotely. Nor was I capable of it.

Realising this was a relief, and it improved our relationship markedly both at work and at home. The pressures I had as the face of the company were unique, as were the pressures Jason faced as CEO. It wasn’t a competition, it was a partnership. Divide and conquer. While Jason remained CEO from that first day in the lounge room in 2008 until 2016 when he became Executive Chairman, I’ve had half a dozen different titles from publisher to editorial director and now creative director as I’ve bounced around moulding myself in and around our growing editorial team.

I’d been trying to step away from editorial management and hadn’t edited Mamamia for quite a few years but in your own business, you have to be prepared to jump back in when necessary. You must constantly recalibrate your role and adjust it according to the needs of your company and your staff. In 2015, some staff shuffles meant I’d been dragged back to the frontline, and I was frustrated. 

This wasn’t just a time of growing pains for me, the business needed to change too. The seat-of-your-pants culture of a start-up was no longer appropriate when we had more than 100 employees, multiple websites, a rapidly growing podcast network, a women’s marketing consultancy and now a US business with the impending launch of our sister site for American women, 

We needed infrastructure and an HR department and travel policies and org charts and a leadership team and KPIs and development plans and we needed to articulate the core values of our business and implement 90-day plans and forecasts and report timetables and a thousand other things that made me want to vomit. What I wanted to do and how I wanted to work was irrelevant, however. This wasn’t about me. For Mamamia to continue its rapid rate of growth, we had to evolve from start-up to scale-up, and Jason knew this long before I did.

At first, I resisted the idea of scaling up in the same way I’ve resisted almost everything else our business has required. But quickly I saw that I just needed to get out of the way and facilitate the process. Once I began to do that, things clicked into place and became remarkably easier. By 2016 we’d realigned my role to Creative Director, reporting to no one and with no direct reports. 

This is my happy place. I keep my meetings to a minimum and try to contribute to the business in the way that suits me – and it – best. Creatively. I host podcasts, write posts, present to clients and instigate bigger editorial ideas. But I could no longer tell you what stories are on the site or what podcasts we are realing on any given day.
There are entire teams dedicated to that and I'm grateful for that because I'm free to float.

STEP 6: Learn to love the things you hate (or at least identify them).

As Mamamia grew, I was schooled daily on my failings. For example, the word ‘brainstorming’ is the fastest possible way to delete from my head every idea I’ve ever had. Poof. Gone.

My tolerance for meetings is also low. They make me behave very badly. Ditto anything with the word ‘strategy’ or ‘planning’ in it. They are my kryptonite.

So much of this, I now realise, is connected to my ADHD and the way my brain does – and doesn't – work. Things are basic and easy for other people can be impossible or excruciating for me.

Not that you always have a choice about what aspects of your business you participate in; opting out of them is a luxury that comes later or never. But even at the start, it’s helpful to know your enemies. Strategy, meetings and planning are mine. I loathe them and yet they are crucial for business. 

As Jason worked to monetise Mamamia and we became profitable, we poured all our profits straight back into the business so we could hire more people and keep growing. Over the next few years, I slowly clawed back the ability to do more of what I was good at – ideating and making content and less of what made me want to stick a fork in my eye (strategy and meetings).

As a website for women, we are indexed to women’s needs and wants which are always changing. I need to ensure we are just slightly ahead of those changes, so we’re providing what women want before they even know they want it, like podcasts. 

What you need to know is this: running your own business, no matter how big or successful, is absurdly hard work. It’s stressful and terrifying and it devours your life. It can also be hugely rewarding, energising and the best fun you’ve ever had.

There are days I dream of walking away and days when I can’t ever imagine doing anything else. There are days when my children complain that all I ever do is work and days when they get to come and shake hands with the Prime Minister in our office.

There have been some memorable moments. 

Like the day Jason had to write a company memo pointing out that nobody was allowed to do drugs or drink alcohol in the single toilet we all shared due to a former staff member getting very sniffy in the bathroom. The day when a client arrived for a meeting to see me on my hands and knees on the office balcony cleaning up my dog’s diarrhoea; the day when an editorial assistant had to send Jason an email asking if he could approve us buying a sanitary bin for our (one) toilet because certain staff members (me) didn’t know you couldn’t flush tampons and it kept getting blocked; the day when Jason raised in a management meeting that he’d noticed all the women carrying our little toiletry bags to and from the bathrooms and wondered out loud why we didn’t just supply free sanitary items to all Mamamia employees. The next day our bathrooms were stocked with free tampons and pads.

There are days when we have reality TV stars or celebrities popping by to record interviews, with everyone from Nigella Lawson to Leigh Sales, Asher Keddie, Andrew Denton, Annabel Crabb, Rosie Batty, Turia Pitt, Magda Szubanski and Julia Gillard walking the floor. Kasey Chambers sang for us standing next to the office fire extinguisher. It’s never dull.

Want more behind-the-scenes Strife content? Check out these stories:

Feature Image: Supplied.

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