Spotlight on - Rhiannon Birch
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
We got the opportunity to talk to Rhiannon Birch, the Managing Director & Head of Creative at Cheshire Cat Marketing. Talking about life lessons, overcoming setbacks and trying not to waste time worrying about things that might never happen.
I had my first child when I had just turned 17 and found myself feeling very unsure how to move forward. I hadn’t done very well in school. I’d actually spent more time working than I did attending school, so it wasn’t that I lacked the brains - I was just more focused on making money. I ended up in a tricky position. I couldn’t find a career I liked without the qualifications. After my second child, my relationship with their father broke down, messily, and I found myself caring for them alone, working long hours in a warehouse, and my mum convinced me to reenter education. I started studying with The Open University. From then on my days consisted of waking up at the crack of dawn to get my children ready for nursery and school, walking for 45 minutes to and from work every day, coming home to feed my little ones, complete homework, practice spellings, read stories, and then I would grab a coffee and study until the early hours of the morning. It was incredibly hard but it taught me a lot.
During my last year of studying, I found a new position within sales and customer service where I quickly transitioned into Marketing. I had always wanted a career where I could embrace my creativity. I never actually set out to become a marketer. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but when I fell into marketing, I landed on my feet and was sucked in. I was actually addicted. It was, and always will be, my passion. I dedicated all my (very limited) spare time to learning everything I could about web development, SEO, social media and email marketing and design. It wasn’t like it had been in school where I felt I was being force-fed biology and algebra. I was so focused on learning everything that I could that I found myself suddenly judging flyers that came through my door, looking at businesses on social media and thinking “Why aren’t they doing this?”. Overnight it became a huge part of my life that I couldn’t stop researching and learning about - I’m still exactly the same now.
Several years later, I have my own business doing exactly what I love. Cheshire Cat Marketing, an agency that specialises in supporting small to medium businesses across the UK and Europe. I now have a team that does everything from website design and development to social media and content marketing. It’s amazing.
Biggest challenge or setbacks
It’s not been an easy path to where I am now. I’ve had financial struggles, I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve burnt myself out and I’ve been in jobs where I haven’t felt valued. But, my biggest challenge is without a doubt - my anxiety. I am an incredibly anxious person in all aspects of my life. I worry about my children constantly. I worry if my team is feeling fulfilled. I worry if my pet dogs are secretly unhappy. Honestly, anxiety plays a huge part in my life. I’ve tried diet changes, meditation, exercise, basically, everything that has been suggested, but every now and then, I still struggle to get away from the little voice saying “You aren’t good enough” and “Is this the right decision?” in my head. I’m also very self-conscious which has held me back in the past. In a way, it still does as I have been trying to hype myself up to create videos to share on our social media channels for longer than I can remember!
I manage this in a few ways - I’m a big fan of books. I love the escapism of them and I read a lot of self-help books too. The Chimp Paradox is a favourite of mine. I also try to focus on the reasons behind my feelings and find the things I am grateful for. I understand now that a lot of my anxieties fall back from past experiences - for example, I worry a lot about my children’s health because I lost my mum when I was 22 very unexpectedly. I try to identify and focus on the reasons behind my anxiety and accept that sometimes the things in the past can come back to haunt you, even after years. All you can do is accept the hand you’ve been dealt and be grateful.. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a mother like mine. We were literally best friends, so rather than dwelling on the fact she is no longer with me, I think about how blessed I was to have had her in my life at all. I think a large part of dealing with anxiety and stress, at least for me, is changing my viewpoint and trying to spot the positives in even the darkest of situations. Another example is recently our fairly new car needed a lot of expensive repairs, initially, I was upset, but then I remembered how difficult life was before we had a car and how amazing it is that it could be fixed and we wouldn’t have to go back to buses or taxis. It’s not always easy and it’s a work in progress, but I am already a lot better than I have been before.
Passion is not something I struggle to find or keep hold of. For better or worse, I am incredibly passionate about a lot of things. I adore my family, and I am incredibly focused and driven when I’m working on something. In my agency, we play a very integral role in many businesses. We aren’t a typical marketing agency. We make friends with our clients and are basically treated as an in-house team would be. It is incredibly important to us that all of our clients are happy and succeed. Because of this, we spend a great deal of time learning about our client’s industries, their target demographics and their goals. I could explain in great detail timeshare laws, aesthetic treatments, the hospitality industry, pet-friendly holidays, and the ins and outs of many, many more sectors. In my opinion, you cannot create strong and successful marketing campaigns without being fully immersed in their industry trends, culture and trends. This is something that has become really important to my team too. We know that to achieve fantastic results, you need to step into the business and truly love what they do - not just work alongside it. Plus it’s impossible for any of us to lose our passion with this mindset, as we see our clients’ success as our success, and how can you not be passionate when working on something you love?
Throughout my life, my mum has always been my biggest supporter. As mentioned previously, heartbreakingly she died from cancer when I was in my early twenties. This was way before I founded Cheshire Cat Marketing. It was before I even finished the degree she convinced me to study towards. She has and always will be my biggest inspiration. She had a no-bullshit approach to life that I inherited from her and it helps massively in many areas of my life - including my business. If I think your current offering is terrible, I will say so. If I think your website needs a facelift, I will mention it. My agency won’t work with any business. We only work with ones that we can really get behind and feel passionately about. This honest approach is quite refreshing to clients as they need to know how their business can improve, and want to work with agencies who are genuine believers in them. As I want them to get the best results, I refuse to band-aid over problems. I pull them up, shine a light on them, and suggest ways to fix them. I hate nothing more than sugarcoating issues and I think that’s part of the reason why we have grown so fast.
Darren, my partner in business and life is the one who convinced me to take the leap into self-employment. I was very nervous about starting a business when I had children to provide for and a mortgage to pay, but he convinced me that life is too short not to use your full potential. I originally planned to pick up some freelance work, make enough money to keep our household afloat and enjoy more time with my family, but my early clients recommended me to so many others that I ended up employing my partner within two months as we were getting so many referrals. We continued to grow at a rate we hadn’t expected as there was a clear gap in the market for an agency that understood the needs of SMEs and crafted no-strings-attached packages around their budgets. Now, we have a team of talented web developers, creatives, designers and wordsmiths. We’ve helped so many businesses, and I’ve been able to use my full creativity, passion and create a business with a fantastic workplace culture that nurtures and nourishes talent in a friendly and supportive environment. It couldn’t have worked out better.
Just do it.
It’s scary and you don’t know what will happen, but if you don’t try, you will never know.
Have a really good support system around you.
I’m blessed with a fantastic family, friends and partner. No matter what comes I know that I have a safe space to rant, cry or celebrate judgement-free.
Be the leader you wish you had.
I never managed a team before Cheshire Cat Marketing, so I have tried to become the leader that I would have liked to have. I have a genuine interest in my team's lives, wellbeing and happiness. I don’t criticise, I don’t lecture and I don’t stifle creativity. I know that every member of my team has incredible talent and I want them to feel free to put their stamp on projects.
I have a great relationship with all of my team, and with my clients because I’m unapologetically me. I’m quirky, I’m weird, but I am me and I think the best way to truly connect with people is by staying yourself.
Don’t make things a competition.
I HATE hierarchy. I used to feel nervous making campaign suggestions to higher-level teammates in previous positions. My anxiety led me to think that someone would laugh or I’d look stupid, and because of this, a lot of my fantastic ideas were never vocalised. At Cheshire Cat Marketing, I have made sure nobody needs to worry about making a stupid suggestion or feeling embarrassed as everyone is on the same level. All of our team have quirky titles to avoid this archaic structuring - we have a Social Butterfly, a Digital Wizard, even a Prince of Business Development! Everyone is equal - including myself and my partner. Our Slack channel is packed with banter, gifs and open conversations. It’s an environment that grows creativity and team spirit.
The highs and lows
I’ve had many highs and lows in my life. It really has been a rollercoaster - fun but scary at times. I have three healthy, intelligent and gorgeous children which is without a doubt my biggest achievement, but on a professional level, I am very proud to have helped people with a dream turn it into a profitable business. Being involved from an early stage and really contributing to the branding and business persona is an amazing feeling. I love everything about my career. But all ups do come with downs, the only down I can think of is that I do work very late into the night - almost every night. I feel so passionately about our clients and my team that I often completely lose track of time when working. It can be hard to put myself first. Many nights I’ve told my partner I will be up in five, only to find myself several hours later listening to The Beatles surrounded by branding mood boards, blogs and website drafts. I’ve also developed a rather terrible addiction to coffee!
Another big high is being able to work from home with my partner. We never miss a sports day, we can help my grandparents when they need food shopping, I’m able to look after my children if they are unwell and our parcels are never thrown over fences - well almost never. Being self-employed has given me this ability, and I find it amazing that I can help others to live a life of freedom and flexibility.
My biggest low period was when I was much younger - way before the days of Cheshire Cat Marketing. I had a pretty hard time in my teenage years and during my early twenties. I really struggled financially, I felt a lot of anxiety around my future, I gained and lost a lot of weight very quickly, I felt I wasn’t respected or listened to in previous positions, and I had many hurdles in my private life. I was asked in this interview if my success was down to those challenges, but I don’t think it is. For me, having these struggles definitely meant I was more driven and focused, but it was my children and mum who drove me to keep trying to achieve more - after years of being a single parent, I wanted to make sure my little ones had a positive role model and saw the importance in working hard, and as any child, I wanted to make my mum proud of me.
Overcoming COVID- 19
When the outbreak was first detected in the UK, my partner and I did panic. We spend a lot of time with my grandparents, who are classed as vulnerable, and my younger sister was awaiting a heart operation, so quite early on, we decided to move our meetings onto digital platforms or telephone consultations. We were lucky in a sense as a big part of our ethos has always been around creating a company that prioritises work/life balance and takes care of its employees, because of this, all of our work is managed in-house and our team have always worked from home. Internally, we didn’t have to change much at all, and as we never outsource our work to freelancers, our tight-knit team were able to continue to provide support to our clients without any disruption. As time went past and the lockdown was announced, things did get a little scary for a while. As we work with a lot of small businesses, we knew it could have had a devastating impact on them, and in turn, us. As Darren and I were due to get married on the 11th of July, we invested our wedding fund into our business to give us a safety net to ensure that we could make it through the outbreak without making redundancies, and so that we were able to offer our clients additional support and payment holidays, while also giving as many businesses as possible free assistance. We know small businesses in every sector are having to rethink their approaches and that the future is uncertain, so it was a simple decision and one neither of us regret it.
We’ve been offering free support and assistance to several businesses, helped local charities and food banks with their social media, designed countless social-distancing posters and Covid-19 announcements, and are working incredibly hard to go above and beyond expectations. We even completely redesigned countless websites so that they could sell their services and products online! This year was set to be huge for us and we had very big ambitions, but we still have a lot to be grateful for - we are healthy, happy and staying focused on providing the best experience possible for our team, our clients and our community.
To anyone struggling
I know firsthand that life can deal you cards that you don’t want and it can be hard to see a path forward. These are my top tips for anyone who is struggling.
Can’t focus? Create a “Work-Zone”
I am a mum of three and my youngest is two and a half. It’s incredibly hard to focus if your children are watching TV next to you, or shouting very poor French at their laptop while on Duolingo, or even chasing the cat with a toy truck while screaming some form of battle cry. Having a special place where you can escape the madness is so important. Ideally, pick a spot where you can’t see the dirty dishes piling up or the laundry basket that is overflowing. No distractions or temptations, and if you are like me, make sure there is a coffee machine nearby!
Motivation gone? Remember why you started.
Like many, I started my business to improve my work/life balance and to help people. If you are feeling demotivated, take a 20-minute break to play football with the kids in the garden or to look at some of your completed projects. I like flicking through our reviews when I’m feeling stressed as it reminds me what we have already achieved. It’s easy to lose sight of why you started, but if you make an effort to remember, it can leave you feeling refreshed.
Feeling stressed? Get outside.
As previously mentioned, I often find myself working until 2 or 3 am as I get so sucked into a project that I don’t realise how much time has passed and before I know it, Crawley, my robot vacuum, turns on (which is set for 3 am) and I’m panicking that I will get barely any sleep. I can do this for at most 10 concurrent days before I feel completely terrible. I love what I do and I actually enjoy working late, but I understand that as soon as I feel a bit worn down, I need to switch off and recharge. Darren and our son have Finnish citizenships, so I was keen to learn more about the culture. While doing this, I actually learnt something that has made a big difference to my life. I’ve been reading a book discussing the meaning of “Sisu”, which is a Finnish word for sticking with a task that may seem crazy, basically a form of resilience. The book praises activities like year-round open water swimming, which sounds amazing, but sadly isn’t possible for me, so instead whenever I feel the dreaded burn, I go out for a long walk with my dogs and kids. It sounds so simple, but it really does make a huge difference to my energy levels, happiness and wellbeing. That said, I am also a lover of ordering a takeaway pizza and binge-watching Netflix shows under a blanket. If I need comfort, I chill out and relax, but if I need to ground or re-energise myself, I get outdoors.
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