From corporate to creative: “Having children made us re-evaluate things”

Helen and Oliver Jackson were unhappy in their office jobs so after the birth of their daughter, they both opted for a career change. Helen re-trained as a florist and launched Petal and Pot, Oliver as a carpenter – he runs Work the Plank. Here’s their story…

Helen Jackson, founder of Petal and Pot and Oliver Jackson, founder of Work the Plank, live in Walthamstow with their two-year-old daughter Agnes.

You have one daughter, Agnes, who’s two. How long did you take for maternity/paternity leave, and how did it feel returning to your old jobs?
Helen: I took a full year off which really gave me a chance to think about my career. I had a difficult return to work as my employer did not agree for me to go back part-time when I initially put in the request. The last couple of months of maternity leave were very overshadowed with the worry and stress of returning to work.

What were you each doing, work-wise, at the time?
Helen: I was a design manager at a knitwear design company. I managed a team of designers working on ranges for high street brands, I had worked for the company for over nine years. The job was extremely high-pressured and involved a lot of travel around the world.

Oliver: I was working in office-based work in the field of corporate social responsibility at the time, having spent six years working in responsible investment and supply chain sustainability.

What were your childcare arrangements?
Helen: We have two days at nursery and two days with grandparents, on rotation. We’re lucky that my dad lives locally, however the other grandparents travel down from Nottingham and Manchester. It’s always felt like a juggling act but the grandparents are so supportive, we’re extremely lucky.

At what stage did you each decide that you wanted a career transformation?
Oliver: After Agnes was born I changed jobs, hoping that a change would reinvigorate my feelings towards work. After about a year I realised I still felt very unfulfilled in my desk-based job. I have always been practically-minded having renovated our own house and began exploring options.

I spent a lot of time researching and speaking to different people but it wasn’t until I contacted Joel Bird (who I first saw on the TV programme Shed of the Year) to learn more about his business that I decided to take the plunge. I sent him an email, initially to learn about what he does and for some advice on getting into shed building and it wasn’t long before I found myself labouring on-site.

I loved the experience and soon after decided this would be the future for me. I guess the child in me found chop saws and nail guns way more exciting than Microsoft excel. I would much rather be up on a roof than sat behind a desk – but that’s just me.

Helen: Whilst I was on maternity leave the thought of returning to full-time work filled me with dread, especially the thought of having to regularly travel and be away from Agnes. I think it was when Agnes was about seven months that I had a bit of a “now or never” moment. When I thought about it, I knew I wanted to work with flowers.

How did you decide on your new path(s)?
Helen: I have always wanted to work with flowers and took a day course a few years ago before doing the flowers for a friend’s wedding. Whilst I was on mat leave I emailed lots of florists who I admired and asked advice. I also did some work experience in a couple of florists. I started Petal & Pot when I returned to work and did some weddings last summer. Taking redundancy allowed me the opportunity to fully explore where I wanted to go with the flowers and what direction to take my business in.

Oliver: It wasn’t an easy decision, as I had invested a lot into my previous career and we were just starting out as a family so we needed stability now more than ever. However, I found it was having children that made me re-evaluate things and after much deliberation I decided it would be the right thing to do. I spent a lot of time talking to close friends and family, and the trial labouring experience helped.

How soon did you leave your jobs?
Oliver: I left my work shortly after the trial labouring period at the beginning of the summer last year. I wanted to make the most of the summer and get some experience in while I had the chance.

Helen: As Oliver took his career change first, not long after I returned to work, it felt like I should be the sensible one and stay in my job. However, as happy as I was that Oliver was now loving his new work it highlighted the fact that I was so unhappy with work. After about three months of Oliver quitting his job, I left my job… much to the concern of our parents.

I found out that the company was planning to make redundancies so I requested to take voluntary redundancy. It was a bit of a risk putting myself forward as I knew that my job was safe but I was so unhappy at work that I figured I had nothing to lose. Luckily my boss understood that my priorities had changed and I was allowed to leave.

What were you feeling about starting anew?
Helen: I think we both felt pretty nervous. Luckily we had the cushion of my redundancy and savings but we knew that wouldn’t last forever and that we needed to be in a position where we were able to pay the bills and put food on the plate. A month after I left my old job I was contacted about some freelance knitwear design a couple of days a week so I started doing that alongside the flowers.

Oliver: Nervous but excited. Whilst leaving my career wasn’t easy, I knew I was making the right decision. It helped that I always had the option to continue working in the CSR and continued to do this for a while after leaving my job and during the winter months. One of the advantages about leaving a full-time job was that is gave us flexibility and once the shed-building season came to a close I was fortunate enough to find work with a not-for-profit company in New Zealand. As a result, we spent three months in NZ in early 2017, combining work with travels before returning back to the UK in spring, just in time for the summer of weddings and shed-building.

How did you hope it would impact your time/relationship with Agnes – and each other?
Helen: For me one of the main reasons for the change was to be able to spend more time with Agnes. Nowadays we share the childcare, which is really important to us both. Our trip to New Zealand also meant that we had some really good quality family time and it was such a memorable adventure. We would never have been able to do this if we were in our old jobs.

In terms of our relationship, it does mean that we are now busier than we’ve ever been as evenings and weekends are taken up with work but we just have to make sure that we make time for one another. We are both fully supportive of each other’s new paths, which is really important.

What does a working day now look like?
Helen: It really depends on what day of the week it is. If it’s a flower day, I will be up at 4am to get to the market then I spend the day working with the flowers or if I’m freelancing then it’s dropping Agnes off at nursery and dashing to central London to meet with clients.

Oliver: For me things are quite varied at the moment juggling college, Work the Plank and shed-building. After returning from New Zealand I decided to go to back to school to further my knowledge of carpentry and joinery. It’s funny, as the more I work in carpentry, the more I realise how much there is to learn. For a while, the idea of going back to school as a 35-year-old seemed quite daunting but I have to say, it’s one of the best decisions I have ever made. I remember turning up on day one and thinking: why didn’t I do this 10 years ago? People on the course are great, the college is sound and I feel like I’m learning so much.

What are the main challenges?
Making sure we have time (and energy) for each other! We like to take advantage of the grandparents coming to stay so that we can have a date night at least once a month. Also money! Whereas before we had a comfortable, reliable income nowadays we have to be a lot more careful but I think being on maternity leave prepared us for that.

Have you found the work/life balance you were seeking?
Ermmm I wouldn’t quite say that, we work extremely hard now whereas before we never brought work home. But we are also happier than we have ever been. It’s kind of funny, as we never feel like we get a day off whilst not feeling like we have to go to work. We certainly don’t dread Mondays like we used to.

And do you feel more fulfilled creatively?
Oliver: Yeah definitely, this was one of the mains things I struggled with when working in an office environment. For me to go to work and finish the day looking at something I have created gives a real sense of purpose. It’s also great seeing the Work the Plank stuff doing so well. It started as more of a passion project, two guys that just enjoy making stuff out of reclaimed wood, but things seem to be going from strength to strength and I hope to incorporate the skills I’m learning at college into the project.

Helen: Totally, I’m lucky that I’ve always worked in a creative field but since starting Petal & Pot I have been fortunate to work on some amazing projects that I perhaps wouldn’t have done otherwise. In the past year I’ve provided the floral styling for a number of magazine shoots including cover shoots for Harpers Bazaar with Gemma Arterton and Rachel Weisz. Having worked in fashion previously, it’s been amazing to bring together my love of fashion and flowers. I’ve also worked on some beautiful weddings with amazing brides who’ve really trusted me and allowed me to get creative with their wedding flowers.

What makes the struggle of freelancing/self-employment worthwhile?
We both prefer being more in control of our work and our work/life balance. It also feels a lot more rewarding knowing that you are building a business for yourselves and your future.

Any tips for other parents looking for a major career change?
Trust your instincts but the grass isn’t always greener. Lady Luck does tend to favour those who take a chance but we both work harder now than we have ever worked in our lives, the difference is that it is a lot more rewarding.

The dream is to one build our own timber house and have a workshop by the sea with a large garden for Helen to grow her own flowers. That said, we love London and we’re just happy to take things one step at a time. The opportunities here are amazing, we just feel grateful to live in such a great local area.