The Early Hour turns three. Here’s what I’ve learned

Three years into running a digital parenting platform, Annie Ridout reflects on what it has taught her about families, feminism, diversity and the online world. Mostly, that it is all a constant work-in-progress…

When I launched The Early Hour in September 2015, I had a vision. This would be an online magazine for parents who were up early. It would be a platform for people to share their stories; I was especially keen to tell the stories we don’t usually hear.

I wanted it to become the next Huffington Post – but just for parents. To be worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The plan was to sell it in 10 years’ time and retire to rural France on the proceeds, where I’d write novels and poetry and eat lots of proper croissants.

In the first month, The Early Hour had around 10,000 visits. We were off to a good start. Friends and family were generous in terms of spreading the word. And I learned how to to PR, securing coverage in the Sunday Times, Guardian and on lots of blogs.

After a few months, I was able to start charging for sponsored content. I did this for about a year before realising that I was becoming a salesperson, when I actually wanted to be a writer – first, and editor – second. And so I started writing articles for the Guardian, Stylist, Red, Metro.

When my son was born, The Early Hour was not much more than a year old. I was in the thick of it: publishing daily content, receiving hundreds of emails a day. And I felt I had to continue, believing my plan to grow it and sell it would disappear into thin air if I took time out.

I got very stressed, put myself under a huge amount of unnecessary pressure and it detrimentally affected my early months with my son. When I should have been moving slowly, and calmly, with my newborn – I was manically writing and/or editing seven articles a week.

A year later, I had the realisation that 1. I hadn’t created the next Huffington Post. And 2. I didn’t want to. What was – and is – important to me is spending time with my family, living a low-stress life (when possible) and continuing to develop my career as a writer and editor.

I reduced the content from an article a day to an article a week. In time, this has sometimes slowed to an article a fortnight. And guess what? NO ONE CARES. There’s enough back content for people to find something to read, when they’re up early. And I’m still getting between 800-1000 hits a day.

What’s more, I’m earning more money now – writing articles for other people, from my book deal, consulting on freelancing, as a partner at Clementine App – than I was when I was manically working all day, every day, while trying to recover from giving birth and look after a toddler and a baby.

The key is to focus on doing what you love doing because, eventually, that will be the most fruitful path. I never intended to be selling advertising on my website – I wanted to interview people, and write opinion pieces. And now I get to do that, without having to do the sales stuff as well.

Sometimes, you set out with an idea for how you’ll make money but it ends up coming from a different place. I thought it would be sponsored content that would bring in the bucks, but actually, The Early Hour became a springboard for my writing (articles, a non-fiction book – and now a novel).

And so three years on, I’ve refocused. I still intend to publish meaningful content, telling people’s stories, but not at the expense of my mental health. And my plan to retire early has been tossed aside. I like working, and feel a slower, more sustainable, career growth would suit me more.

So, that’s the plan. And now, some learnings from three years of running The Early Hour…

Everyone parents differently

Interviewing parents for The Early Hour has reminded me about how vastly scaled our ideas and expectations are. This goes for breastfeeding or not, how we speak to our children, sleep (training, bedtimes), weaning, education, gender identity.

Ultimately, we’re all learning as we go, so there’s no space for negative judgement. I’ve learned to look, listen, support and be honest about my own experiences. Not to criticise, or make another parent feel her choices are wrong. But to also feel confident doing what feels right for me and my family.

We need to do better with diversity 

There is still an incredibly narrow representation of both adults and children within the TV shows our kids watch, the books they read and the celebrities they look up to. We see white-skinned, able-bodied, heterosexual people. The boys/men are the heroes, the girls/women need to be saved.

Publishing companies like Oh Zoe are trying to change this, as are women like Candice Brathwaite; co-founder of Make Motherhood Diverse. I’m always on the lookout for parents who have a different experience of the world, because of the way they – or their children – look, live, feel or were raised.

But we all need to be doing more in this department.

Mums and dads are different

Before having children, my husband and I were fairly equal. But as soon as a woman becomes pregnant, her experience moves in an entirely different direction to her partner’s. This goes for body image, in the workplace and how we’re treated by friends and family. (Almost all the shit, unsolicited advice goes to the mum).

It’s great that some fathers are taking paternity leave and becoming more involved in the childcare, but most women need time to recover from pregnancy and birth. Perhaps controversially, I believe it should ultimately be the mother who decides whether she’d like to be the primary breadwinner, primary caregiver or split it all down the middle.

Though it’s still important that we think and hear about both mothers’ and fathers’ experiences.

The online world is both wonderful and scary

It’s incredible being able to create content and potentially share it with thousands – or even millions – of people. But trolling is a big issue, and it happens overtly (death threats, for example) and covertly. Scathing comments on Instagram are rare, but quite horrible.

So if you’re going to publish content online, be prepared that people won’t always agree with you – and that they will be brutally honest, because they can hide at home, writing messages on their phone. People say things online they’d never say to your face.

Build a network

If you’re building an online platform, you need support: people reading it, sharing it, ‘liking’ it. So alongside a blog, set up social media channels to share your posts, and to interact, online, with people. I love Instagram for the community feel.

But also, get out and meet real people. Go to networking events in your area, go to talks – about parenting, or anything else you’re interested in – have a coffee with someone, in a child-friendly cafe. I’ve come to realise that the most important thing, in life, is people.

Are you setting up a blog or digital platform? If so, I’d love to help you