I met Helen through Baby Sparks baby sensory class - as she was the one leading it!
The passion Helen has for neurological development through the senses and sensory play for babies really comes through in her classes and, due to her affable character, they easily became my favourite class to take Max along to. This was both for how much Max loved the activities and song, but also because of the catch ups and convos I could have with Helen and other parents.
COVID has thrown a number of challenges Helen's way and her resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity has been an inspiration. Being a small business owner herself, she's been very supportive of LOMIE from the beginning and has been fantastic, particularly in, connecting us with local families and their babies for our product photography.
Thanks so much Helen for taking the time to chat to us about your highs and lows. I hope that those reading will be equally inspired though learning about your story.
Those who happen to be in the Nottinghamshire area can book Helen's classes here.
Hi Helen! Please tell me a little about yourself and your background.
Hello! I’m Helen, founder/owner of Spark Sensory and Baby Sparks sensory classes. Prior to launching my business I was a primary school teacher for 16 years across Nottingham. I’ve got two little boys; Charlie and Tommy, and a fur baby called Maxi. I think my obsession with creating the best baby and toddler sensory classes stems from a passion I have as an educationalist to support children from birth in their sensory and neurological development. I feel passionately that learning through play forms the building blocks for lifelong learning and it just feels an absolute privilege to spend time in that first precious year with new parents and their babies through their attendance at my classes.
What is Sparks Sensory and Baby Sparks and what was the motivation behind setting them both up?
Spark Sensory is the consultancy aspect of my business. My experience, knowledge and skills as a special needs teacher has enabled me to develop a consultancy role where I go into education settings, usually mainstream primaries, and offer training and ‘hands on’ work with staff and pupils on sensory integration practices for supporting pupils with additional needs. I also run conferences and provide remote support when required.
Baby Sparks is quite literally, my baby! I deliver (with a small freelance team behind me) baby and toddler sensory classes across Nottingham. Every class is a full sensory workout for your baby and all that we do is based on up to date research and practice. The classes are fun, interactive, creative and developmentally appropriate at all levels for your little one. Prior to lockdown, we were delivering 15 classes across 4 days in West Bridgford, Keyworth, Beeston and Sherwood.
Does ethics and sustainability come into play at all with what you do?
From an ethics perspective; yes absolutely. When I founded my business I wrote a set of values that I used as a guide for any business decisions I made. These focused on aspects such as ‘what did I want my customer to experience as a consistent service from me?’ ‘What values do I want to promote with education staff when I deliver training to them?’ and ‘how can I ensure that the customers experience is of such a standard that I am able to maintain high levels of customer retention.’ I created a values statement which included things such as ‘always presume competence’ and ‘above and beyond’ with regard to the service I provide. It’s helped me from an ethics perspective to focus on high customer service as a driver for profitability rather than simply focusing on profitability as a value.
Sustainability is a more difficult one. In terms of the equipment I use, the majority is repeat use with very few items being single use only. I am mindful of disposing of any items with batteries (sensory balls) in a responsible manner and I often buy new equipment from charity shops (preferring wooden toys over plastic for obvious reasons). AS I branch out and continue to develop the retail aspect of the business, use of recycled packaging and organic, Fairtrade baby grows and t-shirts will be a priority.
Tell me about a particular highlight you’ve had within your career? What are you most proud of?
I still suffer daily with imposter syndrome, COVID-19 has at times pushed me to the point of wanting to walk away entirely. However, I am so very proud of my resilience throughout the last 4 months and have promised myself I will look back on this time in the not too distant future and be able to say that I acted responsibly and with the best interests of all my customers at the heart of my decision making. In terms of other highlights, it sounds cheesy but I actually love it when a customer leaves me at the end of their maternity leave and we have a chat about their journey through motherhood and how the classes have impacted positively on that. Those conversations are the best. Then when working in schools, the feedback I get from staff about the positive impact and how their work with pupils has changed for the better, that is priceless because its real lives that are being impacted. There’s amazing job satisfaction in knowing that.
Given the types of classes you offer, COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines have impacted quite dramatically on your business. You've been very creative in developing a new way of working going forward? Please tell us about this.
Yes, dramatic impact is definitely a good way to describe it. Throughout the height of lockdown (March – June), my turnover dropped by 90%. The school-based work had to be placed on the back burner, mainly because schools closed! However, I used this time to increase my consultancy impact in other ways. I took on a freelance contract writing course material (on autism, sensory needs and the primary classroom) for a large online education CPD provider. This has proven to open further doors as I have now also agreed to become an assessor for the same company and am now assessing people as they train to become teaching assistants. It seems like a good role to adopt whilst the world adjusts to the new normal... however long that might take.
In terms of the baby and toddler classes; we moved to online content and again, in line with my values I wanted to ensure this was accessible to all for as long as it was financially possible to do so. I created a ‘pay what you can’ approach and the turnover allowed me to work for 10 weeks generating a very small income to keep Baby Sparks afloat. Then after a short 3 week furlough period, to allow me time away from the business to reflect and learn lessons, I decided to move to a Zoom model in June and July, to enable a more interactive experience for myself and my customers. As the social distancing measures continued to relax, a face-to-face outdoor model for classes was developed. Throughout July and August, myself and one of my lovely freelancers, Kat, delivered a range of socially distanced outdoor classes. These were so incredibly well received, we had an absolute blast! Now as we move into Autumn and the weather becomes more inclement, we are planning on a move back to indoor classes. We are hoping this will happen around the 14th September. Our provision has drastically changed; fewer resources, no movement, safe social distances at all times. But, our values and vision remains the same and given that I feel I have maintained integrity throughout COVID, I am certain that our lovely customers will follow us back indoors and engage with the newly adapted, COVID secure Baby Sparks provision that we are super close to launching.
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give for other women or mothers who are considering starting their own business?
Don’t underestimate your own abilities. It’s hard work but no one works harder than a mum on 4 hours sleep and 3 cups of coffee! And research, research, research! You’ve got to know your market, your customer and yourself really. Focus on the end game; think big, start small - but do start!
Photo credits to @lucyewarnerphotography