In this interview, we talk to Claire Russell – an Early Year Specialist and founder of playHOORAY! - a company which specialises in creative play for kids.
Claire took her career skills and experience and applied it to being a new mum to her son Mason, creating fun and engaging ways to entertain him without breaking the bank. By sharing the process with her large online community, she has built up both a brand and business which helps parents as well as children to engage in creative play including an app and activity cards.
Newnham: What were you like growing up and how would your friends and family have described you?
Russell: I was pretty quiet as a child. I was the one who enjoyed sitting indoors painting and drawing. I've always enjoyed my own company and would happily spend hours getting lost in my creations! That reminds me, I keep meaning to start painting again in my spare time!
Newnham: And an you tell us about your career background as an Early Years Specialist and what led to you starting playHOORAY?
Russell: Yes, it was never my plan to go into teaching, I always wanted to be an artist but after getting into Leeds Art School I realised it wasn't actually what I wanted to do. After a year of working in a bank and constantly having to reach sales targets, I soon realised I was ready to get back to being a student so headed off to uni to study teaching.
I had the time of my life at uni and chose to specialise in Early Years as I found the world of play and young child development fascinating. After several study and work, I was fortunate enough to be promoted to a leadership role, but I had to leave when I had my baby. It was never my plan to start playHOORAY! And I certainly never expected it to be a business.
But when I had Mason, it completely knocked me sideways. I just had no idea the impact it would have on my life. I soon found days at home with my baby were lovely but very long and often lonely. I used play not only to stimulate my baby but to bring purpose and routine to my day. Play really helped me and I began to share my activities through social media with the idea of sharing and helping others. I certainly had no idea it would develop to be such a supportive and positive community of parents and carers.
Newnham: And how did playHOORAY! evolve the business it is today?
Russell: playHOORAY! has always grown through word of mouth for me. Parents and carers finding my content useful and sharing it with their friends. This honestly means so much to me when I hear someone has recommended my work to others.
And social media has been amazing for me. For me it is such a positive place, where we are able to support and inspire each other. Particularly Instagram and Facebook have allowed me to share my passion for play and help others. I broadcast live every weekday and through this I have not only shared ideas and my expertise but also build relationships with my community too.
Newnham: Can you tell me more about your app and products? What went into creating them - you can talk us through how you take them from concept to reality?
Russell: Almost three years ago when I was surviving on no sleep, I decided to make some cards with simple activities on to give me ideas on those days when I needed a helping hand. I called them playPROMPTS. On a whim I thought I would see if anyone else would find my playPROMPTS useful, and it turns out they did! Since that first pack I have launched and expanded the range to offer over 25 packs catering for a variety of ages and themes of play.
Since launching the playPROMPTS I couldn't help but feel that my activity ideas would also work well on an app as well. The idea of always having simple ideas to hand no matter where you are just made sense. I began the process of building the app myself through a website however it was slow and hard learning to code ontop of everything else. Luckily I was introduced to a new business that had just launched helping small businesses to build apps and so we made a plan together. I still cannot believe it even now when I say it outloud that I am now able to offer a free app to my followers and love hearing how useful they find it. I wanted it to be a resource parents and carers could turn to when looking for inspiration and I love to see the photos of children playing at home inspired by the app. The app contains exclusive activities for babies and young children using items from the recycling. I've also added free downloads, checklists, links to social media and community groups. There's a lot going on at playHOORAY! so it's handy having it all in one conveient place.
The playPROMPTS app has had almost 10,000 downloads which is amazing and I am just so happy to help as many people as possible!
Newnham: What is your mission with playHOORAY - where do you want to take the business and why?
Russell: I want to continue helping parents and carers to play at home. I would love playPROMPTS to become a household name that families can trust when it comes to entertaining their children. I absolutely adore what I do, I love helping and inspiring others and for as long as I can, I will do that!
Newnham: What has been a significant hurdle on your business journey and how did you overcome it?
Russell: I think it is having to wear so many hats. I do everything for playHOORAY! as all small businesses will know well. I find it hard spinning so many plates on top of being a parent and wife. I feel like I never properly sink my teeth into anything as my days are filled ticking off so many 'to do' lists. I make a conscious effort to work less at weekends to make the most of family time as that is so precious to me.
i have also found it hard learning so many new skills, because I want to do my best in all areas of my business but it can be hard when it's all so new. I read books, blogs and podcasts to learn. I have to admit I do love it! I've learnt so much since starting playHOORAY! and I feel proud to say that I gave everything my best shot!
Newnham: What has been a business highlight and how did you celebrate it?
Russell: Ha ha, this makes me laugh because I posted about this the other day. My playPROMPTS were featured in the Mother and Baby magazine which was brilliant with a really nice write up. However, it wasn't all meals out to celebrate or bottles of prosecco, it never is with a small business! It was dragging my son around Sainsburys at 4pm on a weekd ay after he'd been at preschool to find the magazine he wanted and dash home to make dinner, do bath and bed before I sat on the sofa and opened the laptop again to work!
I'm not sure what my highlight would be.. .working for LEGO. They reached out to me to do some presenting on their YouTube channel. It was completely out of my comfort zone and soooo hard, like I never imagined but my goodness, I was proud of myself for doing it! I'm pretty sure my husband greeted me when I got home with a large glass of rose to celebrate.
Newnham: What advice do you have for other woman - some of whom may have young children - who are looking to start their own businesses?
Russell: Do it! I know it's so easy to worry and I know how scary it is to put yourself out there but you just never know! I feel like I was meant to do this, like I was meant to discover playHOORAY! and it is the best feeling ever waking up to a job you love. However, it's also easy to be misled from social media that it can happen overnight. That's certainly not the case, and not the case for me! It's been a lot of hardwork and can often be very lonely running your own business. Make sure it's something you're passionate about because you're going to live and breathe it if you want the business to be a success!
Newnham: If you could give a younger Claire one piece of advice, what would it be?
Russell: would tell her to stop wasting her energy on people who will never like you no matter what you do. Instead invest your energy in yourself. Learn to love yourself, be comfortable in your own skin because the day that you do that, the world will open up with so many wonderful opportunities.