Interviews

Sarah Hesz, Founder, Mush

New business provided the perfect launch pad for Sarah Hesz to revolutionise the way mums connect with each other. From scaling a start-up to challenging the narrative around motherhood in advertising, Mush is a brand to watch.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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A playground in Sheen might not at first glance feel like the obvious launchpad for one of the UK’s most innovative start-ups. Yet a rainy Monday chance encounter between Hesz and co-founder Katie Massie-Taylor, provided the roots of a friendship that would change both women’s lives forever, by leading to the launch of Mush, the app which connects and supports mums.

When they first met, both Hesz and Massie-Taylor had two children under two and were grappling with the sleep deprivation and lack of time that often comes hand in hand with having small children. It is often said that constraint is the lifeblood of creativity and that was certainly the case for the early stages of Mush’s development. “At the beginning it was a case of beg, borrowing and stealing childcare as we got Mush off the ground,” says Hesz.

In an era in which authenticity is perhaps the most over-used term in marketing, Mush’s rainy beginnings rooted the brand to a genuine understanding and lived experience of motherhood, which has been vital to the brand’s success.

In January last year, the app raised £2m of funding through Octopus Ventures. Launching in 2016 Mush was backed by £250,000 in seed funding and closed a Crowdcube crowdfunding campaign at 142% of their target last year. The start-up now has eight full-time members of staff who are based at the West London co-working space Huckleberry.

When you are a new mum, the world can feel like a very scary place and Mush is designed to make you feel less alone.

Sarah Hesz

Bridging the empathy gap

The growth of a closed-app like Mush is notable in a social media ecosystem in which kindness can all too often be in short-supply. The irony is that in a digital ecosystem in which consumers are more connected than ever, a growing range of data shows that actually, consumers feel increasingly isolated.

This is an isolation which can be exacerbated by the vulnerability that often comes hand in hand with early motherhood. According to data from the NHS, one in four women in the UK suffer poor mental health in pregnancy and beyond. “Because of the state of perinatal care, mums are being failed; we need more midwives and healthcare support,” says Hesz.

Helping to support mothers at what can be an emotionally heightened time is the guiding force of the Mush proposition. “When you are a new mum, the world can feel like a very scary place and Mush is designed to make you feel less alone,” says Hesz. Access to the app is free and the focus is on building supportive communities of mums. There is also a subscription package, where users can pay £4.99 to access experts on everything from confidence coaching to sleep advice.

Mush’s commitment to the wellbeing of its users was rewarded when the app was chosen for the NHS Innovation Accelerator. Research from Mush shows that 43% of mums say that having a peer support network helped them recover from mental ill health, a statistic that also led to the app being included in the UK government strategy on loneliness.

In the agency landscape the creative had to be revered and polished, but for us our brand has evolved organically around our Mum community.

Sarah Hesz

The new business advantage

Building a start up from scratch is never an easy feat, but Hesz credits her experience in advertising, specifically new business, as a great jumping off point. She explains, “I was very lucky to work in new business as you spend a lot of your time making decisions and moving quickly, which has been invaluable to building Mush.”

Ironically, while new business is the driving force of advertising’s bottom line, as a discipline it doesn’t often receive the same coverage or status as other creative, strategic or leadership roles. “New business is a fabulous learning experience. From working with project management and studio teams, I feel so grateful to have started my career in advertising,” adds Hesz.

Yet there are things that have surprised Hesz since she branched out of advertising, particularly when it comes to brand building. “In the agency landscape the creative had to be revered and polished, but for us our brand has evolved organically around our Mum community,” she explains. It’s a fact that has driven a more fluid approach to branding. “With my pure advertising hat on I would look at some of our marketing and say where is the style guide for that. But for us, we are led by our community of mums and emojis can be powerful when it comes to connecting,” she adds.

Content sits at the heart of Mush’s marketing output and after a Chief Technology Officer, the company’s first hire was an editor. Setting the right tone and ensuring that tone is inclusive is key to the brand. Hesz explains, “We have succeeded in creating a space where people are kind to each other.” It’s something she attributes to the fact that Mush is a closed wall app, with no anonymous posters: “We have created a warm and friendly brand organically.”

Mums are an incredibly powerful consumer group, but the truth is very few brands do it well.

Sarah Hesz

The missed marketing opportunity of connecting with mums

The vulnerability and the need to factor in a level of what Hesz terms “self-protection” when marketing to mums is all too often missed by mainstream brands: “Mums are an incredibly powerful consumer group, but the truth is very few brands do it well.” Hesz points to Mothercare as the stand-out creative work of the last few years. “There is an emotional rawness that comes with new motherhood that they captured perfectly,” she explains.

Hesz believes that the key to better connecting with mums is to stop telling them how they should feel or what they should look like. “It shouldn’t be all about soft focus and gurgling; there is a space for much more honesty,” she adds.

Pointing to the fact that all too many brands rely on a pastel-coated vision of motherhood that no human being in the real world could possibly live up to, Hesz suggests a step change in approach. “I would like to see more humour. We need to avoid stereotypes and get rid of any sense of expectations of what mothers should look like,” she says.

Mush has worked with brands including Ocado and Tesco, but the core focus of the business remains the community and maintaining a “safe space” free of the expectation and pressure that has become synonymous with mass market social platforms. She explains, “There is a growing awareness of the pressure on new mums that is being exacerbated by social media and we have to be sensitive to the overwhelming feelings of negativity that come with that.”

Understanding the community also involves ensuring that the team don’t confuse the London media and advertising bubble with the reality of the lived experiences of their community. For example, she says that very few Mush mums are having conversations about shared maternity and paternity leave. “I do feel positive and do feel things are changing, but the fact that many of our mums are saying they can’t afford to go back to work is a travesty. Until the government make childcare affordable it won’t change. Unbelievably talented women are stepping back or leaving altogether,” she adds.

We never used the word target audience. We simply built what we felt was missing.

Sarah Hesz

Looking for creativity in the wrong places

It is often said the advertising industry is guilty of looking for creativity in the wrong places. It is a criticism that could certainly be aimed at the steady stream of brilliant start-ups emanating from women, who, in a traditional narrative at least, would have been described as having ‘dropped out’ of the industry, despite doing anything but.

Even in the wake of launching a successful start-up Hesz admits that she felt a “weird guilt” about leaving the ad industry as a working mum. “I felt I let some junior women in my company down,” she explains. Describing the stress which comes with a daily sweaty sprint across London to do the post-work nursery pick up, she examines a tension which perhaps goes some way in explaining the 12% of women that are looking to leave the advertising industry in the next two years. “At 4pm I would put my trainers on, and I would tense up. I would sprint from my office in Oxford Circus to try and get back to nursery on time. I so wanted to be a woman who was confident about when I was leaving but the reality was I was scurrying out.”

In 2019 the conversation surrounding flexible working and ‘leaving loudly’ has risen up the business agenda, yet the scenario Hesz describes remains an all-too familiar tension for working parents. Arguably it is that honesty, empathy and understanding which makes the Mush proposition so compelling. “We never used the word target audience,” explains Hesz. “We simply built what we felt was missing.” In an industry where mothers are all too often missing from the creative top table, the value of start-ups like Mush and the genuine insight they offer should not be underestimated.


"Don’t tell me who I am": Mush’s Sarah Hesz’s guide to marketing to mums

"Don’t tell me what I should be doing.

Don’t tell me who I should be.

Don’t tell me how I should feel.

As I started to write a set of guidelines to help the brands that we occasionally work with at Mush, I’m aware that I’m making our community sound a whole lot more hostile than they are in real life. Nowhere will you find a more thoughtful and gentle social community, but nowhere will you find so many women who are as surprised about the dramatic changes happening to their world.

When I look at the list of what not to do it’s interesting that I could also be talking about another life stage: becoming a teenager. Recent research shows that there is a real reason for this. Becoming a mum is a huge hormonal and neurological shift and, like adolescence, it even has its own word, “matresence”. It’s a term which is being pioneered by psychologists like Dr Alexandra Sacks in the US and Julianne Boutaleb in the UK. Sacks describes Matrescence, the developmental stage of new motherhood, as like adolescence, a transition where hormones surge, bodies morph and identity and relationships shift.

MRI scans show how a woman’s brain changes to become heightened when she becomes a mother; this also happens to fathers, but in a less pronounced way. Motherhood can be described as “the most rapid and dramatic neurobiological change of a woman’s life” as the brain is flooded with hormones and yet this transformation is an area that has been almost totally neglected by medical research.

The challenge for any brand who wants to talk to new mums is that this newly honed sensitivity can make some brands repellent. It also means that bullshit doesn’t work. Anything with isn’t done with authenticity will be particularly damaging if you are trying to talk to new mums.

However, on the flip side it does mean that there are lots of ways brands can support mums at a time in their lives when they genuinely need it. Some brands are already quietly doing a good job of this. These include Mothercare telling mothers they are not alone and Pampers making mums laugh. While Marks & Spencer has proved the value of placing kindness top of the agenda by offering free coffees for Mush Mums and free delivery for premature baby clothes."

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