Interview: Mission - empower mums

Cathy Court with Polly the border terrier

Cathy Court with Polly the border terrier - Credit: Archant

With 1.6m members and growing, the Netmums website is the go-to place for mums to share knowledge on all things family-related in their communities. Sandra Smith talks to co-founder Cathy Court about the site’s success and loving life in Tring

Cathy and fellow Netmums founders Siobhan Freegard and Sally Russell with their OBEs

Cathy and fellow Netmums founders Siobhan Freegard and Sally Russell with their OBEs - Credit: Archant

Ideas can be as fickle as they are relentless. Under favourable conditions – a spirit of open mindedness or a sharing of convictions – they readily flood our imaginations, creating waves of excitement which generate rising levels of energy and enthusiasm. Yet maintaining that initial flow in order to turn a concept into reality, rather than allowing it to trickle away on a waning tide of apathy, takes vision, commitment and persistence – which are three qualities which Cathy Court possesses in abundance.

Modesty is another of Court’s characteristics that surfaces quickly as we relax in a front room of her spacious Tring home with views of Tring Park in the distance. Willing as she is to discuss her role as a founder member of the hugely successful online family information website Netmums, she does so with a humility that belies her conviction.

‘I was with a friend, Siobhan (Freegard), in my garden, floating around in the sun with our children. Siobhan felt there was a lack of local support for parents so, along with another friend, Sally (Russell), we developed a website. It was very basic but included information about toddler groups, toy libraries, activity classes and so on. Lots of mums asked for sites covering their areas. The internet was just starting – we were around at the right time.’

As Polly, the Court family’s Border Terrier vies for our attention, Court explains that the organisation’s initial aim was to reduce the tendency for new mothers to be isolated by encouraging women to get together. Even at this early stage, she had an inkling about its potential. ‘We grew 40 sites quite quickly,’ she remembers. ‘Netmums eventually covered the country and we added a chat forum, national content and food section. Our demographics cater for all walks of life. People loved it from the start.’

Reaching to a nearby shelf, Court shows me an original edition of Feeding Kids, a Netmums cookery book featuring simple family recipes. ‘Lots of people aren’t confident cooks. Netmums is about trying to make people feel good so they can pass that on to their families,’ she says.

This feelgood factor is what the organisation has continued to aim for over the past 15 years, while building sponsorship links with corporations such as Tesco along the way. The site now has 1.6m members. ‘We worked in our own homes to begin with. Our first office – a tiny room – was in Watford where David Cameron came to visit us just after he was elected,’ Court says. ‘Now we have 60 staff working at a head office in London’s Regent Street. It feels so grown-up compared to the early days.’

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Court shrugs her shoulders at praise of her dedication, despite being recognised for her work with an OBE this year. Did she have an inkling about the honour?

‘I didn’t have any idea. When I saw the brown envelope I thought it was a bill! Sally and Siobhan had them, too. Dressing up was worse than my wedding, as we didn’t want to clash with each other. My husband, Robert, and our children came with me. The receivers waited in a large room where we drank champagne and one of Prince William’s staff talked us through what would happen before we made our way to the court room where the prince told me he and his wife use Netmums.’

As we discuss her ongoing involvement with the food side of the organisation, her skills – ‘teamwork and building things up’ – and an appreciation of local schools, Court confesses she was unfamiliar with Tring when the family moved in 2006.

‘We saw this house for sale online and bought it before it officially went on the market. It’s perfect – open, with a big garden and close to the centre of town,’ she enthuses. ‘I love being able to nip down to the shops or use the farmers’ market and weekly markets.’

Court appears to have all the time in the world to talk, such is her hospitable nature, but her schedule is packed with work, family commitments and hobbies. ‘I go to Tring Running Club at the cricket pavilion on Wednesday evenings. It’s very friendly and not about being the fastest. We cater for everyone who wants to run, so people create their own mini-challenges such as trying to beat a personal time.’

The social side is also important, she says, suiting her gregarious nature, something reflected in her other interests, including canoeing.

‘I’ve always liked the idea of canoes and in 2011, along with a small group, I set up Chiltern Canoe Club. There are wonderful resources on our doorstep, so we canoe on the canal and various pools. We have about 120 members, cater for all ages – our oldest beginner is 81 – and do lots of things with Scouts and Guides as well as offering special sessions for community groups including young carers.’

Court notes proudly that anyone can just turn up for a taster session with one of the fully-trained coaches, while on Thursday evenings the Paddle and a Pint session sees club members heading for the Grand Junction Arms.

This is certainly a woman who thrives on challenges. Focussed and unflappable, it’s no wonder her input enabled Netmums to become such a nationwide success. And her thirst for knowledge and ‘building things up’ shows no sign of slowing down: ‘I want to play the ukulele,’ she says. ‘It’s meant to be the easiest instrument. And I want to speak French. I’m tackling it head-on but it’s beating me at the moment.’

Given her track record, there’s little doubt this energetic businesswoman will soon add these accomplishments to her enviable list of achievements. >>>

Cathy’s five Herts favourites

Grand Junction Arms, Tring ‘A nice gastro pub linked with Chiltern Canoe Club.’

Tring Park ‘Either with Tring Running Club or walking Polly, I love the meadow area and woodland, and it’s great for sledging in winter.’

Thee Counties Kayak and Canoe ‘A great shop just around the corner that makes Tring a mecca for kayaking.’

The Rex cinema, Berkhamsted ‘I love to sit in a comfortable chair and enjoy a glass of wine while watching a film.’

Almar, Tring ‘A lovely independent shop. I can go in with last minute demands for school supplies and take the dog too.’

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