Victoria Rennoldson is the founder of Perfect Cuppa English, an English language consultancy service for individuals, which helps expats with bespoke English language and British Culture courses. She regularly gives talks and writes about British life and culture. She kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about what inspired her to set up her business and how she keeps work and family life in balance.
Photography by the phenomenally talented Demelza Lightfoot Photography
Thank you so much for talking with us Victoria. Let’s start with, who lives in your house?
There’s me, Oliver (6), Zoë (4) and my husband Chris.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Marylebone and spent all my childhood there, so I am a real, local Londoner.
Tell us about your home.
We moved to our current home two years ago and I love the tall ceilings and light – we have large windows on three sides of the flat. We are right in the hub of West Hampstead, and there’s nothing better than watching the world ebb and flow outside.
What has motherhood taught you?
Where to start! Like so many people, I had my expectations and the reality can be very, very different. I think patience is something I’m still learning – taking that extra breath before reacting. That, plus how I now think about time in a totally different way. I always used to think about time in a linear way, but that doesn’t work anymore, and time has to be elastic. Finally, motherhood has taught me that I could be creative, find a different way and set up my own business, something I never thought I would do.
Did you take time off work when you had your family? How did you re-enter?
With my oldest, Oliver, I took a year’s parental leave before going back to work part-time in my previous career (brand marketing in the fast-moving consumer goods sector). I loved that time with him and although I knew full-time motherhood wasn’t for me, I was also reluctant to go back to work, into a part-time role which I wasn’t sure about. In the end, it didn’t work out, and then it was a case of working out what to do next. That’s when I retrained in teaching English as a foreign language (during my second pregnancy and when Zoë was young) and then set up my business Perfect Cuppa English.
“The acknowledgement of my two to three roles makes me feel sane and positive about the choices I make.”
How do you manage work around the children?
It’s a work in progress! At the moment, I do four drop-offs and four pick-ups a week, so I try to focus my client time into the same days and get efficient about planning nearby locations together. I then focus on the business and marketing around those meetings and in the evenings. I have a fairly strict rule of not working weekends, unless it’s a real emergency. It’s tough, and holidays are even trickier, although we’re lucky to have grandparents as support nearby.
“Think carefully about what your ideal balance looks like to you.”
However, my big learning is that I don’t have one job, but two to three jobs: I spend as much time with the children as on my business, plus family-life admin takes more time than you anticipate. This acknowledgement of my two to three roles makes me feel sane and positive about the choices I make, without feeling like I’m squeezing or resenting time.
What are your best tips for other working mums about to re-enter the work force?
Think really carefully about what your ideal balance looks like to you (everybody is individual) and acknowledge this picture might change over time. Interestingly, I thought the kids would need more from me when they were babies, but actually I find they need more of my attention and support now they are at school – physically, academically and emotionally.
How did Perfect Cuppa English come to be?
After leaving my previous career, I knew what I was moving away from, not really where I was going. I was looking for something different to focus my energies and skills, plus that would work flexibly.
I decided to explore my roots in languages (I studied German and Russian at university) and decided that’s where I wanted to develop my next career.
I came upon the idea of Perfect Cuppa English, when meeting lots of expats locally, and realising somebody’s English language might be okay to have a simple conversation, but they might not find it very easy to get to know people locally, or settle fully into life in London.
“Whenever somebody said they were an entrepreneur, I would say ‘wow’, and could never imagine that would be me.”
This might be because they need a deeper insight into the nuances of English, or be able to understand fast conversation, or British cultural contexts to follow the flow of the conversation. Some expats find it hard and so retreat into their National language group, and don’t get to experience the richness of international life fully in London.
I was determined to support people one-to-one by coaching them to English confidence and natural expression, whether for everyday or business.
I now have a small team who work with me to deliver English language and culture training to individuals across London, whether in their own home or discreetly at their work.
What do you love about running your own business?
Whenever somebody used to say they were an entrepreneur, I would say ‘wow’, and could never imagine that would be me. And yet here I am, and it’s so exciting to develop the business in my own way, at my own pace and as a fully integrated part of all my life roles.
My usual working day involves…
There is no usual day, as it very much depends on my client meetings, but my favourite days involve meeting two or three clients, usually out and about in fun London locations. At the moment I’m regularly meeting clients in Bloomsbury, Notting Hill Gate and St Pancras. And it’s amazing how much you can achieve on the train on the Central and Jubilee lines in between meetings!
“It’s important to jump in and get going.”
What has been your best career moment to date?
Setting up Perfect Cuppa English! I am very proud of making that first step, without really knowing what it would fully look like. In fact, I would say it’s important to jump in and get going, even if your idea isn’t perfect or fully worked up.
I’m also proud that after the initial euphoria of starting, I kept going, even after experiencing wobbles about whether or not it would work. It’s led me to where I am and achieving way more than I thought possible in three years.
What is your ‘at work’ drink?
A perfect cuppa tea of course! I prefer Twinings English Breakfast tea, but when I’m topped up with caffeine, then it’s definitely time for a Pukka herbal blend. I like the cinnamon blend as it’s nice and warming.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
Again, it’s a work in progress. My husband is also an entrepreneur, running his own business, Pasta Evangelists, and so we both work pretty hard during the week, and then have a rule that we switch off on Saturdays and Sundays. It doesn’t always happen, but I feel it’s important to have our attention focused on the family during the weekend, and absolutely make sure there’s time for the two of us in the evenings.
What’s your approach to health, well-being and relaxation?
Well, funnily enough, this was almost non-existent until very recently, and I paid the price with some back issues, which luckily are much better now. I have now realised my objectives have to be holistic and include personal, family as well as work objectives. I have health and sleep as my No. 1 objectives. Without these, I have realised everything slows down and I just become a very grumpy, tired and achy person, which is just no good for my family or my clients. You need to prioritise yourself, otherwise you just end up falling over.
Describe three things you can’t live without in the day.
Sadly I can’t choose just three!
- A good pair of simple, black, flat shoes: to maximise speed up and down escalators on my speed dash between clients
- My Knomo rucksack: everything’s in there and it looks stylish – laptop, books, files, paper, lunch!
- Beautiful notepads: I’m a bit old fashioned and I like to write things down as I’m working with a client. So, it’s important to have a good notepad.
- A great selection of coloured pens: yes, I love stationery!
- Oyster card: can’t get very far without it.
“I would advise everybody who is running a business by themselves to find a good mentor.”
Do you have a role model who you look up to, or a work mentor?
Yes, I have a mentor, who I started seeing when I was experiencing my first challenges in the business. I was very lucky that the connection came through my alumna network at South Hampstead High School. Even though she is based in Australia, we have a great mentoring relationship via Skype, which I find focusing, challenging and inspirational. I would advise everybody who is running a business by themselves to find a good mentor. It helps give you perspective and see beyond the day to day.
What do you enjoy reading?
I read a lot of books about English language and British culture for inspiration, ideas and quotes. My particular favourites are “Watching the English” by Kate Fox and “Very British Problems” by Rob Temple. They are very easy to read and exceptionally funny.
My ideal weekend involves…
A Friday night-in with Chris, tasting one of his delicious new recipe ideas for Pasta Evangelists, and chilling in front of the TV (we’ve been watching old Sherlock episodes recently).
Stomping around Hampstead Heath on a Saturday afternoon in the sunshine followed by a slice of cake at the Parliament Hill Lido café, then out for a date night, exploring somewhere new around London and trying some new food.
Catching up with friends or family for a full roast and a good wine at home on Sunday.
A few of my favourite things at home…
- Tea in my Perfect Cuppa mug
- Knomo rucksack
- My Perfect Cuppa notepad
- My pencil case: it sparkles and glints, and makes me feel shiny
- Favourite books: Very British Problems/ Watching the English etc.
- Inspirational quote board: a gift from a dear friend, Chloe
- St Petersburg picture: a gift from the family I lived with in Russia
- Coloured folders: a different colour for every client, helpful to make sure I grab the right ones on busy days!
- Decopatch Initial V: a kind, thoughtful gift from a lovely client, when her course ended. Kept on my desk as a reminder of her and how lucky I am that many of my clients become good friends.
- My fridge which is plastered in polaroid photos of the family. Oliver loves taking them, and the end result is a little jaunty-angled/ showing only half people/ blurry but it’s a great record of our family life.
My top tips for other working mums:
For working life:
- Focus on the big stuff first and get that done in the morning. Don’t touch email or social media, unless it’s urgent, until later on. I easily get sucked into small things and for me it often isn’t shifting the big stuff on my to-do list.
- I personally get a lot of energy from other people, so if I end up working from home by myself for a long time, I start to lose momentum and I feel myself slow down. I find the best thing is to then boost myself with mini, timed challenges, using a timer, to keep up the pace. For example, write a first draft of an article in 30 minutes or prepare for a meeting in 10 mins. If it’s not finished in the allocated time, stop and come back to it later, but again with a time limit. It’s a bit military-like but it works for me!
- Get plugged into some great networks to boost, inspire and support you, whether it’s Working Mums’ Hub, an industry or alumni network, a networking group, or a local Facebook group. Find like-minded people, learn and share.
For home and family life:
- There is no perfect answer or magic shot that means you’ll feel in control of all parts of your life all the time. There are days when it works and days when it really doesn’t, and you have to let those days go and start afresh tomorrow with new energy.
Thank you so much Victoria! It was fantastic to hear your inspiring start up story.
We’re off to make a cuppa now… but if you’d like to get in touch with Victoria to find out how she could help you, a friend or a colleague with English language or British culture, drop her a line at Victoria@perfectcuppaenglish.co.uk
All photos subject to copyright by Demelza Lightfoot Photography