Amanda Whitley

The Story Of ACT's Media Super Mum

Amanda Whitley is considered a media success. She's worked extremely hard to surmount odds that would defeat a lot of people, like the premature birth of her second child and the subsequent end of a promising, highly paid career. She's been through it all and has come through it an inspiration to all stay at home mums. 

"I spent the first 15-or-so years of my career working across the communications industry— everything from presenting the tv news to running major events and developing culture across Government departments."

It was the premature birth of her youngest daughter, Sophia, which turned her world upside down. At 30 weeks and just 1.4kg, Sophia was born with some major lung problems. Sophia developed chronic lung disease as a result. Essentially, her condition was so fragile that it meant she would be unable to attend childcare for two years, which brought Amanda's career as an executive in the Australian Public Service to a screeching halt.

We pick up our interview 10 years later....

How is Sophia doing now?

"Sophia is doing brilliantly, thanks! She’s now 10-years-old and a long distance runner, which we never thought would be a possibility. And she's pretty good at it too..."

From adversity and heartache new opportunities are developed...can you tell us what that process was like for you, at the time of your daughter’s birth and subsequent events that followed? You went through some tough times but managed to create something wonderful out of it... 

"I guess I’ve always been one of those people who’ve coped with adversity pragmatically, i.e. ‘well, this is sh*t, but what do I have to do to make it through?’ Sophia’s early birth was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.

We’d come off a pretty hard five years, where we’d had to deal with miscarriage, two subsequent years of failing to conceive, assisted reproduction, and numerous surgeries; so when I was admitted to hospital for bed rest at 25 weeks pregnant with complications, it was a little like ‘what next?’. 

But when Soph was born at 30 weeks and just 1.4kg, everything else paled in comparison. Nothing can prepare you for watching your child struggle to stay alive. The loss of control is shocking; the situation surreal…such a stark contrast to the first few sleep-dazed, pyjama clad weeks of getting to know our first daughter, Olivia.

For 71 days, we existed inside the NICU bubble. We had good and bad days. We watched countless other babies get better and go home, and there were times when I didn’t think we would ever leave. But, eventually, nearly four months after I was first admitted, we did. And it dawned on me that getting her home wasn’t the end of our struggle…but just one hurdle crossed.

The first two years were tough. Having chronic lung disease Sophia couldn’t attend childcare for at least two years—a cold for any other kid could have meant pneumonia for her—and that meant significant changes for me and my career. But it also gave me perspective, and a chance to step back from the professional goals I’d set myself, and to ask myself what was really important."

I'm interested to know the mindset it took, to make the situation with Sophia and having to give up your job, work for you. As you said, my career as an executive in the Australian Public Service came to a screeching halt, so you were put in a predicament that most people would struggle with. What did you keep telling yourself? What got you through this? 

"I struggled with it mentally and emotionally—work has always been a source of great joy for me—and I really missed the intellectual and social elements of the workplace. 

I had gone from a busy part-time role surrounded by people, to being pretty much housebound with just me and two little ones.  I was lonely, isolated and in need of intellectual stimulation. And then I discovered an amazing community that was right in front of me—through my computer screen, to be more precise. 

I started reading and commenting on the now massive, then tiny, Mamamia website, and struck up a friendship with its creator, Mia Freedman, over Twitter (as you do). After a while, she approached a few of us regular commenters to help her behind the scenes on a business that was growing more quickly than she could keep up with, and I became the site’s first moderator. I spent a year or so dealing with some of the most challenging commenters you could imagine, also assisting with editorial direction and contributors.

Through the site and Twitter, I met people from all over the country—and even women from my own backyard—and I experienced a very real sense of community and connectedness that can come from a regular group of people sharing opinions and experiences. And I wondered why didn’t Canberra have something like this?

When Sophia was about two years old, we started to re-engage with the world. I stepped back from my voluntary role at Mamamia—fatigued and anxious from the constant argy bargy and trolling—and I found I was continually hitting a brick wall when it came to online intelligence about our city. ‘Where can I find kid-friendly places to eat? What’s happening this weekend?’ etc.

And that’s when the idea for HerCanberra started to grow—a hyper-local website that would connect women with their city, and each other."

How important is it for people to follow their passion, stick to their values and strengths in situations of adversity and life disruption. I know that in recent times I have been extremely tempted to knock on the door of businesses that I know I would hate working for, seeking work in order for me to 'pay the bills.' I can imagine how common this may be. But you did it differently... you could no longer do your traditional job but you found a way to pay the bills and that lead to something amazing...

"For me, passion is paramount. I certainly made a whole lot more money as a public servant, but HerCanberra allows me the opportunity to make dreams a reality (mine and others) and to feel I am doing something meaningful for my community.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that small business is relentless, and digital media is incredibly difficult to monetise. I am a connector and a content creator, and I often struggle with the balance between needing to do certain things to bring in money in order to pay salaries, rent, etc. while still retaining the authenticity that makes HerCanberra so popular. It can be challenging, as the small local businesses, we love to support, rarely have marketing budgets, while the larger organisations sometimes push the boundaries in terms of what they want us to feature on the site. We just have to go with our gut at the end of the day and be clear with them about what is and isn’t in line with our brand.

But. I love what I do, and I have an amazing team, and I feel like we’re playing an important role in the continued evolution of Canberra; and that, to me, will always be more important than making a squillion dollars.

You have 125K readers per month! That's sooo good. What has been the key to this growth? Quality content, authenticity, relevant material or some sort of magical Canberra thing??? 

Thanks – it’s certainly small in comparison to the big sites, but when you consider that Canberra’s population is 400,000 we’re doing pretty well ☺ I think content is always key—we publish relevant articles, we know what resonates with our audience, and we have earned the ‘right to recommend’. People see us as the authority when it comes to what’s happening (and where to eat and drink) in Canberra.

I think some of it was timing, too—I founded the site just as social media for business was just starting to really take off—back when having 5,000 Facebook fans was a big deal. We now have more than 90,000 followers across our social media platforms. Being ahead of the curve has really paid off!

But we’ve also put a lot of time and effort into growing our ‘tribe’—online and off—and our events are always in demand (our current Sunday Supper Club events are selling out in less than five minutes and have waitlists of up to 100 people!). It’s about being real and accessible, I think."

Do you see yourself as a disruptor to traditional media? Magazines, newspapers etc...Do they need to take a page from your book???

"I don’t necessarily think of HerCanberra as a disruptor—I think we’re just part of the new generation of media that goes hand-in-hand with the rise of social media and citizen journalism. We do things differently. 

We started a hard copy quarterly Magazine a few years ago and it has also developed a cult following within Canberra (and further afield – we post copies to all corners of Australia) and I think that’s because—as with the website—we put our hearts into it. Again, it’s less about making a big profit and more about producing something that we—and Canberrans— can be proud of."

We will have numerous blog writers and businesses thinking that content is the key to their success (but they are failing at this) among our Nurture Her guests, what advice can you give them to boost their reach, to improve their time management around content and why blogging/content is imperative to their success? 

How long have you got? Because this is something I could probably talk about all day, I’ll just give three tips:

- Make content and social media a priority—schedule it into your work day in the same way you do invoicing or other admin tasks—it’s just as important.

- Be authentic and show yourself to the world through your content, because people connect with people rather than brands or products.

- Step outside your business and ask yourself what your customers will be interested in—this isn’t always necessarily what you want to tell them. For example, while you might be super excited that you’re “introducing new verticals” to your brand and can’t wait to tell people, chances are the average consumer won’t know (or care) what verticals even are. Give them a story they want to read and that will increase your engagement and reach.

Having the honour of being named ACT Woman Of The Year I'm sure you can view your life and feel a sense of success. What's next for you and how are you going to get there? 

"Yeah, that was really special, because it was recognition that HerCanberra was more than just a website, it’s a community that is making a difference to the people that live here. Nothing makes me happier than when I hear from someone who discovered HerCanberra when they moved here and say it’s been their lifeline. That’s what it’s all about!

As for what’s next, I’m just focussing on making HerCanberra as good as it can be while navigating the ever-changing digital landscape, and that is something we’re always working at, because if you stand still you get left behind. I’m also the mum of two beautiful girls who will be teenagers before I know it, and being a big part of their lives is a priority for me—so for the next few years, at least, honing my Dance Mum Taxi skills is high on the agenda" ☺

Lastly, what do you think people will learn from you at Nurture Her?

"I hadn’t actually thought about people learning from me! Um, I hope that they can see that it IS possible for a passion project to become a sustainable business, and there are other measures of success other than just profit."

www.hercanberra.com.au

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