Confessions of a dot.com mum

Working at an internet start-up is a tough life - 18-hour days, seven-day weeks and don't even think about taking a holiday. It's probably not the kind of place you would expect to find a mother of three young children.

Any mother with three children under five will tell you that looking after them can be a full-time job. And anyone who has worked on an internet start-up will tell you about the very long hours and seven-day weeks.

Even Martha Lane Fox, 27, famed for her hardy confidence, confessed recently to an interviewer that she planned to defer having a family until she had climbed down from the crest of the dot.com wave. But with internet years zooming ahead of their calendar counterparts, other ambitious women are determined not to miss out on the excitement.

Some, like Ashley Atkinson, have opted to divide their time quite precisely. Atkinson, who runs nownet.co.uk, a network which connects universities to the internet, commutes from London to Staffordshire at weekends to be with her daughters Courtney, Jordan and Eden, all under 10. Others combine the roles of mother and entrepreneur. Georgia Hall, head of the digital services agency Zinc, brought her young daughter into the office when she was working until 4am on pitches, while Kajsa Leander of the sportswear site Boo.com says that she brings her toddler daughter Alva into the office at weekends.

Daryl Rayner, 36, who has three children, has even more pointedly refused to let the revolution go on without her. She gave birth to her youngest child, Arthur, in January and was back to work within the week. Just a month before that, she had been in the offices of the cable company Flextech, signing a funding deal for xrefer, the internet start-up which she co-founded. For Rayner, the internet has been a way of life since the early Nineties, when she helped to develop BioMedNet, a specialist website now owned by Reed Elsevier.

The site offered a jobs databank, a shopping mall for products such as enzymes and access to online reference works. Rayner saw the revolution at firsthand - the site attracted 100,000 registrations in the first few months. "We started to sell advertising online and I remember having to describe what the internet was," she says. "We'd make up an advertising banner and these companies would never see it; they'd just receive these e-mails.

"I couldn't predict the way things would happen, but I could see that e-commerce was going to be a big thing. We were getting four million page impressions a month, which for a niche area was pretty good.

"I realised that no time was ever going to be right for a family and that this was something I really enjoyed doing. It was moving quickly, so to take time out was going to be problematic. But I decided then that there had to be a way, and that consisted of being very organised and getting good childcare."

Rayner left the BioMedNet site to oversee marketing for Macmillan's science website, Nature.com, and gave birth to Fred, now five, and Otto, now three, taking three months' maternity leave. She called on the help of her husband, Jeremy, who also ran his own company, and employed a full-time nanny. But the biggest change came last year, when she met Adam Hodgkin, the former head of electronic publishing at Oxford University Press and now managing director of xrefer.

"Adam was looking for some advice from people who had been involved in publishing and the internet. When he told me his idea for a reference engine I was immediately interested," she says. "All his revenue streams were well developed, and the business concentrated on aggregating and integrating reference works online.

"The tricky bit is integration. The original editors and compilers have put in references very deliberately, so the idea with xrefer was to leverage those and make reliable connections to enable the user to hop seamlessly from topic to topic. I thought, yes, that's it."

Rayner left her job in December, a day after signing the deal with Flextech Interactive (they took a 25 per cent stake of the fledgling company), and became xrefer's marketing director. "I was eight months pregnant by then and I thought I would really have to convince Adam that being pregnant wasn't a problem - that for me, this was vaguely routine and I would be back in action soon.

She says: "At the venture capital presentations, no one mentioned the fact I was pregnant. If somebody is out there doing this and it's their own company, it shouldn't even be a question because it's obvious they've already given up a lot to do it.

"But there's a big difference between working with a few hundred people and then going off and doing it on your own, when everything you do counts. The latter is incredibly motivating because everything you do is toward success."

After the birth of Arthur, Rayner says she was so motivated that she was back at her desk answering e-mails within the week. She concedes she is lucky to have a baby who sleeps at night, but has had to structure her life down to the minute. "I make sure I leave work on time, go home, put the children to bed and do homework with Fred. Then it's back to my own computer. I've got myself into a routine, but there's always part of me sectioned off for my children. When I get back to work I get my head down.

"Jeremy started his own business eight years ago and I supported him then. Now that his business is established and doing very well, it's my turn. We have this routine where I do the early morning stint and he will stay late at work.

"I'm tending to do a lot more domestic things online. I haven't been to a supermarket for ages and I buy my clothes and the children's on the net. That saves time at weekends, which are precious. I'll make my telephone calls while I'm walking down the street. I've made a big effort to think about how doing this is going to be possible. You have got to get your life structured. I can't afford to be at work thinking about the children."

Xrefer is still in the process of launching, and Rayner admits that her schedule tires her out but insists on getting to bed early. "People are more tired if they're bored," she says. The only time she gets rattled is if something unexpected happens. "Fred had an asthma attack at the weekend and we literally sat in hospital on Sunday saying: 'Is he going to come out or not?' and they wanted to know why we desperately needed to know. We talked about our agendas and Jeremy stayed there on Monday with him."

Rayner says that the other requisite is good communication. "I'm not there at school every morning. But I book appointments and spend time with the teachers one-to-one. The problem is when the party invites come home for an extraordinary level of fancy dress. I'm not so good at that."

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