Jen Parker of Fuzzy Flamingo tells us why she makes self-care a priority, how working for herself has made her more healthy both mentally and physically, and how she came to be an Amazon bestseller with her book, Unflip.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I have ankylosing spondylitis (AS), psoriatic arthritis, and fibromyalgia. The AS has caused bones in my pelvis and spine to fuse, and the arthritis causes pain and inflammation in many joints and much soft tissue throughout my body.
I have mobility issues (I have a blue badge), but also need to keep moving to keep myself as fit, healthy, and active as possible, as this makes the diseases much more manageable.
This means that although I am able to walk the dog every morning, I then have to make choices throughout the rest of the day as to which activities take priority, as I may not be able to do everything I want to do in a day. If I do too much, I will pay for it over the coming days, so balance and pacing are the most important elements of my days to keep me going.
Tell us a little about your business.
My book publishing business, Fuzzy Flamingo, was founded at the end of my first maternity leave in 2017, when I took my skills as Group Head of Production for a publishing house freelance. I now predominantly help authors to self-publish with my design, editing and publishing services.
Although I do still provide freelance services to a few publishing houses, the balance has shifted to the independent authors, as I like to be able to see projects right the way through to publication. Seeing my authors celebrating, often as Amazon best-selling authors, never gets less exciting!
Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.
I started Fuzzy Flamingo because it became clear that it wouldn’t be financially viable to go back to work at the publishing house full time due to childcare costs. I also realised that, more importantly, it wouldn’t make sense for my health.
I really struggled working in an office full time due to my mobility issues when my arthritis flared up, plus the immunosuppressants that I take to treat my conditions made me more susceptible to the bugs going round the open-plan office. I found myself caught in a vicious circle of frequently being off sick, then having to catch up while worrying about getting ill again, which led to my stress levels increasing, which made me more susceptible to the bugs and therefore more likely to be off sick again.
My maternity leave showed just how much healthier I could be if I was in control of my environment and my stress levels, and I was in a much better place both physically and mentally. I had a lot of support from the managing directors to go freelance because it made their lives easier too – a key member of staff off sick a lot in a small company puts a lot of strain on the business. They gave me my first freelance work, then I got taken on by a few other publishers. Then I started working with individual authors and built the business from there, winning a couple of awards along the way.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
For me, the main challenge for my business is keeping my health a priority, so that I can keep the other areas of my business going. If I allow my stress levels to increase and my self-care to drop down the priority list, I end up getting ill more often and that puts strain on the rest of the business.
This became especially apparent in the first lockdown in 2020, when I had to move my working hours to evenings and weekends to look after my girls (who were one and three at the time) when their nursery shut. I just kept going because we didn’t know how long it would be for, and my self-care fell off the bottom of the list. My arthritis was out of control, my hair was falling out, and I was a bit of a mess, but I learnt my lesson: I will always ensure my health comes first, as that makes the business more successful. After all, if I’m not doing well, the business isn’t doing well.
What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?
It would be great to make finding help easier and more apparent. Finding d: Entrepreneur was brilliant for me, alongside the networking I have done, because it has given me a wealth of information, support and a community behind me.
When I started, I’d never run a business before and felt really intimidated (I even nearly backed out before I started because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing). But meeting like-minded people, reading success stories of people like me and feeling supported all led me to where I am today.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
My greatest achievement to date is a very recent one: I became a best-selling author in my own right!
Having written chapters for five best-selling books, I finally made my own book a priority, finishing the first draft whilst isolating with covid over Christmas 2021. I started it at the end of 2019, but put it on hold when the world went to pot!
Just finishing the book was a huge achievement, but I pushed on, got all the editing done and sent it out to my beta readers at the beginning of 2022. I officially launched it on 7th May 2022, which was World AS Day. The special edition paperback is available from my website, with £1 from each paperback sale going to the National Axial Spondyloarthritis Society, who have been a huge support to me. The eBook was launched on Amazon and got to #1 best seller in eight categories, so I had a fantastic celebration! My aim is to raise awareness of chronic conditions, as well as showing that a life-changing diagnosis should not be life-ending, we can still achieve huge goals and dreams (they might just look a bit different to the ones before diagnosis).
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?
That you have to have a walking stick or a wheelchair to be disabled. I have used the pushchair as a walking aid for a few years, and may well need to invest in a walking aid now I don’t have that anymore. But even when I don’t use a walking aid, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use my blue badge.
If I walk the girls to school in the morning, it is likely my pain and decreased energy levels would mean I’d need to take the car to the shops and park as close as possible in order to successfully manage to get round. You may not see me limping, or see the pain on my face, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. I have had people tut at me, check my car for my blue badge and look at me funny when I walk into the disabled area of a festival, and that can hurt sometimes.
If I didn’t have disabled access for Download Festival, which I’m attending again this year after a few years’ break, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. The last time I thought that I wouldn’t apply because I felt fine, the walking and the standing led my back to go into spasm whilst I was trying to watch Kiss on the final night of the weekend. I have learnt from my mistakes and will be pacing myself much better this year!
Who or what inspires you?
I follow a lot of disabled influencers on Instagram and they inspire me every day. However, the person who continues to be a massive inspiration is my mum. She was so strong, fighting cancer for eleven years, whilst giving so much to other people. Even though she died in 2019 (the sheer number of people attending her funeral showing how many lives she touched), she still inspires me every day, which is why I dedicated my book to her.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
Confidence can be a huge hurdle for anyone starting a business, but especially for those with additional needs. I love the Two Coach Confidence Podcast by Kerry Hearsey and Adam Hulme. I worked with Kerry for a year and she really helped me to get past a lot of barriers I’d put in front of myself because of my health.