Laura Dolphin tells us about her late diagnosis with fibromyalgia and her passion for making working truly flexible for everyone.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I have a hidden disability known as fibromyalgia, which is a long-term condition which causes chronic pain. I have struggled with pain for many years, but I only received a diagnosis in 2020, following a medical discharge from the Army Reserves, where I had served for nearly ten years. Fibromyalgia is notoriously difficult to diagnose, and the cause can be hard to pinpoint since the triggers and symptoms tend to vary from person to person.
In my case, fibromyalgia means I struggle with pain, swelling and joint issues throughout my body, as well as suffering heightened sensitivities to stimuli such as noise. In addition, I also live with several mental health conditions relating to other experiences in my life.
My journey may look different compared to some others since I genuinely didn’t consider myself disabled until after my diagnosis, but I have always been open and honest with people about my struggles and experiences in life.
I am a firm believer that the resilience I have been forced to develop as a result of my particular challenges has helped shape me into the person I am today, both personally and professionally. I am certain that this rings true for many other people who are themselves living with disabilities.
Tell us a little about your business.
I founded Dolphin Outsourcing Ltd in March 2019 after my working life changed forever following a number of job-related injuries alongside suffering a mental health breakdown and becoming a mother.
I created Dolphin Outsourcing with the specific aim of making flexible working accessible for all, no matter the circumstances. Flexibility was, by far, the most important thing I needed to get back into employment, and I began the company on the assumption that I could not be the only one for whom flexible working was a top priority!
I am achieving this aim in the following ways:
- Removing barriers to work and embracing the valuable skills of people who need flexibility to achieve their ambitions. Our employees include people with family or military commitments, and people with health conditions who might otherwise be unable to work.
- Providing a range of business support services to UK-based companies. We support a growing number of companies and sole-traders around the country by providing essential business support, and carrying out back-office functions on their behalf, thereby freeing up valuable time and resources for business owners.
- Supporting start-up success by offering affordable and flexible consultancy. We help entrepreneurs thrive as they begin their business journey or tackle everyday problems, by providing mentorship, guidance and free resources that help them learn, grow and avoid common business issues.
Share your story so far.
According to the Office of National Statistics, a staggering 514,000 people in the UK are currently out of the workforce due to long term ill-health, despite wanting to work. As government support is extremely limited in this area, they are essentially ‘hidden’ from official unemployment statistics.
I never expected to become a statistic, it was forced upon me. After building a successful career as an army reservist and personal trainer, my life changed completely when I suffered a relatively serious injury in 2014. Being injured forced me to give up my beloved personal training job and concentrate on a much more sedentary role.
In 2017, I gave birth to my first child, and at this point I realised that I was still affected both physically and mentally by the injuries I had previously sustained. After my maternity leave ended, I was under financial pressure to return to work, but re-entering the workforce with what I by now realised were long-term health issues felt difficult, if not impossible. I’m not alone in feeling this way: this is the case for more than half a million people across the UK.
I eventually realised that taking things into my own hands was the best, if not only, way forward. I founded Dolphin Outsourcing Ltd in March 2019 with no investment capital, no savings, a young baby to look after, and while struggling with my mental health and a number of physical disabilities that were subsequently diagnosed as fibromyalgia.
The decision to start my own business was fuelled by my fervent desire to create opportunities for other hard-working and talented people who, like me, require greater flexibility from employers in order to achieve their goals. At the same time, I wanted to make a positive impact on the UK small business community and, in the long term, help improve their economic prospects.
Through everything that has happened since, I remain a woman on a mission to build a company that is fair for both employees and clients, and stands out from the crowd because of the strength of our convictions and the quality of the services we provide.
From those humble beginnings, where it was just me, my mission and a laptop, Dolphin Outsourcing is now a team of nine talented individuals, with expertise in everything from graphic design, to communications and PR, to finance and administration, and we continue to go from strength to strength.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
For the majority of business owners, ensuring the financial stability of our companies will always be a concern. When I founded Dolphin Outsourcing, my bank account showed that I was overdrawn, had debts I was struggling to pay, and all I had available to get me started was a laptop I already owned. I knew I needed to make the company viable with only those absolute basics, which were the only things available to me at that time.
This is why it was so important to me to create a company with a genuine USP, and Dolphin Outsourcing is proud that all of our workers are employees rather than contractors, that we are entirely UK based, and, unlike other outsourcing companies, we don’t subcontract! We provide both a safe space for our employees, and a safe pair of hands for our clients too.
As the business has grown, I have chosen to leave funds in the company, taking less for myself in order to enable the business to grow and continue along its positive trajectory. This can be tough at times, but I know that if the business continues to grow as it has in its first three years, things will get easier. When I think back to where we started, I’m incredibly proud that our turnover has increased at least 25% year on year, even through the incredibly difficult trading conditions caused by the pandemic.
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?
Society needs to be more aware that living with a disability doesn’t necessarily mean someone is incapable. In fact, the opposite is often true! People with disabilities have an incredible ability to make their way through life, battling their own challenges as well as the barriers forced onto them by society, and continuing onwards regardless.
Those barriers will be different for everyone, but my advice to anyone wanting to make changes for themselves is to take the plunge and just go for it. There are a lot of support networks available, including ones Dolphin Outsourcing itself has helped to set up, and it helps to be aware from the very beginning that you really don’t have to be able to ‘do it all’ completely on your own, even during the most adverse circumstances.
For example, I’m about to launch a new eco-friendly cleaning company committed to creating an inclusive team environment and offering customers a superior experience. Due to my fibromyalgia, it won’t be possible for me to do the cleaning itself, so my role will be in managing the organisation, and ensuring its success.
Getting to grips with what is possible, and what simply isn’t, for yourself is one of the hardest lessons I think you can learn in business as well as in life more generally, but if you’ve got this far, you can do this!
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
I’m incredibly proud of setting up my business, particularly as I managed to achieve this within a year of giving birth to my child and just a couple of years after being bed-bound with mental and physical health issues that were beyond anything I’d experienced in life up to that point. It is safe to say that if somebody had told me when I was at my lowest ebb that I’d be sitting here with a successful, growing company under my belt and another on the way just a few short years later, I’d have never believed them.
But of course there have also been some pretty epic moments alongside. Getting into the British Army was also an incredibly proud moment for me. In order to be fit enough to join, I’d lost over eight stone and worked incredibly hard on my physical fitness, including cycling from London to Paris, which was an adventure I’ll never forget.
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?
People come in all sorts of “packages”. We are all different, whether we are disabled or not. We all have different talents and different barriers to success, but we usually have one thing in common: a desire to do what we know we are capable of and get cracking on with it!
Personally, I’d love to change the perception that people with disabilities are somehow “lesser than”, because the grit and determination required to be a disabled person in today’s society certainly tells the opposite story! Some days, even just getting up in the morning can be a challenge, but so many disabled people go on and achieve greatness in spite of that. What’s not to admire about that?
Who or what inspires you?
There are so many people out there who struggle to work, despite wanting to, simply because employers don’t understand how to accommodate them. I am inspired by the idea that with the right tools, there could be thousands, even millions, of people in the UK re-joining the workforce and realising their ambitions. My own passion for making working truly flexible for everyone is fuelled by the knowledge that so many people are barred from joining the workforce right now because of a lack of vision by employers, or continuing confusion about simple accommodations regarding workplace flexibility that could make a world of difference to disabled people.
I am also strongly fuelled by the love I have for my daughter, and I want to do whatever I can to make a positive impact on her future. Whether she experiences health issues, decides to start a family (or not!), or just wants a better work/life balance, I want her to still have the choice to achieve success no matter what life throws at her.
For generations, too many women have felt that they must work harder, smarter, and faster than their male counterparts if they are to be successful, and this mindset is still pervasive today. I want to play my part, however small, in changing society to show my daughter and other children that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to. If I can do that, then I’ve achieved more than I could have ever dreamt of.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
I recently discovered The Homeworker, a quarterly magazine designed to be a positive and holistic resource for remote teams as well as small business owners and freelancers. I’ve found it to be incredibly useful when I’m looking for practical advice, tips and insights on any number of topics relating to owning a small business, and I highly recommend checking it out.