As we head into Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month and approach Coeliac Awareness Week, Rachel Bentley, aka The Small Business Marketing Coach, tells us about her struggles to get diagnosed and why her genius is making marketing as simple as possible.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I was diagnosed with coeliac disease in my thirties and Ehlers Danlos syndrome (hypermobility type) in my fifties, after suffering debilitating symptoms all my life.
I also have a selection of other chronic conditions, including a form of endometriosis, and recurrent migraines. With family diagnoses of neurodiversities, I am also in the process of getting screening myself.
The combination affects my mental health and anxiety levels. Together with my own health needs and the needs of my young family, plus caring for parents at the same time, it has had a huge impact on my ability to work in a role where I am an employee, and this is why I set up my own small businesses over many years.
Tell us a little about your business.
The Small Business Marketing Coach is my baby – and it is ME! I am THE Small Business Marketing Coach.
My mission is to help every small business owner I can reach unlock the power of their unique marketing style, so they can market themselves comfortably, without feeling they have to follow everyone else’s path or do something they cannot ethically or energetically align with.
I launched on International Women’s Day 2019, offering a set of mentoring and coaching programs to get my clients building actionable marketing designed to take them out of overwhelm, build systems to suit them and give them a confidence boost along the way.
During the covid pandemic in 2020, I gifted over 1,250 hours of training and mentoring to smaller business owners across every demographic. I found that my biggest wins with clients were for those who had the ambition to grow themselves out of the everyday ‘doing’ – where the business is running them – and into managing their business as a CEO or actually exiting it. I worked both privately and with several associate companies and learning organisations including the Help to Grow program run through local universities.
Together my clients and I create bespoke marketing action plans which are really simple yet ambitious and are all about organic and sustainable marketing and management to get them exactly where they want to be – and have fun on the way.
I naturally align with people who, like me, found working in an employed role did not work out. Their expertise is brilliant, but they need help getting their marketing organised in a way which works hard for them without overwhelm, without costing the earth in any sense of the word, and using their values and unique strengths to build marketing strategies which are natural and authentic.
My clients might consider themselves a little rebellious when it comes to marketing and what they feel like they should be doing: they hate being put in a box. My way of making marketing work for them rather than the other way round really helps.
Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.
I’d started work with A-Levels in the Management Trainee program in part of the Aviva Group plc. I loved the problem-solving parts of the job and I’m good with people. Over 16 years, I rose all the way up through the sales route into a successful marketing career at two of the group’s head offices.
At the same time, I was suffering more and more with debilitating symptoms which got worse when I was pregnant and after, including having to use crutches and being hospitalised with dehydration due to my joints and my gut issues respectively. At one point I lost so much weight and had so many other symptoms, the medics suspected I had cancer. My baby was still so young. It was frightening and I found it hard to cope. To get a diagnosis of coeliac disease after lifelong gut issues was a shock but nothing like the alternative. I still had other physical and wellbeing issues, but they took a back seat.
Having had a lot of time off, I ended up on half pay, which was a struggle with a young family. Then when my division was moved from York to Norwich, I asked for redundancy, not only because of my own health, but also because I had another baby on the way and my eldest child needed my close support. By the time baby number two arrived, I had no job and no energy.
My anxiety was getting worse and I was struggling with my back especially. My baby stopped breathing and had a litany of other issues to add to the difficulties my eldest was having, but that didn’t stop me setting up my first business!
My body might have been wobbly, but my head was full of ideas and expertise. I’d been mentoring lovely young people who became future leaders very high up in the organisation, and I had trained thousands of others through Learning and Development (L&D) materials and campaigns in my marketing days.
My new business was a network marketing card and gifts company. I did quite well, grew my team and mentored them to get goals and grow their businesses. I used the money I made to fund family treats, furniture for a new extension and to pay for a franchise I took over. That was a magazine company, and I turned that business round by mentoring my advertising clients and supporting my small team of distributors – parents working round family commitments – to encourage them to get back into employment.
Amongst all this, my mum got ill in May 2004 and was then diagnosed with terminal cancer. As the only child, I cared for her and my father, who’d been disabled most of my life, until he died in 2016. Meanwhile, my kids needed a lot of additional support, and I was on my knees trying to liaise with over 20 different agencies who were supposed to be helping. I was still running the two businesses much of that time, and took work on as marketing manager for two small businesses in training and HR areas – plus volunteering!
My health was still ropey and my anxiety was shockingly bad. Holidays abroad were not really possible as I couldn’t guarantee I could leave the house to catch a plane (or get back again) because of the gut issues, and I lived with pain and complications such as lack of sleep and poor energy.
But you just battle on! I had a bit of help with counselling and physio, but the gut issues and joint pain continued, along with various other issues. A lack of interest from medics over the previous years and me ignoring my symptoms meant I was never going to get the diagnoses I needed.
Eventually I started a big home renovation and left all my other roles. I felt like they left a bit of a gap in my life: I had all this experience and success in helping others in their businesses, and I had discovered coaching after being offered a place on a coaching and mentoring certificate course around 2018.
I packaged my expertise and launched The Small Business Marketing Coach business in one evening in front of the Antiques Roadshow on a laptop in a temporary living room (destined to be the house bathroom!) whilst my home was being pulled apart around me.
I knew I could help others get clarity in their own business life using my skills, even if they had significant challenges, because I had to do those for me anyway.
During the pandemic, I was initially shielding due to my autoimmune status, so I couldn’t volunteer in the community. Instead I gifted free training to hundreds of other businesses, started a group program when that is what people wanted, and still worked one-to-one with clients.
I also decided I wanted to qualify at Masters level in Coaching and Mentoring AND work for my Chartered Marketer status, taking training from some of the loveliest coaches in the UK.
Zoom had been my way of working since I launched my business, due to my anxiety and health and family commitments. The covid lockdowns meant I didn’t have to explain Zoom to anyone anymore! Zoom means I can work with people all over the world – from a village two miles down the road to a client in the US. To have choice even with disabilities is so empowering.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
This May, I’ll be 55. It’s also Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month and approaching Coeliac Awareness Week. For me, it highlights the struggle I had for diagnosis and the time it took to get diagnosed – and also that I am only human!
I often get asked how I can do so much, and I say it’s because I can. I rarely talk about my difficulties as I was masking them for so long.
I was repeatedly told there was nothing wrong with me, right up to this past year, then suddenly diagnosed with a chronic condition. Recently I learned that osteoarthritis was discovered in an MRI. I had chased and chased for the results, only to be told I hadn’t heard anything because there was nothing wrong, but I was in so much pain that I wouldn’t let it lie and eventually learned that they just hadn’t told me the results. You end up feeling you have to do all this all of the time in spite of being exhausted and in pain.
Recently I have learnt that I can’t do it all. Even though I sometimes feel I have something to prove, I am being kinder to myself.
For the business, the challenges are reaching more people in a way that suits me and getting some additional help and support with managing my own admin and my working conditions. I self-fund everything and wasn’t aware of Access to Work until very recently – I am looking into not only getting support from them but also talking to organisations which facilitate access to work support for business owners.
I would like to help people access what I do using part of their Access to Work payments.
My zone of genius really is helping people to focus and organise their marketing as simply as possible. It would be great to help other business people who have struggles similar to mine get help, particularly around attracting new customers and maintaining existing ones. It is magic to see how motivated clients can be and how in control they can be of what had been fairly chaotic before.
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?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think every business owner has similar concerns:
- Where do I start?
- Do I have something to sell?
- How to I set up a business and get clients?
- How do I market and then get people to buy from me!?
- What do I need to do to stay compliant in the law and in accounts?
- … and then what?!
For those with additional needs, there’s also the added concern of whether they can do it – especially for those who are told for a long time that things are not possible for them (or those like me, who were told that there is nothing wrong even when there is!).
We particularly need help with changing our mindset.
Most people starting a business don’t think about how to run a business when your energy goes in cycles or suddenly drops or you need to disappear to the loo every five minutes (that has been me!) or what’s your back up plan when you can’t deliver on a promise – or how to exit a business. When we have differences, then these things are pretty useful to have answers for and can give real peace of mind.
There is a lot of help for start-ups across the UK, and often there is additional support for specific extra needs. Use the power of Google and talk to other disabled business owners to see what their experience is – but remember, a lot of people who seem to have no issues actually have loads, so please don’t let imposter syndrome get you down, because everyone has their own battle, even if their social feeds tell you differently.
On the other side, find people you can trust to tell you the real truth, not sell you a silver bullet solution. Check out what someone means when they describe themselves as an expert: experience and qualifications are both good indicators, but not the be all and end all. As businesses, consumer laws are not necessarily going to operate in the same way, so do your due diligence.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
I haven’t had it yet! I am super proud to have helped literally thousands of people across my career and to build my business to the level I need, all from my own ideas and in spite of what life inevitably throws in the works.
Starting to paint and to be able to consider myself an actual artist at 50, then getting my first sale a few weeks later – actually the first painting to be sold – at a prestigious exhibition put on each year by the artists’ group I joined.
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability, what would it be and why?
Where do I start?! Let’s think about the L&D industry, for example. Wouldn’t it be fab if everyone (clients/employees) was judged on their top strengths rather than their lesser strengths?
I actually detest those tests – the ones which highlight your ‘weaknesses’ and then set out to ‘fix’ them. It makes for a boring homogenous society and knocks the wind from your sails when you are told how rubbish you are, with all the golden things you offer swept aside!
But that goes for everyone doesn’t it? Everyone needs to be kinder to others – and to themselves.
As people with extra things to think about, we do need to be honest with ourselves and be truthful about what we need so we can operate. And speak up when we see bad practice against us or others with different needs – we must be the change if we are to expect others to change as well.
Waiting for politicians or employers to act is going to take an age, so I would encourage disabled entrepreneurs never to feel held back – there is always a way if you can tap into your passions.
Just think about how the world online can be accessible to everyone.
And find your tribe, communities of likeminded people, whether that’s disability groups or just those who share an interest. You can do this!
Who or what inspires you?
My sons. It is each of their stories to tell, but they have both faced significant life issues yet still hold down jobs and are paying their way through university. They are pretty awesome.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
I am too impatient to listen to audiobooks or podcasts – unless I can run them at 1.75 speed.
I have read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic twice, and I would say her personal story and resulting philosophy really resonates with me: that there may be a bit of magic, but there is also a big dose of keeping on keeping on with the thing you want to succeed at.
Denise Duffield-Thomas’s Chill and Prosper is similar: a little bit of woo with a lot of taking practical action.
Both of them also say that not every idea you have is one you are meant to take on or take forward. For an inventive brain like mine, that has helped me keep peace with those things I simply cannot do. I think we know when something is worth pursuing, and there is synergy in that – we are extra motivated to make it happen for ourselves – we can’t wait for someone else to do it for us.