BUSINESS, BALANCE AND LIFE AS A BLENDED FAMILY 

By Lolo Stubbs, Editor-in-chief

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Successful entrepreneur Aaron Willis is best known for his appearance on The Apprentice, Series 16, but many won’t realise how inspiring his story is and how the many challenges that he has faced throughout the years has given him the drive and determination to succeed in business and to give back to charity – one of which he is now CEO of – STRIDE UK – which he juggles alongside his successful businesses. Aaron lives with his wife, fellow entrepreneur, Vicki, where they co-parent Vicki’s two boys and Aaron’s two daughters, creating a blended family and navigating the challenges that can arise within the family. Vicki set up her own early years business – Kidsology – 12 years ago, successfully building herself an outstanding reputation as the go-to professional to teach classes such as sensory classes, baby massage, baby yoga, signing, sound therapy, SEN classes and much more.

Aaron Willis the Apprentice Star

 Aaron & Vicki Willis © BROOD Magazine

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After sliding into Aarons DMs the couple got together 8 years ago, Vicki had heard all about Aaron through her friendship with his sister. Blended family – Reece, 17, Aaron Daughter, 17, Harrison, 14  and Grace 12.

What inspired you to set up your own businesses?

Vicki – “I set up my Kidsology business, so that I could build a business and a career that I could work around school hours, so that I was still able to drop off and pick up the boys, this was really important especially when I became a single parent. And it’s been going for 12 years now and I’ve got quite a big community of parents around the north west area.”

Aaron – “I was in the military for 12 years and then coming into civilian life, and juggling family was something I found very difficult. I was used to having Monday – Friday on base and then coming home and looking after the kids from Friday to Sunday and then going back to base again. And it was during Covid that I decided to set my own business up, and I chose to set up a security firm as it matched my skill set, and it’s just gone from strength to strength really. And I juggle that business alongside being the CEO of Stride, a charity that helps to improve the lives of deprived children throughout greater Manchester, so it’s full on but I enjoy it.”

What has been your biggest challenge since starting a business?

Vicki – “Covid was a really challenging period for the business as obviously for a while all classes were stopped completely, but then when they were reintroduced again they were really difficult to delive r because of all of the social distancing restrictions that were in place. And also so many people re evaluated their lives during covid and they wanted careers that were more flexible and offered them a better work life balance, so all of sudden in the months after lockdown there were lots of different baby classes popping up everywhere, so there was a lot of competition that wasn’t there before.” 

Your journey as a couple?

Vicki – “Our journey has been so crazy as when we met Aaron was in the military and he was based down south, and sometimes it would be two weeks in between seeing each other and then we would  only be able to spend one night together before he then had to go back. And at that time I didn’t want my boys to be around when Aaron and Aaron didn’t want his girls involved at that point either because obviously it was such early days, so we kept it under wraps and only saw each other when we didn’t have the children. Sometimes he would drive 7-8 hours to come and see me for just for one night.”

Aaron – “It was really difficult, because my weekends had always been dedicated to my girls, and then I had to find time to spend with Vicki, without it taking time away from them, so it was really hard. Then when we knew it was definitely serious, around 4 to 5 months into seeing each other, thats when we slowly started to introduce the kids to each other. ”

Vicki – “Yeah, and thankfully the boys just loved Aaron and I’m really lucky because he’s such a great role model for my boys. Then I got to meet Aaron’s girls and then we all went on holiday and that was a bit crazy and it’s never been any different since! It’s always crazy when we’re all together! [They laugh] They’re all around the same age really so it can be interesting”

Aaron – “Yes, they all come with the same issues – hormones! So it can definitely be interesting!” [They laugh]

Do they all get on?

Vicki – “Yes, they do in the main.”

Aaron – “Yes, they do but because of their ages we have to be mindful that sometimes they want their own space, but when you’re on holiday and they all want space at different times that can can be challenging They are all going through their own things, like you do in your teenage years so it can be tough at times, but they do get on really, really well.”

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What do you find is the most challenging part of parenting?

Vicki – “I think the thing about parenting is that you can overcome an obstacle and think, I’ve got it, I’m back on track and everything is going to get better now because we’ve dealt with that, but then something else just comes along!

Aaron – “Yeah, I think it’s just the consistent challenges you face along the way and how you overcome them. As they get older the challenges change, because they want their independence more and more and it can be hard to navigate.”

Vicki – “It’s like Reece, wants to be a barber, so he’s working at a barbers,  he’s at college and he spends half his week with us and half his week with his Dad, so he has to be organised and aware of his time table and it can be tough at times watching him juggling everything and sometimes struggling with that.”

As you’re both entrepreneurial, and have followed your career passions, do you think the kids have been inspired by that and do they  look to you for career advice and support?

Aaron – “Yes, we’re a very close family and Reece for example will speak to me a lot at the moment about his career, but equally we’ve all been at that age and know matter how close you are to people, it’s that age where you think you know best rather than choose to listen to someone who has the experience. And I can see my military side coming out in me, because I think just let them drown until they learn!” [We laugh]  “When I was learning to swim my grandad was from Jamaica and he would just push you in and you’d deal with it!”

Vicki – “Whereas I’m a lot more like, ‘Well, how can we approach this? And I’ll still give you advice even though you’ve not listened to me for the past three weeks, I can’t not give you advice and I’m still going to be there to pick up the pieces, because I can’t not.

Aaron – “It works that though, I think the different techniques we have when it comes to parenting really complement each other. And as much as you want to protect them, it is good to make mistakes so that you can learn from them.”

Vicki – “It’s nice to see how much all the children think about their careers and what they want their futures to look like already, and that probably has come from seeing myself and Aaron enjoy our work so much. It’s nice to see your kids have so many aspirations. And they do change their minds a lot, but I think that’s completely natural at that age,”

Being self employed and having your own because can cause uncertainty financially at times, especially when you’re both self employed, we all know what it can be like waiting for invoices to be paid! How have you found that and how do you deal with it?

Vicki – “Funnily enough I’ve actually just taken my foot off the pedal a bit at the minute, so that I can support Aaron in his business a bit more – because he’s very, very busy!”

Aaron – “Yeah, and I don’t stop and I can’t ever just have one thing on the go. I’m always looking for the next step, the next goal. and I will always think in terms of paydays, ‘That’s not really my money yet’ So I constantly doing stuff, it can be 8 or 9pm before I stop working and I’m up early in the morning so it’s hard. And that’s me after toning it down a lot!”

Vicki – “Yes, I was the same, I was answering messages at all hours, and a couple of years ago and I’d feel so stressed about getting back people. So, for my own mental health I’ve been a lot stricter with myself and I try to not much past 7pm, unless its absolutely urgent and I try not be on my phone as much at weekends too, otherwise I’d find myself saying to Aaron or the kids, just a minute this Mum’s just asked me a question, Just a minute…Just a minute’ and it;s not healthy. but the thing is when you’re self-employed there is always that feeling that if you don’t answer that message straight away then there is always that feeling that they are going to go somewhere else. There are times I can’t wait and that can be really hard.”

Aaron – “It is hard, but you do have to switch off and ‘close up your shop’ for the night, because if you had a sandwich shop, or a restaurant etc you would close, and I will always say to Vicki, your shop’s closed, but then I’m still working in the evening, so it is hard.”

What do you do to help you switch off and get some balance?

Aaron – “Well that’s the thing, I might work early morning and in the evening a lot but I will get that time back. If I work until 9pm at night, the next day or the day after I will take that time back for myself. And I am quite good like that. If I’ve got time and I’m at home at lunchtime I will jump on the playstation, because that is how I relax. I have to do something for me and have something that takes my mind off the business. People will say in order to run a business and be successful you need to work all hours, but I disagree with that massively. I mean at the start there are a lot of sacrifices and you might have to do that but once you’re established you have to think of yourself a bit more and if you’re not healthy or happy then ultimately what are you doing it for?

Vicki – “That was very much the case for me, I felt like the business was completely overwhelming me and my life.”

Aaron – “Yeah, you have to have balance. My trigger is if I go to the gym and someone says ‘Hiya strangers’ and it makes me realise that I haven’t been for a while and that I’m not looking after myself. And sometimes you just have to learn to become a bit more selfish and learning what can wait.Knowing your worth can really help you do that”

Vicki – “Every Sunday we all go out for a walk as a family too and we’ll eat Sunday Dinner together because the kids are getting older and you don’t have as much time as them, whenever they are with us we always make a point of doing that. We’ve also started picking a TV series to watch together, so that even if it’s only for a couple of hours a week, we get that time to sit down in the lounge as a family. Or we’ll come into Manchetser and have a shopping trip. Family time is really important to us.”

What tips and tricks would you give to other parents in business?

Aaron – “I think creating a routine is one of the biggest and best things that you can do for yourself when you’re self employed. For example when you’re employed, you get up, you do the school run, you go to work, you finish and you’re in home mode. And obviously that routine is dictated by your employee, but having a form of routine is a good thing and so you need to set some kind of routine for yourself that works for you. I think even if you work from home, you should get up, get a shower and get ready as if you’re going to work. And I think it’s when you don’t have that routine in place, thats when it backwards and you loose that balance.”

What have you found to be the hardest thing about children getting older?

Vicki – “I’ve really struggled with the children growing up and I think I’m only just coming out of this zone that I’ve been in, where I think I was holding onto things, like traditions we’ve always done and it’s really quite sad and hard when your kids don’t want to do things that you’ve always done. Like every summer we’d get in the car and go to Formby with the dogs and nobody wanted to come and I was heartbroken.”

Aaron – “Whereas I just think we just need to find new traditions and new things to do instead.”

Vicki – “But the flip side of it is that we get to do lots of nice things together as a couple now, that a few years ago we couldn’t have done.”

Aaron – “We go away quite a lot now. During the time in the week where we’ve got no kids with us, we’ll book a few days away, and everyone spends money on different things, some people like to go out every weekend, but we like to go away instead. And obviously this is only possible because we’re a blended family and the kids are with their other parents, so we might as well embrace that time.”

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