LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Running a business from home -
Date of photography: 23rd March 2017
Katy’s life may be tied to her high-tech wheelchair but she is not only a successful, freelance graphic designer, she is also the manager of an expanding, nationwide agency, providing professional, personal assistants to its 5,000 members, all of whom depend entirely upon the services of private carers to enable them to live independently. Traditionally, the only means of finding a private carer was to place an advertisement in the local newspaper or in certain magazines - often an unreliable strategy - so, growing out of the frustrating experience of striving to meet her own care needs, Katy developed the PA Pool website for disabled people, elderly people, and indeed anyone needing to employ private care workers (or personal assistants). It is an invaluable resource that provides the connection between those who need care and those who provide it, and Pool carers are always individuals, never companies. Sad to say, the Pool’s success must be seen against the growing crisis in the provision of personal care by local authorities, a sorry tale that is rarely out of the news. Austerity governments have continued to cut funding to local government, even though these are the very bodies that are expected to meet the burgeoning costs of providing care services to the elderly and the incapacitated. This ever-increasing demand for care, set against the diminishing resources provided by central government, presents local councils with a dilemma that is not easily resolved.
On a beautiful spring afternoon, I am welcomed by Katy Etherington, a talented artist and impressive businesswoman, at her home in the north-west peripheries of London. I have known her for a number of years, since the time when she worked for a leading graphic design company in Hertfordshire. There she stood out, not because of her severe disabilities but for her remarkable creative talent, her ability to work effectively within a dynamic office and her effectiveness as part of a creative team.
Katy is now the proud owner of one of these astonishingly advanced wheelchairs and, despite her recent rise to fame, she remains delightfully modest. Apart from running her own Graphic Design business, a natural development from her previous jobs, over the last 10 years she has developed a completely new business, called PA Pool; this is an online agency that offers its members the opportunity to manage interactively the recruitment or employment of staff to provide their own private care.
Katy was born in Harrow and within two years was diagnosed as suffering from spinal muscular atrophy (a genetic disease that causes muscle weakness and progressive loss of movement) and in consequence, she has been long confined to a wheelchair and is reliant on carers (nowadays more often referred to as ‘personal assistants’). Unsurprisingly, she was initially placed at a special needs school but her parents felt strongly that she was not being stretched academically and managed to secure her transfer to a mainstream school, where she did much better.
Clearly, Katy was both academic and creative, progressing to gain her HND in Graphic Design at the Amersham College of Further Education. Katy says: “I am not the sort of person who thinks that my disability must affect everything I do, but I must admit that the arrival of computer tools, especially Apple Mac technology, into the design industry around the time when I was completing my training meant that I could take a job and participate in most of the design production processes - only a few years before, this would not have been possible.” After working for almost 13 years as a graphic design professional, Katy decided to go it alone; she now works from home, successfully delivering design solutions to a whole range of clients.
Growing out of the experience of striving to meet her own care needs, Katy developed the
PA Pool website for disabled people, elderly people, and indeed anyone needing to employ private care workers (or personal assistants) to enable them live independently. It is an invaluable resource that provides the connection between those who need care and those who provide it - these are always individuals, never companies. Traditionally, the only means of finding a private carer was to place an advertisement in the local newspaper or in certain magazines. “I was obliged to do this for years,” Katy says, “and it was always a bit of a lottery, with so many people having to be filtered, vetted and often rejected, either because they were simply unsuitable or because they were just time-wasters. And because people like me absolutely depend on this personal care, I sometimes found I had no choice other than to employ what I felt was the wrong person.”
“This experience was the norm for most of us who are dependent on private carers just to get by. I thought to myself, surely there must be a better way of managing things and ideas started to form in my mind; that the internet had become a powerful, mainstream means of communication pointed to the way forward.” Katy studied the working of dating websites which were, after all, primarily designed to match people whose needs and expectations were compatible and, while not purloining anyone else’s intellectual property, she was able to develop a suitable model for her own purposes. Initially, Katy rolled out this new service for herself and a number of other people whom she knew and who, like her, needed reliable carers, adding in a number of known individual carers who could deliver the care required. A one-year pilot proved to be a success.
“That’s how it all began,” Katy tells me, “and the PA Pool, now 11 years old, has grown and grown. I now have around 5,000 members across the UK, all of whom need private carers, together with a pool of around 10,000 personal assistants or PA’s.” Katy’s remarkable success in finding a very creative solution to address a very real and important problem has seen her shortlisted for a number of awards and, in 2012, she duly received the Association of Colleges Business Award.
As the interview was conducted a week before the UK Government was due to trigger Article 50, signalling Great Britain’s official exit from the EU, our conversation inevitably touched upon how this might effect Katy’s business, given that just over a third of the PA’s registered with Katy’s pool are from the EU, and most of these from Eastern Europe. Katy is in no doubt: “Eastern European PA’s are consistently the most reliable people we have, with the best work ethic, so if a ‘Hard Brexit’ significantly restricts the movement of such workers into the UK, this will have a damaging effect on my business and its users, all of whom are reliant upon a steady supply of quality carers/personal assistants. I am optimistic, however, and I very much hope that the government will recognise these issues and address them.”
Katy goes on: “While the original purpose of my company was to secure quality carers for people with disabilities, who need personal assistance, it is increasingly the case that we are assisting the growing number of elderly people who want to live an independent life somewhat longer in their own homes; they are starting to join the PA Pool and thereby connect with a network of carers in their own locality. The looming crisis in the provision of personal care for the elderly is hardly ever out of the news, yet austerity governments have continued to cut funding to Local Authorities; and yet these are the very bodies who are expected to meet the burgeoning costs associated with care services for the elderly. This continuing increase in demand, set against shrinking resources, creates a dilemma for local councils that will not be easily resolved.
Katy’s business is now amongst thousands of businesses that are run from home, and this is a continuing trend. While working from home can be seen as a very attractive proposition, home-workers do, of course, face a unique set of problems: some people miss the structure of the workplace and, without constant pressure and frequent deadlines, may have difficulty in motivating themselves; some find it difficult to draw a line between life and work, and end up working all the time; some feel lonely and miss the stimulus of working with a team of other professionals; and, while we are connected to the whole world though the internet, some solitary home-workers simply miss human contact and the camaraderie shared with other workers. Katy has to face some of these issues herself but, because of her personal circumstances, she is never actually on her own. “I have a team of five regular PA’s,” she tells me, “people who make my independent life possible. One of these PA’s always lives with me, so solitude is never an issue I have to face.”
Working from home and building her own business has been the logical choice for Katy but it is very gratifying to see how her business has benefitted thousands of others, all of whom have struggled in the past to secure adequate care, just as she did herself .
Long may PA Pool prosper.
Text edited: 28th March 2017
Page modified: 22nd April 2019