aCupOfLee is Closed

I’ve put off writing this post, but with just 8 weeks until we fly to start our new life in New Zealand, the time has come…

aCupOfLee is officially closed for business until further notice.

Since we made the decision to emigrate, I knew I wanted to do a round-up post of my journey from in-house Comms Officer/blogger nobody knew in 2013, to running my own freelance business in 2015.

But it was a tweet from fellow female entrepreneur Samantha Kelly (AKA @TweetingGoddess) that helped me define what this post should be. It should be a way for me to publicly thank the people who brought me to this point.


*You can read Sam’s full article here.

Now of course I’m not saying that I haven’t played a big part in my own success. I worked hard and I did a lot of self-promotion. I got some hate for that, usually from people who are famous enough not to need to do it.

Lucky them.

But the fact is I turned a nobody into a somebody, and rose to the heights of my own industry. I’m pretty proud of that. Regardless of whether people respect my work; I proved that it can be done, for any business or entrepreneur.

I also know that I will have to do it all over again in NZ if I want to continue to do what I love.

But I can bring the lessons of my experience here with me. Lessons like surrounding yourself with like-minded people, who are generous and kind of spirit. The sort of people you want to be when you grow up. I’m 32. But you know what I mean.

Leanne-Ross-St-LouisesYou see I’m not from a family of entrepreneurs. Without getting into social mobility or relaying a sob story, I was – and am – a simple girl from West Belfast, born into a council house, schooled in an inner-city comprehensive, the first to go to university.  I didn’t know a single person who owned a business. I didn’t have a group of middle-class friends whose daddies might give me a shot. I wasn’t a member of the yacht club. My brother didn’t play in the rugby team.  I had no role models outside the 9-5.

Aside from blowing my own trumpet, all I had to rely on to make this crazy freelance thing work was the kindness of other people. People confident enough in their own abilities to give me a leg-up the ladder.

There have been many people involved in my journey here in Northern Ireland. Some have hired me, some have not. Some have simply sent me an encouraging tweet, chosen to listen to me at a conference, or chatted kindly to me at an event.

There are a few people, however, who may not even realise the significant role they played in the story of my career. Now is the time to credit them. I’ve tried to follow chronological order as best I can…


Action Mental Health – Tricia Browne

Tricia-Browne-AMHMy work Mummy.

I joined Tricia’s team a shell of my former self. Having spent years deeply unhappy and with the confidence battered out of me. I demoted myself and took a part-time role in the Comms team she managed at the local charity, planning to retire quietly into the ether and grieve for the big dreams of my ambitious youth.

But Tricia had other ideas. A woman who juggled both full time Comms Management and a family life, she was understanding, fun and kind.

She allowed me to blog, she encouraged me to join the CIPR Committee, she built me up as “the digital expert” and allowed me to push myself with responsibility without micro-managing.

I know when I was headhunted to join an agency that she was gutted. And yet she told me to go. Because it was the right thing for me, not her. And that my friends, is the definition of team spirit.


Dokoo Digital – Andy Hill

I have had a lot of supportive chats with Andy over the last few years, but it is a conversation from way back in the early days of the blog that was a game-changer for me.

Leanne-Ross-Andy-HillBefore we ever billed together on conference agendas, I asked to meet the Dokoo Digital founder to interview him for my fledgling blog. In a cafe in Holywood (where else), Andy told me that I should think about going out on my own. That I had something different and people would pay for it. No-one had ever said that to me before that moment. It was the spark that would eventually start a fire.


It would be three years later before I would believe him, and take his advice. And when I did, Andy was the only person I asked for guidance on pricing, who openly told me the equation to work out what to charge people and what my rates should be – one of the biggest hurdles when you start your own business.


Clearbox – Anna & John

Clearbox Communications has grown quickly to become one of the most successful PR agencies in Northern Ireland (and indeed PRCAs “Best Small Consultancy in the whole of the UK”). That is entirely down to the tenacity and talent of Anna Morris and John Megaughin.

When they took a chance on me and asked me to join their startup business, I was excited and sh*tting myself in equal measure. I’d been a long time out of the agency game. All I could bring was my presentation skills and ability to win tenders. John literally had to teach me how to write a business media press release again!


Looking back, I wouldn’t have lasted there anyway, I simply wasn’t cut out for PR agency life. And I’ve learned to be ok with that. I wish I could have repaid them for their belief in me with more than just one retainer client!

But in the end, when life at home started to unravel and I needed to give a grand total of 24 hours notice to leave my job (!) it was Anna’s attitude that stuck with me: you have to go be there for your family. And we’ll give you some work to take with you.

If Karma truly does exist, I’d say every other agency here should watch out.


Pulse PR – Grainne McGarvey

grainne-mcgarvey-pulse-prGrainne was another agency owner, like Andy, that I had initially asked to be interviewed on my blog. Her story inspired me and I loved how she literally took her life by the horns to start her own consultancy, Pulse PR.

When I had to try working for myself she was there to comfort me, to pass on her advice and she gave me my second piece of freelance work (it’s more important than the first, because it convinces you it’s not a fluke, you might actually survive this!) 

Indeed, my sole retainer client – Utility Bear, mentioned below – also came to me through Grainne. It is when people put their own reputation on the line to recommend you that your confidence starts to mend a little.


Brendan Gallagher Photography

Leanne-Reilly-modelSome people don’t know this but in a former life (i.e. student life) I moonlighted as a glamour model. I know, I have no boobs, it’s a long story.

ANYWAY, it was back then in the early noughties that I met photographer Brendan. He was from the same background as me, but he had “made it.” Of course he would dispute that; his business is still growing and innovating, but back then he was regularly covering Miss Northern Ireland events and Belfast Fashion Week. To me, he had hit the big time. I would continue to work with him in the PR realm long after my dalliance with glossy magazines ended.

I’ve had many’s an outlook-altering coffee with Brendan. From going out on my own, to getting my own professional image together, to sorting my self-assessment finances with some proper spreadsheets! Some people will just always be there to boost you in the midst of a crisis.


CIPR – Chris & Nicola

Chris Love and Nicola Bothwell run their own successful consultancies respectively but it wasn’t until I joined them on the CIPR Committee in Northern Ireland that I really grew to know them.

Here was two people who liked the fact that I was a bit of a rebel – a trait many people have tried to advise me to grow out of! When I started my freelance business, they regularly invited me to come have buns and coffee with them in their office.


They would give me advice on problems, pass on contacts, and just make me laugh and feel part of a team again. It’s a lonely business freelance, and they had walked that path before me. I always left their building feeling my shoulders were lighter.


Utility Bear – Darren Thompson

Darren Thompson is the eCommerce Manager at an online startup borne from a traditional Northern Ireland family-run high street store. Grainne McGarvey recommended me to them when they worked with IRP Commerce.

For the last year I’ve built their social media, blog writing, influencer engagement and website product descriptions.


But what they really gave me was security and confidence. Having only one retainer client has meant that I’ve moved from project to project, always in business development mode, working twice as hard as someone who doesn’t have to worry where the next pay cheque is coming from.

Utility Bear want me to continue to work for them from New Zealand, and during the dark days when you question if you’re even any good at what you do, you need people like that to make you feel like you contribute something to the team.


Ulster University – Andy Purcell

Leanne-Ross-University-CAMIt is a great shame for future students that Andy retired this year as Head of the CAM degree at UUJ.

I remember in 2004 when I bore a multi-coloured mohawk and was failing the Marketing module of my degree. Andy gave me a stern talking to: get your head out of a messy relationship and back in your books, your future self will thank you! (And she does Andy, she does).

But years later, Andy would continue to push me to excel. Noticing my blog, Andy invited me to guest lecture to Undergraduate and Masters students. He wanted to inspire them. And through the lectures, I realised that that was where my passion lay too.

I desperately wanted to lecture, and Andy wanted the students to get a real insight into the industry they would soon enter. But the links between academia and the employment market are messy. I don’t have a PHD and, in the end, I didn’t get the job.

However, I would never even have applied if it wasn’t for Andy’s encouragement.


Wayne Denner

Wayne-Denner-SnapchatYou know sometimes, when people become friends, and you can’t even remember how you first met? Well that’s Wayne, and his wife Elaine.

I do remember reviewing Wayne’s book on the blog back before I met him, having followed him online, seeing as he is one of the most prolific voices on social and digital media in our country.

But in the almost-two-years since that review, Wayne has helped me in so many ways. He has encouraged my work, sent me job referrals, hired me himself, and pushed me outside my comfort zone to take part in live Blab talks and interviews on his own podcast.

Through his work in Dubai he showed me how big the working world is, you just need to be bloody brave. When I wanted to give up, but didn’t, it was usually because of Wayne/Elaine’s pep talks.


Gareth Quinn – Digital DNA

When my book was launching, I was at my lowest point in terms of self-esteem. I’d taken 3 months out to finish writing and publishing it, and all of a sudden I wasn’t sure if I should do it.

There were people who came out against it, who wrote blog posts that contradicted what I was trying to do, who made remarks about my self-promotion or my abilities to do the job I was attempting to teach others to do…

Leanne-Ross-Digital-DNAAnd then Gareth invited me up to Digital DNA offices. I’d been a fan of their conferences for years, but I never felt worthy to speak there. Digital DNA loved that I was doing something different and wanted to support it. They offered me a platform for my writing, promoted the book, and I have since been a guest speaker at numerous events.

When people you respect tell you to respect yourself, you tend to listen.


Glaze Digital – Richard & Mark

Ah Richard Megaw and Mark Kelso…


In a few short months these boys have become like family. (And Lisa and Herman, too). I spend 4 days a week in the offices of Richard and Mark’s startup digital consultancy Glaze. An agency that is growing at an exponential rate!

Richard asked me to meet him at a time when I had decided to give up freelancing. I’d been trying – and failing – to get an in house role to support my family as my husband’s work contract had ended.

They seemed to think I was some kind of expert… I played along with it… but in all honesty, I may have brought a little to their journey by teaching them how to fit PR into their service delivery model, and helping them recruit a team. But I’ve gained more learning from their technical skills, their business acumen, and the attitude they take to managing staff.

Again, I will hopefully continue to work for them from the other side of the world. But the impact of seeing them in action, and the boost they’ve given my confidence, will last longer than our time together…


Karma in Business

Just like Sam’s tweet of advice, I like to think that I’ve repaid the kindness I received by passing it on. I’ve answered every email and social media message I’ve received (and there have been a lot!)

I’ve also met with and supported some people going out on their own, who are now running successful business themselves. Like me, I know they have played the majority part in their achievements, I am but an extra in their story:

People like Pete McNicholl who is now running a unique small business consultancy specialising in Facebook Marketing.

ThatBelfastGirl blogger Gemma-Louise Bond who is one of the strongest women I know, constantly pushing outside her comfort zone to achieve great things. Her Facebook Live broadcasts literally light up my week.

Gillian Grattan who approached me as she faced redundancy before her maternity leave and now has a beautiful baby boy… and her first freelance retainer client.

Blogger Niamh (Serena) Crawford who is one of the spunkiest-yet-sensible young people I know and one to watch in the fashion journalism industry. She’s currently on an internship in Dubai, something 21-year-old me would never have had the guts to do (though I wish she had).

It’sHerSelfie blogger and Digital Marketer Lana Richardson, who I pestered into one of her first public speaking gigs because she is bloody brilliant, and who is going to be one of the biggest names in the local digital industry for years to come.

…to name but a few.


As Samantha Kelly says in her article “When good people hang around together magic happens.” I’m so grateful to have hung around with these people.

I hope that I can encounter the same great tribes wherever in the world this crazy family journey takes us.

But for now, I have a lot to do, and so aCupOfLee must go on a hiatus.

It’s a scary thing to do, to leave behind everything you’ve built in business. But as this post hopefully proves, I’ve done scary things before.

With the right attitude, and the right tribe, anything is possible.


PS I am leaving a big gaping hole in the local industry blogging scene #JustSaying


Follow our emigration blog posts and (soon-to-come vlogs) over at … because you can’t keep a writer down for long!