29 September 2021
The Pandemic Business Boom
As businesses across the country closed their doors in March of 2020, it was unclear just how long these doors would remain closed. Small businesses found themselves facing a frightening and confusing time, having to pivot and adjust to the continually changing landscape. In many cases, however, this pause in time allowed some to reflect on their career goals and even prompted them to launch their own businesses. We spoke to four such businesses, who either pivoted or started up during the pandemic and explored how they were able to grow despite unpredictable circumstances.
For Carolynn Bain, the pandemic and the civil rights uprising that started to unfold in the summer of 2020 highlighted the importance and need for her to start up her Brighton based business, Afrori Books. Afrori Books is an online bookshop that specialises in books by black authors, their mission statement is simple; to support black authors, create diverse bookshelves and be a voice for justice.
As a National Network business, we were able to assist Carolynn by providing local information and resources to help her grow during this time, specifically ways to source funding to expand the business into a physical shop via our Business & IP Centre Brighton & Hove.
"Starting a business during the pandemic is an unusual thing to do. However, I think what had a bigger impact on us was starting a business during a pandemic and during a civil rights uprising in terms of Black Lives Matter – they can’t be separated for us. Many people were at home, reading books and for the first time ever really the world was sitting still, watching these things unfold before them. That had a massive impact on us and, in a positive sense, bought customers to us who previously maybe would not have considered looking at books by black authors. As we go forward, we are in the middle of crowd funding as we are looking to open a physical shop – working in partnership with a charity in Brighton who have given us a shop space. That has also come off the back of the civil rights movement, as they want to see Brighton change and become a safe space for black authors and black people living in the city. It’s all interconnected."
Another National Network business, who recently took part in our Innovating for Growth programme, that has seen growth during the pandemic is The Woodlife Project. The Norfolk based business, founded by Hazel Russell manufactures beautiful, innovative, eco-friendly wooden products for the family home with a focus on meal times. The Woodlife Project, who got support from BIPC Norfolk, mostly sell online on their own website and wholesale through a variety of different retailers, most notably during the pandemic they are now available on John Lewis and, like Afrori Books, will be looking to have in store product space soon too. "Our proudest moment in business so far has been getting into John Lewis, as they were one of our ideal retailers from the offset. We are online at the moment - in the nursery section with our bear, fox and rabbit plates. If all goes well we will be in store soon."
Jennifer Lam also took part in our Innovating for Growth programme, she is the co-founder and CEO of Stitch and Story based in London, which is an online crafting company on a mission to make crafting simple and easy to learn. During the numerous lock-downs, confined to their homes, people were getting back in touch with their creative side which bode well for this crafting business and allowed them to grow despite the uncertain circumstances.
"We’re here to inspire a new generation of crafters with our DIY kits, yarns and materials. During the pandemic Stitch and Story grew enormously. I think we were one of the lucky companies who were able to grow because everybody was in lockdown, looking for a new skill or hobby to pick up at home. Stitch and Story provided many customers with a new skill in knitting and crocheting and so we expanded very quickly online predominantly, albeit it was very stressful!"
One of the biggest changes to Stitch and Story was the team; they more than doubled the team during the pandemic from seven to 22. "We had to recruit everyone virtually at the time and it was stressful as we had no experience in doing that before - the BIPC really helped in providing us resources for this."
Start-ups in London Libraries business, Delmora, founded by Judy Chicangana-Matthews, offers a variety of beautiful jewellery items and accessories for women. Judy launched her first product at the end of February, weeks before Covid hit. "The impact was huge. In the beginning, people were buying the essentials such as food and toilet paper, so jewellery was considered a luxury. Nowadays, many people are concerned about their jobs and how that is going to impact their finances.
Covid also affects my KPIs in terms of delivery. I use the service Royal Mail 24, and I have had severe delays on the delivery of the parcels. To compensate my customers, sometimes I offer discounts as a part of the customer service. This practice has seriously affected my margins, so surviving has been very difficult."
Thus, the need to pivot and test out new business models to grow her business came about. By adding a loyalty program to her business, she was able to ensure repeat purchases and a loyal customer base. "My response has been offering discounts to my customers and creating programs to increase the brand’s recognition. For example, I offer the Delmora Club discount to all my customers in which the members have exclusive access to special discounts and pre-launch of our collections. We also recently created the program named Delmora Brand Champion that aims to get more positive reviews around our online presence."
Despite the devastating effects of the pandemic, we are pleased to see small businesses surviving, thriving and growing through it - it has highlighted the importance of small businesses, which are innovative, provide jobs and support local communities. In turn, there has been an increase in public support for local small businesses, to help ensure they remained profitable - a trend we hope continues long after the pandemic has ended.