Innovation and enterprise blog

Introduction

This blog is written by members of the Business & IP Centre team and some of our expert partners and discusses business, innovation and enterprise. Read more

01 June 2020

Meet our delivery partner: Expert Impact

Expert Impact curate the popular Profit With Purpose events, which regularly feature founders of businesses trading for an environmental or social purpose explaining how they launched and scaled.

The quarterly series of evening panel discussion events aims to provide business insight for new social and ethical enterprises and encourage existing businesses to seize opportunities to become more socially and environmentally conscious.

Profit With Purpose events are for those interested in how business can be good for both people and planet. Usually half of the event time is given over to the audience to ask questions.

Discussions usually take in the following topics;

  • Motivation and experience required to run a social enterprise
  • Startup finance and support available
  • Market research and networking
  • The challenge of making social enterprises sustainable
  • How to measure the social impact of the work

Some of the social enterprises who have participated since 2018 include Rubies in the Rubble, which uses discarded food to make condiments as a way of reducing food waste; Change Please, a coffee company that trains and employs homeless people as baristas (both former Innovating for Growth participants as well), and Ovo, a green energy supplier.

Expert Impact created the Human Lending Library® which is now an in-house programme at the Business & IP Centre where leaders of social enterprises and charities looking for business advice can ‘borrow’ a business Expert, for free, to help them solve their challenges and scale fast. Hundreds of social impact leaders have benefitted from this service to date.

There are many reasons why social entrepreneurs seek advice but common enquiries include business development, governance, strategy, raising investment and marketing and public relations.

Most of the Experts have started and scaled businesses that have gone on to become very successful. Some of the Experts are serial entrepreneurs, having started and then sold several companies.

There are more than 50 Experts available, including the founders of Pret-a-Manger, The White Company, Carphone Warehouse and Mumsnet.

Expert Impact panel discussion

The Experts represent a full spectrum of business experience across different sectors including tech, retail, marketing, public relations, publishing and more.

For more information on the Profit With Purpose series, the Human Lending Library or Expert Impact, please contact Lee Mannion, Head of Communications, Expert Impact.

26 May 2020

A week in the life of… Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro

This month's week in the life of follows Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups alumna, Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro, a London boutique reviving 1920s to 1940s glamour in its vintage-inspired and reproduction outfits and footwear. Her diary takes place during the week everything changed and includes details of what's happened since. Here's Rowena...

You never know what’s coming next when you run a small business. Least of all a global pandemic!

I’ve been asked to write ‘a week in the life’ of a small business owner. The week I shall describe was both life changing and, actually, nothing out of the ordinary. Responding to challenges, overcoming problems, finding a path to a better future is in our entrepreneurial DNA.

Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro
Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro

Tuesday 10 March was one of my favourite kinds of day: I got to be creative, I was at the culmination of a project and we were getting ready for launch, it was exciting. I would be working with a group of talented and highly skilled freelancers. I’ve worked with many of them for years as I value and admire them. As we all know each other, it’s less tense and more fun, the stakes are still high on a photoshoot, we have to get the shots we need but the team knows what’s expected and I know I can rely on them to deliver.

During the first three hours of prep, as hair and make up starts on our models for the day and the photographer, runner and I set up, we fall in to our usual easy rhythm of chat. This time, however, there’s a new hot topic Coronavirus.

This is the week when everything changed, awareness, attitudes, actions. It was before the government announced any lockdown plan it is essentially when Coronavirus changed from something everybody talked about as affecting other people to the realisation that this would change our lives, our businesses, our behaviours, our economy.

That Tuesday we talked about the video that had just been released exposing how bad the situation was inside Italian hospitals. We talked about what had been happening in China. I explained how this was going to affect our supply chain and how this might affect our Autumn/Winter collection and therefore the work that we might be able to collaborate on in six months time. My team were impressed that I had even been interviewed for The Sunday Times and Radio 4 Today programme about this.

Model in Revival Retro outfit

All of our talk was of a distant and remote problem, one that didn’t really seem to affect us directly. I asked the team lots of questions, what do you think? Is this a threat? What are people’s perceptions vs reality? No-one was worried, except me, and mine wasn’t fear it was endless questions with no answers.

As a business owner you need to be working several steps ahead, planning, preparing ready to bend and flex, willing to change which path you take as long as you keep your destination in sight. On that Tuesday the shoot was fun and forward looking. We sanitised our hands, fist bumped rather than hugged and followed the current advice. We were productive and positive about the collection and the campaign launch, everyone thought the garments I had designed and made were fantastic, everyone imagined they would sell really well.

Wednesday was a busy day with a long to do list. Events like photoshoots are all-consuming and you can’t get anything else done. So, my inbox was full, I had breakfast and lunch engagements and there was a trade show that I would need to get to (I was still in normal buying mode). I even had a date planned that evening, a rare prioritising of personal over professional life that I was still managing eight weeks after enacting a new year's resolution.

Our award-winning boutique is ‘not just a shop’ it is the heart of a community, it is a place where you are welcomed, where we connect people, products and passions. As such my bricks and mortar shop is my pride and joy, it’s also a place where I can get very little work done! Being in the shop is fantastic for collaborating with the team, getting feedback from customers, and working on joint projects but it’s the worst place to be when I need to plough through a to do list.

The Revival Retro Boutique shopfront

I’m a perfectionist and an ideas person and I only have to raise my head from my laptop to see something that could be done, to catch a voice through an open doorway to remind me or suggest something to me. Being in the shop, even the back office, just adds to everyone’s to do list! On this day, I had headed to a local co-working space for some solitary and silent work production. There was still lots to do for the upcoming launch. Getting everything prepared to go live in our online shop by the Friday deadline meant I had to help make this happen whilst staff in the shop were busy receiving stock deliveries in the boutique and processing these ready for the shop floor.

I was so engrossed and hammering through the list I almost forgot the trade show and had to rush over Marylebone for the final hours of the show. I ordered fabric samples for the next collection and addressed a difficult situation with a trusted supplier where they had delivered 300 metres of inferior fabric, which had not been returned at point of delivery but already been made in to garments. There’s no clear resolution to this it depends on your relationship and your negotiating skills.

It was on the whole, a pretty good day.... Until everything fell apart! Late in the afternoon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, had delivered the Budget and despite the intention to help businesses mitigate any impact of Coronavirus my small business had effectively been excluded from help. The criteria for business rates relief had been based on the open market rent valuation of your premises not turnover, not number of staff, not profitability. A measure that was intended to help small businesses was being withheld because of the cost of doing business in London.

I’ve learnt over the years that toddler type tantrums can be helpful and cathartic but should be conducted away from the eyes of all employees, customers and pretty much everyone so the next 24 hours didn’t go as planned. Despite all the deadlines, this was a disruption I didn’t need but it wasn’t just the rates relief, this challenge was representative of many of the problems you encounter as you grow and scale and take bigger risks and manage bigger overheads. However, I find that metaphorically ‘throwing your toys out the pram’ can bring clarity as you mentally knock down everything and start again. When you know what’s important and what is of value it is possible to look more objectively at what you can do without, what you can change and what to focus on.

Thursday Sometimes fresh new ideas occur but mainly I believe that with a business that has been going a certain amount of time, that has a strategy and knows its purpose, that you come out with a sense of resolve and focus.

I had created something I was proud of, that the team believed in, that initial feedback had shown customers wanted. This was the future, my own range of products, our first summer collection, consistency in our range, exclusivity rather than price competition, better margin, we decide delivery to market, we have greater control over a whole range of commercial factors that will benefit our future viability and profitability.

Everything was back on track for the launch of our new collection.

Model wearing Revival Retro outfit

Friday Today I would send out wholesale linesheets, I would prepare for a sell-out private launch party for customers on Sunday, everything needed to be ready to put the whole collection live online for e-commence sales on Monday. We also needed all the photography from Tuesday’s photoshoot retouched and formatted to create the visuals for web and social media along with product shots for the webshop.

90% of production had been delivered and was being prepped for shop floor by the team. We were ready. Months of work had brought me to this point. But the news was changing.

Saturday In three days the coverage of Coronavirus had amplified, changed its tone and pace of reporting, the news of what had been affecting other parts of the world now seemed very much closer to home, the threat was real, the evidence credible, the tension palpable.

Whereas the discussion on Tuesday had seemed to place peoples perception of the problem at maybe a three out of 10, Wednesday, plus the budget, had moved it to four, reaction to the help (or lack of it) announced in the budget and new data had raised it to five by Thursday. Now difficult questions were being asked everywhere with obviously no satisfying answers from government or experts making it a seven out of 10, as I shopped for prosecco and cake at the supermarket on Saturday.

My launch party was tomorrow and despite the media frenzy it looked like everybody was still enthusiastic to come.

Sunday As I journeyed through empty streets to the shop to set up, I passed a newsagent and I saw the headlines. I stood still, I took stock, I saw that everything on this grey March morning was different now. People would be scared, people would stay home, people would not be buying new clothes, people would not be responsive in the way they would have to our lovely photographs, they would be distracted by bigger issues and thinking about protecting their near and dear. It didn’t matter how much work I had done to get to this point.

A couple of hours later the apologies and cancellations started to come through, people couldn’t or wouldn’t make the event. That Sunday seemed like the day where the true extent of the pandemic revealed itself to the UK. As people spent the day at home and consumed the media it seemed to sink in, we began to realise the implications of how this was going to affect us. Questions still didn't have answers yet but we began to plan and prepare mentally. A change happened.

Some people did turn up to that little party, some of our most loyal customers and as I expected, they did love the collection and we did get some sales. More importantly though, between the reasons given for peoples absence and the chat over tea and cake with some of our most enthusiastic supporters I was able to take a measure of how my business might be affected in the coming weeks and months.

Everything and nothing happened on that Sunday. But I could take the resolve I had found on Thursday to direct my response to this challenge. I would use the insights I had learned from customers on Sunday. I would gather my team on Monday to discuss and then help focus our response. I needed to direct everyone on how we would overcome problems so people didn’t lose heart, I would find a pathway through this to ensure there is a future for our much loved small business post pandemic.

Model wearing Revival Retro outfit

Monday It was a quiet day with virtually no customers. There was still work to be done with the online launch of the collection, but we were already wise enough to what was coming to hold back stock and revise our plans.

I received a call from my full-time member of staff, they had symptoms. Updated Government advice made it clear Charlotte would be distancing for the next 14 days and suddenly what seemed like ‘just a cold’ carried a weight of worry, a concern for our colleague and even more questions about our safety, our work, our lives.

It’s important to remember that your business is nothing without people. Quite simply, tending to the mental and physical needs of employees is, I believe, of paramount importance. Those of us in work that day talked and I reflected on priorities.

Tomorrow I would not require any staff to come to work and I would run the shop tending to any customers who happened to come. I would consider our next steps and wait for a much anticipated announcement from the Government at a new daily evening information broadcast that was about to start.

My week in the life ends there. It feels like a lifetime ago, so much has happened since.

One of the reasons I work with the British Library is my passion for innovation. Some people think innovation is purely technical/digital or product development but it’s not it’s just as important to your business strategy. A resilience measure, it can be about understanding change happening around you and being able to pivot accordingly, changing your processes and practices to overcome challenge. The Business & IP Centre have asked me to add to my week in the life to tell you what happened next…

One week later

In just one week sales had fallen away to virtually zero but despite this vacuum the pace had quickened. I immediately began to review all cashflow forecasts and financial planning for the year. I updated the business and marketing plan and wrote a contingency plan. I knew all of these documents would be required if I were to apply for funding and I needed to focus my mind.

I was also mindful of the needs of my staff right now, lockdown hadn’t been announced yet but I decided to close the shop to the public because the news was now concerning everyone.

Revival Retro staff

Communication was vital; with staff, with suppliers, with other business owners. Understanding the landscape, not just our own experience, was vital to navigating our way through it.

Two weeks later

Chancellor Rishi Sunak had made further announcements and I moved swiftly to furlough all our part-time staff to save jobs long-term. I had defaulted on my rent and my landlady hadn’t answered any of my proposals. Business had dropped off a cliff edge, including web sales. People were stockpiling and on a long list of discretionary spending, fashion comes last in people’s priorities when all they will do is stay at home.

I had decided not to launch the entirety of the new collection, the demand simply wouldn’t be there to achieve sales through and seeing future gaps in my supply chain I figured it was better to hold back stock and release some items as new in Summer 2021.

Lockdown had been officially announced and I was working from home trying to access finance. Major problems with the new Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) had brought about press opportunities and I appeared on all the major new channels, radio and print media about the plight of my small business.

Three weeks later

Getting nowhere fast with my CBILS application I couldn’t see how the business could even make it to the end of the month (April).

I think it’s important to note the toll on the mental health of small business owners: Not only is this your dream obliterated due to something beyond your control, but there’s also the responsibility that people’s jobs and livelihoods rely on you, if you care about your customers then failure seems like failing them too. It’s a lot to carry, whilst at the same time having no money to pay yourself, support your family and keep a roof over your head.

Still determined though and still believing in the long-term potential of the business, I’d brought one member of staff back to work and we were working on future facing projects. I was also actively networking online and participating in all kinds of small business support zoom calls, webinars and online learning.

In one of these calls I heard about the Pay It Forward Crowdfunder campaign and that Sunday, unable to enjoy a scheduled day off as all of this is whirring around in my head, I decided to map out what that might look like for us.

Four weeks later

I’m very proud that we have so many loyal repeat customers. I work exceptionally hard to create a fantastic experience at Revival Retro and build genuine relationships with our customers, not just automated interactions.

Going the extra mile and encouraging my staff to do the same had paid off.

We had launched our Crowdfunder and in week one had already raised more than £12,000 for our small business. It was incredible!

It wasn’t just the money either, alongside the pledges were endless messages of support, promises to come back and shop with us, love for what we do and why we are important to people. This got me through an incredibly tough time and I am immensely thankful.

Customers were happy to buy vouchers now to redeem later, which turned around our cash flow position. Followers and fans were all too happy to champion our brand. People far and wide donated anything from £5 to £500 to save a high street hero much loved by many.

Model wearing Revival Retro outfit

Seven weeks later

By the end of April we had met and exceeded our £25,000 Crowdfunder target. Our small business was saved (particularly as we were excluded from Government grants and the CBILS loan money was still not available). We were able not just to meet payroll and necessary obligations, but pay what we owed to other small business suppliers and plan for the future.

The success of the Pay It Forward campaign for Revival Retro was transformative. We would not be in the position we are today without it. Many small business owners have asked my for tips on how they might run a successful campaign and I’ve written a blog about this which you can read here.

From resilience we can now begin to look to recovery. I am encouraged that our customers see us as “not just a shop” which offers opportunity as we shape the future of the brand. It’s going to be more important than ever to innovate for growth.

21 May 2020

Heart Street - the survival of a vegan street food business

Evie-May Ellis, founder of vegan street food business, Heart Street, who used BIPC Norfolk to help start-up her business, gives an honest insight into her business during lockdown...

Evie-May
Evie-May, founder of Heart Street

I never enjoyed cooking. Ever.

As part of my home education development, my Mum would often encourage me to take interest in ‘hands on’ activities but I was having none of it. I was never happier than when I was curled up with a notebook, planning a million and one random projects that I believed would be "the next big thing." One of my favourite projects was organising and leading garden tours around Mum's flower beds and our fishpond. The guest list usually included the local vicar and a myriad of elderly ladies with names straight out of the murder mystery programmes my Mum enjoyed watching in the afternoons.

I loved planning, but I never liked cooking.

Food dominated my upbringing, being a symbol of love and affection from both my Mum and my Grandparents. Sundays and special occasions were for incredible roasts laid on by my Nan, with the best cuts of meat and endless silver dishes filled with roasted spuds, Yorkshire puds and multi-coloured veg. When Mum went to work, and my sister and I would work on our studies (and multiple viewings of Sister Act), she would always fret about there being enough food in the house, despite the fact she had stock piled enough to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Skip forward 10 years and you will find me handing out dishfuls of homemade chilli, feeding the array of lovely customers that visit my street food stand, Heart Street, and spreading the message that food is one of the greatest joys in life. This is just one of the amazing privileges that have come my way since I launched the business in April 2019.

I always knew I wanted to run my own business. From the garden tours to my Open University Business Degree, I loved to organise and execute plans and to learn about the processes of ‘business’. Even during my, much misplaced, desire to be a performer I always knew what I really wanted was a cabaret club or a dance troupe. Something I created and that embodied my passions.

Working my way through a number of jobs (recently revealed during a Zoom quiz, that number is 25), I fell in love with hospitality and worked my way to management. During this time I became vegan and started triathlon training. This combination fuelled my love for food as I saw how it could make me stronger and fitter. Plus, vegan cooking is amazing!
With my passion for planning, my restlessness in employment, my love for and connection to food and my ability to cook pretty decent vegan fare, it was inevitable. The natural development was to quit my very well paying job, take all my savings and get into debt to launch a very niche street food business in rural Norfolk.

Heart Street menu

Although I run Heart Street by myself, I never would have been able to get this far without the amazing support of my friends and family and the resources available to me through organisations including NWES and BIPC. I had frequently attended NWES workshops with various business ideas, none of which were viable. But in 2018 I attended a one to one meeting and pitched the idea of Heart Street.

You know, this could work.”

Those words stayed with me, through putting together a wildly optimistic business plan and receiving my start up loan, and I knew I would finally achieve running my own business.

NWES helped support the entire start-up process and provided me with information on the BIPC and the amazing services they offered. There was a wealth of support and contacts to offer advice, and many courses available — I specifically participated in any social media focused training. The most beneficial interaction came from a one-on-one with an accountant during my first year of trading — without that meeting, which was completely free through BIPC, I would never have financially survived my first year, let alone ended with some sort of profit!

I was lucky enough to speak at the BIPC Kings Lynn Hub about my experience as a budding entrepreneur, a truly lovely experience and just one of the many amazing opportunities I have had over this last year. I cannot express enough the importance of organisations like this for hopeful entrepreneurs, especially in such rural areas!

All of that seems years ago now, the energy and excitement of setting up my business sits in stark contrast with the daily worry and feeling of loss that COVID-19 has brought looming over 2020.

This year was due to be big for Heart Street. I had doubled my bookings, reinvested profits to grow the stall and cemented several private events. My reputation was growing and there wasn’t a single weekend in the year I wasn’t due to be out on the stall.

Heart Street food stall

But like many other people across the country, and indeed the world, the pandemic brought everything to a smashing halt. Cancellations started dripping in and then flooded my inbox. Phone calls had to be made, accounts had to be looked at, ambitions and dreams had to be put to one side.

This was about survival.

Considering the horrendous occurrences that are appearing every day on our TVs, newsfeeds and radio stations it feels selfish to focus on what could seem such a minor inconvenience. But my business, as with many small business owners, has been a lifetime of dreaming, planning and hard work. It is the epitome of everything I care about, a culmination of love, kindness, childhood memories and my life experience rolled into something I am so incredibly proud of and I adore.

To have all of that teetering on the brink of collapse is incredibly hard.

But that is one of the risks of running your own business. And that’s when you have to dig really deep and remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. It won’t be the first time you have to do it, and it won’t be the last.

Heart Street food

Starting your own business is not something to be taken lightly, freak global pandemics aside there are so many hard times involved, far more than I ever imagined. Financial concerns seem more prominent, you will work harder than you ever have, and surveys show 58% of small business owners suffer with mental health issues caused by isolation.

It is incredibly hard, but one of the best things you will ever decide to do.

So, my advice to anyone wanting to set up their own business? Be realistic. Think long and hard about if you are willing to risk financial security and free time for a potential pipe dream that may not even work? What would you feel if you don’t go ahead? Disappointed? Relieved?

Talk to as many people as you can. Get advice from organisations such as BIPC and make the most of any classes, webinars or online information they can provide. Knowledge is power! Talk to those who run their own businesses, whether they are in your field or not. Business advice books only get you so far and they won’t be as brutally honest with you as an owner who is down to their last penny!

Most importantly, remember why you are doing this. To be your own boss isn’t enough. What really makes this part of who you are? What message do you care about spreading? Who do you want to be in this world? Because that is what will keep you focused and hopeful through the roughest of times.

As for me and Heart Street, well; COVID-19 has definitely done a good job of derailing us but we are getting back on track. Researching grants and schemes and doing a little bit at a time to try to survive this storm. Survival is the key term here! Many of my street food pals have launched into delivery services, and they are proving rather successful, but this hasn’t been an option for me at this stage.

As such a fledgling business, with less than a years’ trading under my belt, I need to focus on survival and that means being conscious of cash flow. At this moment in time even buying stock would be too much of a financial risk.

Heart Street food

So for now, I am just here, at my desk, in my little office, surrounded by newspaper cuttings, congratulation cards, recipe notes and a calendar full of black crosses.

And I’m doing what I’ve always done — planning.