Starting your own business is tough, even at the best of times. But what about launching a startup during a global pandemic? You’d have to be mad, right? After all, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that a quarter of UK companies are temporarily closed during lockdown and the majority of those still operating have reported lower turnover.
Whether it’s from sheer determination, or a reaction to the destruction that Covid-19 has left in its wake, many budding entrepreneurs have refused to let the crisis wreck their plans. In fact, data from Startups.co.uk states that five online businesses were launched in the UK every day in April—that’s including weekends—which, remarkably, makes for a 60% increase on the same month last year. So, why now—and how have they done it? We talk to the founders of five startups that went ahead and launched despite the crisis.
‘Act now; get ahead of competitors’
Fintech startup Balance, founded by Varun Bhanot and Sunil Jindal, has created an app that helps hard-working people manage their finances more efficiently. It does this by accessing a portion of their earnings on demand, tracking them in real-time and automatically shielding them before their account runs into overdraft.
During lockdown, the pair—who met at VC-backed London startup Hubble— decided the time was right for their app idea. “We saw that so many key workers were working so hard, but are also largely low to median income earners,” said Bhanot. “This motivated us to bring forward the launch of our mental health startup that focuses exclusively on money.”
Bhanot says that this is the perfect time to focus on building a product or service, or working on a new idea, especially if sales aren’t happening due to the crisis. “This virus can give businesses a chance to get ahead when their competitors may be sitting idle, waiting for the storm to pass. Competitors won’t be as nimble with fixed costs, so now is a great time to get your head down.”
To gain traction, Balance used Facebook and Instagram ads, which dropped in price due to lower competition during lockdown, to start testing initial customer demand.
Both founders are freelancing on the side to support themselves while their startup finds its feet. “Having side projects or hustles becomes critical when going full throttle,” said Bhanot. “My co-founder also learnt how to code using online tools such as Udemy. This meant we could get to work building our app.”
‘Have a purpose and build a community’
Homethings is an eco-cleaning startup that provides refillable glass bottles and cleaning products in tablet form, removing the need for single-use plastic and the shipping of water. Its founders, Tim Keaveney and Matthew Aubrey, met at Edinburgh University. Keaveney left his job in finance to collaborate on Homethings with Aubrey, who has experience in impact investing and sustainability.
The pair originally aimed to launch through crowdfunding site Kickstarter on March 27, but they decided to postpone. “The world was feeling very loud and we didn’t want to add to the noise,” said Keaveney. They held tight, launched on May 1 and hit their funding target within 90 minutes of going live.
Keaveney believes that having a purpose is essential in the current climate. “You’re not only competing with other brands and products, but with people’s wants, needs and inboxes. Brands that stand for something will always have a place. The world is bonkers, which is why it’s now more critical than ever for us to do something that makes sense.”
“Community is important, too. People want to support brands—especially startups—who they feel a connection to or have built a relationship with, so valuing your community should always be at your core.”
To do this, Homethings launched a podcast, (Re)action, which they use to voice conversations on sustainability. “It is a great opportunity for us to connect and learn from individuals,” said Keaveney. “Not only is it about opening up these conversations but it’s about sharing them with our community.”
‘Just go for it’
As the nation went into lockdown in March, Joanne Maclachlan launched The Eco Friendly Living Co, an ecommerce start-up that sells environmentally friendly products for the home.
She has seen a huge spike in demand as more consumers seek out sustainable alternatives, from cleaning, beauty and even pet products to kitchenware and gifts. All profits are going straight back into securing wholesale deals, big brands and developing its own lines.
Maclachlan, who started her career in law before buying a franchise in the wedding industry, was determined not to let fear get the better of her when it came to the launch. She has also been taking advantage of online courses and networking opportunities. “I’ve been using my new-found spare time to upskill and have completed online courses, and listened to tutorials and to speakers. I’ve been virtually networking and made so many fantastic contacts,” she said.
Maclachlan has coped with logistics by explaining any delivery delays to customers. She’s also been doing a doorstep drop and local pick-up service. “The only other delay we have seen is with suppliers,” she said. “They too have seen a massive surge in interest so some independent and handmade lines that The Eco Friendly Co stocks currently have slower turnaround times.”
‘Don’t pay for marketing’
Sam Short and Phil Jones came up with the idea of Moneyed, an app that empowers people to take control of their financial future by building a personalised plan to help meet life goals such as buying a house. It displays all finances in one place through current accounts, savings, pensions, investments, property and mortgages.
“Phil and I believe that the greatest personal issue our generation will face, especially now we’re living through the second ‘once in a lifetime’ financial crash, will be a direct result of poor financial management,” said Short.
Frustrated that “the only tools to put us in control of our finances are locked away with expensive financial advisers”, the two friends started saving in anticipation of starting a company together. They quit their jobs at the start of the pandemic and launched Moneyed.
There’s no marketing budget, but the pair cleverly managed to get their business in the public eye. They achieved this by following the news and Government announcements closely. “If you Googled ‘Moneyed’ two months ago, you would never find us. Like most startups, we’re bootstrapping, so keeping costs low is really important. We couldn’t afford to pay £5 per click for an ad in Google.”
“When mortgage payment holidays were announced, we realised that there were no resources for people to find out how it impacted future repayments. We quickly built a calculator, tweeted Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert and emailed journalists writing about mortgage holidays. As a result, we were linked to by the Guardian, The Sun, and in Money Saving Expert’s weekly email and over 120,000 people used our calculator. Now, if you Google ‘Moneyed’, we’re on the first page of results.”
Moneyed is targeting app users via their employers because it gives the startup an opportunity to host upskilling workshops. “We recently started a partnership with [corporate wellbeing platform] Gympass that gives us access to more than 100 companies. This partnership came as a direct result of improving our visibility in Google,” said Short.
Over the next six months, Moneyed is focusing on running workshops and pilots with companies; adding more features to the app; and starting to look for seed investment. “Our next step will be to hire salespeople and software engineers, and pay ourselves a small salary!” said Short.
HUN is looking to bring quality wine in a can to the UK. The group of East London friends behind the March launch had no experience in the drinks industry, but they managed to pull together an advisory board through existing connections, including former Redbull MD Andy Shaw and Waitrose executive director James Bailey.
“We loved the convenience and environmental benefits of cans, but we couldn’t find any canned wines on the UK market that offered the same quality and flavour of their bottled counterparts,” said co-founder Mark Woollard. “Cue HUN!”
The startup, whose financial backers include F1 racer David Couthard, teamed up with vineyards in South Africa to produce “a better tasting wine” that the founders say is also the first to be vegan and fair-trade in a can. It is canned in the UK.
Woollard admits that wine is difficult to work with wherever it is sourced—even more so in the current climate—but the team has overcome any obstacles to launch three products with a large first-run volume. It seems HUN is already gathering pace: its wine recently launched in select Tesco stores.
Woollard champions versatility. “No one knows what tomorrow holds, let alone the next six months, so it’s vital that you can adapt quickly,” he said. “We had planned to launch at festivals, but with all events cancelled, we quickly had to change our strategy.”
The team worked with disruption agency TBWA to create a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign that satirises launching during lockdown with phrases such as: “Look everybody! We’ve just launched a new wine. Anybody? Anybody? Anybody?”
It’s been a huge success. “The billboard campaign has had an incredible response,” said Woollard.
Whatever the economic climate, a solid product, business acumen and a hefty dose of determination go a long way towards entrepreneurial success. After all, if a startup can survive a pandemic, it can survive anything…
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