This month, unLTD’s Ash Birch looks back on life during lockdown and tells the stories of six business from across the region who set up shop during the height of the pandemic.
It’s been three long years since the Covid pandemic tore up the world as we knew it. In many ways, things have reverted back to some sort of normality compared to the chaos of 2020, but years down the line since the final restrictions were lifted, we’re all still unpacking what collectively happened to us, both on a personal and professional level.
The period of lockdowns, and the uncertainty that surrounded that time, was detrimental to many people’s livelihoods, as well as their health, but there were still those those who took the decision to start their own business either in the run up to, or during, the lockdowns. Through no fault of their own, some of these businesses struggled to find a foothold and the requisite support in this new environment, and speaking from the experience of setting up my own business up in February 2020, I know all too well the pitfalls and difficulties that new businesses faced.
That isn’t the whole picture though, and thanks to a mixture of resilience and ingenuity, many new businesses in our region managed to thrive and this month, we’re shining a light on six such businesses, delving into their experiences of setting up shop in tumultuous times and finding out if these experiences made them more durable as a result.
One of the hardest hit sectors in the early stages was events. Venues across the country were forced to close, with little indication of when or even if they would be able to reopen. Against this backdrop, you’d be forgiven for thinking that an upstart ticketing platform may have gone to the wall, but Sheffield-based national success story Tickets for Good flies in the face of this assumption.
Tickets For Good is a social enterprise that provides free and heavily discounted tickets to NHS Staff, charities and social groups across the UK. Working alongside over 500-plus events partners, their mission is to support the improvement of health and well-being and to increase access to events for their 250,000 members, saving them over £10m on face value tickets.
Set up initially in 2019 as a ticketing platform to rival the likes of Eventbrite, founders Steve Rimmer and Neville Mosey took the decision to reposition the platform with the idea of distributing unsold tickets to charitable organisations in March 2020, just two-weeks before the lockdowns hit.
The unfortunate timing meant that this new model was rendered impossible, at least in those early months and Tickets For Good’s UK Operations Director Pippa Le Grand explains how the business and the arts sector as a whole reacted: “First it was panic, and then it became time to reflect, and that period of reflection was really valuable.
“Founders Steve and Nev took the opportunity to reset what they wanted to do and the key opportunity for Tickets For Good came a year later, when they developed the current model, aimed primarily at NHS workers.
“It made a lot of sense for the events industry that wanted to be able to come out of the pandemic reminding people that events are a safe and valuable way to spend time to then give free tickets to NHS workers.
“It allowed events to really start going again and to get audiences through the door, but also to reward NHS workers for seeing everyone through a tough year. We felt it was fulfilling that need on both sides; the events partners get something valuable and meaningful, and the audiences get something valuable and meaningful too.
“In a sense, Covid’s timing did play a role in that we were approaching NHS Trusts at a time when staff understood that the NHS was under the most enormous pressure.”
Now on the cusp of extending their remit to allow access to tickets to those in receipt of Cost of Living payments, the business has gone from strength to strength as the events industry regains its feet and looks for different ways to entice new audiences into their venues.
For those not in the events or hospitality sectors, the necessity of remote working meant that technology played an even more important role in our working lives during lockdowns, with a shift to platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Sheffield tech firm Simoda, who set up in 2019 and began trading in October of that year, are another local start up that can boast success despite setting up just before the pandemic hit.
Born out of the frustrations of working in other tech companies, its founder’s intended to shake up the way the tech industry worked, creating a company based on technology and not sale team’s profits, instilling a community spirit amongst their workforce, while simplifying, modernising and accelerating (hence the name Simoda, geddit?).
They found that many of the practises they were keen to introduce became the norm and they were well positioned to tackle the challenges of lockdown head on.
“Effectively, the pandemic helped us build together,” says Simoda Managing Director Daniel Bumby, “While our competitors were putting people on furlough, we only had six people, so we decided we needed to maintain what we were doing, keep a good head on where we were, and build a strategy for when we got out of the pandemic.
“The technologies we’d been pushing for the previous four or four or five years were exactly what we were pushing during the pandemic. We were already talking to people about moving over to cloud services and modernising their environment.
“One of the reasons that I really believe we were successful through the pandemic was not going out to people and saying, “You need to do this.” Instead, we were there to advise and help. We didn’t see it as a business opportunity.
“I look at some businesses in our industry, and they saw it as an opportunity to make loads of money and started selling things like heat sensors, which, frankly, was a load of nonsense. We just worked how we’d always worked by helping businesses achieve what they needed to achieve.”
Much in the same way as Tickets For Good, they also found their work stream closely tied to the NHS. Initially, they were asked by The Sheffield CCG (Clincial Commissioning Group) to look after doctor’s surgeries IT in the region and provide devices so that doctors in Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster and Bassetlaw could work remotely.
Following the success of that project, they were then asked to help set up the tech required to operate the region’s vaccination centres. Given the urgency of the situation, their flexibility and willingness to take risks meant that people in our area could start being vaccinated efficiently.
“One of the big frustrations I had at previous companies was that there was no willingness to take risks,” says Daniel. “In setting up Simoda, we did something different and then the pandemic taught people to think differently. I think the companies that have succeeded and were strong during the pandemic had the ability to be agile.
“I’m pleased, in a way, that the pandemic happened when it did, because it’s helped us along our journey. I’ll be honest, there were a few sleepless nights, but it’s worked out well.”
Another business looking to differentiate themselves with the use of technology was Chesterfield-based law firm CMP Legal, who opened the doors to their new offices, or at least stood outside them in a socially distanced fashion, in March 2021.
Solicitors Anna Cattee, Jason Skelton, Neil Brown and Stacey Pocock made the decision to pool together their business legal knowledge and begin the process of launching CMP Legal in 2020, before suddenly being plunged into lockdown and a sea of uncertainty.
They decided to stick to their guns and spent the summer of 2020 doing the groundwork for the business from their back gardens, while they waited for authorisation from the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority).
Co-founder Stacey Pocock said: “It was a leap of faith because we didn’t know what was going to happen. But we thought, ‘Well, we didn’t know what was going to happen anyway’ so realised we were in no worse position because of the lockdown.
“Initially, it was just myself and Anna, but we were eventually joined by Neil Brown and Jason Skelton after deciding rather than just the two of us, let’s be the four of us.
“I’d never worked with Neil and Jason before and Anna had only worked with them when she was a trainee, but we couldn’t meet and get to know each other like you would over coffee.
“Like many people, we had to switch to online meetings. It brought forward the use of technology in a way that we envisaged and planned, but suddenly were forced into.
“It allowed us the time to road-test the technology, because one of the principles we have as a business is to be engaged with and embracing of new technology. We can’t change the law and the processes, but we can change the way those processes are delivered and, even before Covid and lockdowns, that was something that was important to us.”
Stacey also believes that the slowing down of the world allowed them to think about some key decisions in a way that might not have been possible previously. It also allowed them to engage with other professionals using online communication, rather than relying on organised meetings and networking events, which meant that when the doors opened for business, they were able to hit the ground running.
“On reflection, being forced to be more proactive was a good thing,” explains Stacey. “One of the big takeaways from that time was there was a lot in the press about how business because of Covid was on its backside. Being in the thrust of that, and being a new start-up, our experience was completely different to what was being reported in the press. It was a really different picture.
“There’s a lot of negatives to come out of the pandemic, and obviously some people had some really sad times and lost family members – and that’s awful. But from a business perspective, the picture painted nationally is that it was the worst thing that has ever happened. Whereas, we can look back now and say it gave us the impetus to work in a different way.”
Wayne Fletcher, Founder and Director of Austin Fletcher, set up his property and construction consultancy in 2019, six months before lockdown, and also believes that flexibility, alongside a willingness to embrace technology played a part in his business’s success through the pandemic, as well as giving them the breathing space to grow at a manageable rate.
Wayne said: “We weathered Covid well, as I’d deliberately designed the business to be flexible: we weren’t stuck in an office 24/7, we utilised Microsoft Teams and Office 365, worked remotely when it made sense and generally fitted things around our clients.
“So, when the lockdown came in, it wasn’t such a shock to the system. We were also lucky in the sense that while construction was impacted, our industry was still able to go to work, so site visits and working remotely just continued for us.
“I spent a lot of time on Teams and Zoom calls for business development, trying to help us grow. For businesses in general this was difficult, but for a new business trying to make new connections and network over video calls, it was particularly challenging.
“But on reflection, Covid may have helped the business. Yes, projects coming through slowed up a little bit, but it meant we didn’t jump into recruiting people earlier than we wanted to. We were able to grow initially at a manageable rate without having to take any rash decisions that might have come back to bite us.
“Plus, it provided the time to get a lot of the processes and administration behind the business in place, which whilst not the glamorous side of running a business, it’s important to be prepared rather than picking it up as you go along.”
Technology and innovation weren’t the only driving forces for successful business in Covid; some people simply used the time to take stock of their life and embark on a passion project that had long been on the backburner.
Former professional former footballer Steve Lenagh joined the Police Force at the end of his sporting career, but right from the start, Steve knew he wasn’t happy in the role. As Covid hit, Steve was still working full time in the Force and tells us that it was this was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in terms of motivating him to work towards setting up his own coaching and training provider, The Curious Northerner.
“I just felt life’s too short for this,” says Steve. “My story is heavily linked to Covid, but in a positive way, because I gave up a life I wasn’t happy in, and started to create one that I really wanted. It was a pivotal moment for me.
“I fell into the police because I didn’t know what else to do, but it was never for me. My home life probably masked the fact that I didn’t like my job. Covid highlighted how much I hated it because there wasn’t anything else.”
Following a stint working with another coaching company, Steve set up The Curious Northerner and now works with individuals on a one-to-one basis, focusing on mindset, confidence and motivation, as well as with teams to maximise performance. As coaching and training could be done online through the pandemic, Steve found himself able to reprioritise his life.
“Covid, bizarrely, ended up being a positive for me. Amongst a really tough time, I was able to establish what was important to me. My wife got diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer right at the start of Covid and that was a massive motivating factor for me to make the switch.
“I was obviously heartbroken, but Covid gave both me and my wife the opportunity to sit back and go, ‘This is horrendous but what are we going to do?’ For me, it was I’m going to quit that job I hate and I’m going to start living. It was so liberating.”
The adversity that all these businesses faced meant that many of them feel much more resilient when faced with the challenges of the current climate.
Ticket’s For Good’s Pippa said: “I think the startup experience through the pandemic has been tough, but it’s also meant that resilience has been baked in from the very beginning.
“Instead of it being about survival, it was about how do we initiate something great in this incredibly difficult climate? That in itself has been a useful experience and exercise for us. Start ups had the opportunity to be innovative, with no more risks than they’re already taking.”
CMP Legal’s Stacey added: “Some of the more established firms, have really had to step back and look at how they deliver services to make themselves resilient, whereas we’ve started up from scratch with resilience in mind.”
Steve from The Curious Northerner commented: “I’d say it didn’t make me more resilient, it highlighted how resilient I am. We tend to worry about insignificant things, but when the s**t really hits the fan, we all step up.”
To find our more about navigating a business through turbulent times, read here.