Saturday Essay: Will The Covid-19 Pandemic Inspire A New Wave Of British Entrepreneurs?
In today's Saturday Essay, Atul Bhakta CEO of One World Express, discusses whether the Covid-19 pandemic will inspire a new wave of entrepreneurs
Creating one’s own business is an ambition shared by many. For some, it is a feeling that grows throughout their professional lives; while for others, it is something they have fantasised about since childhood. Whether the motivation is an incredible new product idea, or the chance to be one’s own boss, the appeal is undeniable.
It will be fascinating, then, to see the effects of COVID-19 on British entrepreneurship. Recent signs have indicated that, for many, the pandemic has actually created a perfect storm to motivate people into finally taking the plunge and venturing out on their own.
This was especially true at the height of lockdown. Research from Startups.co.uk
, for example, shows us that five new UK businesses were being founded every day in April 2020 – a 60% jump on April 2019.
But why exactly is this the case? Where are the greatest businesses opportunities to be found in the COVID-warped world? And what should new entrepreneurs keep in mind when setting up their startup?
The perfect motivation
From what I have seen, there are three key underlying factors that have triggered this new wave of entrepreneurship.
Firstly, the rise in unemployment. As entire industries grinded to a halt, employees and professionals of all stripes suddenly found themselves unemployed as a result of the pandemic. In total, approximately 695,000 British workers have been removed from the payrolls of UK businesses since March 2020. This figure could double, or even triple, in the months ahead.
These mass lay-offs, when coupled with an incredibly competitive job market and few new vacancies opening, likely present the perfect opportunity for budding founders to act on their entrepreneurial ambitions – with little in the way of a career to lose.
Secondly, the shift to homeworking gifted millions of working adults a greater sense of autonomy. Now free from the commute, and with little reason to venture outside of one’s local area, people found that they now had a surprising amount of free time on their hands; time that could be spent on refining one’s business idea, continue work on a side-project, planning out an entirely new career path, or otherwise.
And lastly, the “new normal” gave birth to a still-unquantifiable number of new business opportunities ready to be capitalised on.
"Understanding one’s prospective customers, the wider market context, and the other competitors already active will be invaluable when developing and marketing a new offering."
With harsh social distancing measures and stringent lockdowns, consumers were only able to access the products and services that were either delivered to the door or via virtual means. Thus, the businesses and entrepreneurs that could quickly adapt to the “new normal” were able to quickly carve out a substantial market share, while competitors who had previously relied on customer footfall struggled to pick up the pieces.
It is hard to overstate the colossal impact this shift from the physical world to the digital one has had on businesses globally. Everything about how products were purchased, commercial experiences were enjoyed, and services were consumed moved into a largely virtual landscape. And, much like during the original birth of the internet, those who could best meet consumers’ and businesses’ changing demands could enjoy impressive rates growth in a short period of time.
One positive example is Ashdown Organics. At the start of the pandemic, the work available through Ashdown Organic’s founders’ job as a mountain tour guide quickly dried up. Consequently, after a brief stint as a supermarket delivery driver, he identified the pressing needs of those who now could not access their regular grocery deliveries following the massive uptake in demand.
In response, he founded Ashdown Organics to offer customers easy online access to goods from bakeries, farm shops, and florists; within weeks he was delivering dozens of food boxes to locals.
Gemma Perlin provides another useful example. She had previously worked as a documentary filmmaker but, when the TV industry juddered to a halt during lockdown, she pursued her longstanding goal of becoming a behavioural change coach. With her qualification in Neuro Linguistic Programming; she was able to quickly launch her own website and begin offering her services through online sessions.
Another new-found entrepreneur who effectively used COVID-19 as an opportunity to pursue a business plan that had been on the backburner was David Deanie. After his job as a wedding magician quickly became defunct, with government agencies strictly limiting the number of wedding attendants possible, David and his wife Alice were able to finally launch their own business venture that had been in the works since 2016.
Their product, a collection of puzzles and games called The Box, was perfectly suited for a time when many parents across the world were seeking intellectually stimulating activities to participate in with their now home-bound children. Additionally, their emphasis on donating a Box to a hospital for every consumer purchase massively helped expand their marketing’s reach – as hospitals that were struggling with the weight of COVID-19 showed their thanks to the couple.
These three simple examples exemplify the innovative problem-solving skills of entrepreneurs. Their personality type allows them to identify and seize new opportunities as and when they arise. So, when COVID-19 changed the way our entire society functioned, they were the best-positioned to recognise the new opportunities that emerged.
The need-to-know facts
Having founded several companies, and advised many more, I know that nothing is as informative regarding entrepreneurship than simply learning on the job. Nothing that can be read in a self-help book or managerial guide will compare to honing one’s business skills through direct experience, especially the lessons failures can teach.
Despite this, there are still some key pieces of advice that should hopefully be of help to would-be entrepreneurs. With the COVID-19 situation changing daily, and economic markets still as volatile as they have ever been, prospective founders should seek out as much relevant advice as possible before taking the plunge.
Firstly, studiously research the market you are about to enter; you must ensure your new product or service is a good market fit. Any given individual might believe that their business idea cannot possibly fail, but much effort must be expended to establish whether that is really the case. Understanding one’s prospective customers, the wider market context, and the other competitors already active will be invaluable when developing and marketing a new offering.
With this in mind, that new offering should be kept as simple as possible at first. Guaranteeing that the minimum viable product (MVP) is as refined and full proof as possible should take priority over expanding into new areas or launching any new products or services. Focus on doing one or two things extremely well, gaining a reputation for said product or service, and building a solid customer base. Then, after all this is secured, the already established customer base can be used as a launching pad for the startup’s next exciting idea.
Thirdly, remember to consider the key roles involved in any business that are not customer facing. Specifically, although it is easy to visualise how your marketing or sales operations will function, other areas of the business require equal attention; payment system management, accounting, logistics and technical support are all vitally important to a businesses’ livelihood.
Whether hiring staff to develop said systems, contracting it out to an external partner, or taking it all on oneself, founders must ensure they have these, somewhat unglamorous, processes down before even contemplating launching the business properly.
Additionally, it’s key to remember that flexibility is one of the greatest strengths of any small company. A new founder has the freedom to work from where, with whom, and for how long they work.
This should not be taken for granted. Establishing a productive routine with set work hours will go a long way in ensuring that a startup’s founder is not underworking or overworking themselves.
This flexibility also applies to how your company reacts to the wider world. The sad truth of corporate life is that, the larger any given company is, the more ungainly and encumbered it becomes with bureaucracy and shareholder meddling. A smaller, agile firm on the other hand can quickly pivot or produce savvy marketing depending on what has developed in either their own industry, or the wider media landscape that day; while big companies are bogged down in an endless cycle of internal checks and balances.
Ultimately, while there still remains plenty of challenges for entrepreneurs making their first foray into the world of business, there are also many reasons to be optimistic. Britain has long been renowned for its entrepreneurial spirit, and there has never been a time when consumers are more in need of innovative products and services to help them through trying times.
For this reason, I hugely look forward to seeing what brilliant companies will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.
Atul Bhakta is the CEO of One World Express,
a position he has held for over 20 years. He also holds senior titles for other retail companies, underlining his vast experience and expertise in the world of eCommerce, trade and business management.