Meet the post-pandemic founder: The kitchen table CEO
- Credit: Archant/Getty
The pandemic has seen record numbers of people go it alone as their own boss, but it’s not easy. Eleanor Pringle and Angus Williams investigate what makes a recipe for success
There have never been more people sweeping their crockery aside and setting up shop in their kitchens.
In a year where businesses could provide no certainty to staff, individuals increasingly relied on their own ingenuity to finance themselves through the pandemic.
The result was a boom in business creations, with the first quarter of 2021 seeing the highest levels of businesses registered in five years.
Nationally, more than 136,700 new companies were registered.
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Likewise in East Anglia, latest figures show a similar spike in registrations – totalling 11,860 in the first three months of the year.
But for every entrepreneur with dreams of making it big there is one that fails.
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In fact an estimated 42pc of start-ups fail within the first year of launch, before they had a pandemic to contend with.
As a result business closures were higher in Q1 2021 than in Q1 of 2017, 2018 and 2019.
So with the odds stacked against them, how can founders hope to succeed?
The key, said Norwich-based entrepreneur Leon Davies, is to fight the fear.
Mr Davies is no stranger to launching his own brands, having successfully built and sold a green taxi firm before founding a sustainability consultancy in lockdown.
He said: “The biggest challenge I always had was fear of failure. You wonder if you’re good enough, if the competition is better, so you lower your prices and feed the fear.
“You have to go all in. If you have a good product you have to back yourself and charge more than your competition – if what you’re doing is worth it.
“A lot of people will be looking at their peers after this pandemic working flexibly or freelance and wanting to try working for themselves. I’d say you’ll never know unless you try and if you’ve got that hankering then you should follow it.”
And being so driven, especially in a year with few distractions, can come at a price, Mr Davies warned.
“I have to pay someone to tell me to stop working. I have a coach who tells me to shut down my laptop and go and enjoy my evenings and weekends, otherwise it’s impossible to put your work down,” he said.
“Before you start a business I’d advise writing down what means the most: spending time with your family, on yourself, your hobbies, so you don’t lose sight of them.”
But he had one absolute no-go policy for founders: “Never ask your family for advice.”
He said: “I’ve launched a couple of businesses and learned early on never to ask my family what they thought. That’s not because I didn’t want to hear it but because they believed in me too and told me what I’d want to hear.
“You’re far better asking people in the street – asking people on social media, peers or colleagues what they think because they’ll give you a straight answer.”
Hermione Way, chief marketing officer at Innovation Labs Stowmarket, agreed that internal motivation is essential: “I think everything has got to start with a passion – or an itch you’ve got to scratch in terms of the problem you want to solve.
“Because starting your own business is so difficult, if you don’t have the passion you’ll stop after the first few hurdles come up.
“Most of the great tech companies in the world were not started for money, they were started to solve a problem and then they built a business model around having solved that problem.”
Mrs Way said it was important for young businesses to know their worth.
“I’ve seen a lot of young start-ups, trying to give away too much equity too early on,” she said. “If they’re getting a seed investor, I’d probably be only looking to give away between 5-10pc.
“I’ve seen some early-stage start-ups give 40pc away, and that’s nearly half of their business.”
As well as helping to start the Innovation Labs business hub in Stowmarket, Mrs Way has founded several other businesses. These ranged from a citizen journalism website to an adult toy company, and she has worked for prominent start-ups, including Tinder and Sportside.
“Most start-ups don’t even get one customer,” she said. “Your first one or two customers is just proof that there is a market and you should keep on going.
“It’s baby steps, but they can mean big things.”
But for some businesses things can happen quickly. Philippa Main started Three Sister Farm, a Great Dunmow-based boutique selling dried flowers and homewares, in July 2020. Within two months she had moved from working out of her living room to a commercial unit. And after her first full year of trading she has turned over £350,000 and now employs seven staff.
“I thought I was business ready – 15 years’ experience of banking in the city had given me a tremendous amount of transferrable skills and insights into what it is like to run a business,” she said. “However, you can never be prepared as each journey is so different.
“To go from zero to £350,000 in a year was an intense journey. The growth has been very fast and as such I have had to learn a lot, make decisions quickly and adapt as and when things change.”
Fellow Norwich founder Sinead Birmingham launched freelance collective Kick Off a matter of months ago, with creatives working from their homes across Norwich. Unlike Mr Davies, she has a team to work alongside, providing a confidence boost: “I feel nervous but excited, I have a good network personally and professionally, so a lot of having the confidence to do this is down to them being so supportive.
“The other creatives and myself have a huge amount of collective experience behind us, so we feel very confident.”
But individuals do not necessarily need to have the archetypal entrepreneurial personality to build a business, said Cassandra Andrews.
The professional motivator explained: “Personalities are somewhat fixed – they’re built and developed from a foundation in childhood. But motivators absolutely change, and I’ve seen that to staggering extents during and after lockdown.
“For example bosses who used to be really motivated by control now aren’t because they realised during the pandemic they simply couldn’t be over people’s shoulder. The pandemic has absolutely created an environment for a new breed of solo-preneur.”
She went on: “I would say the key things founders really need is that drive to work for themselves. I know having done it myself a big motivator for me was having control over what I earned each month and being able to influence that – but for others it may be time or flexibility or level of detail.
“Something which I think a lot of founders fall into the pitfall of is getting hung up on the details. I quite frequently say to people: ‘are you building an Aston Martin or a Ford?’ because if their client’s asking for a Ford then they don’t need to get tied down into that level of detail.”