The spirit of enterprise lives on

1st of October 2020
The spirit of enterprise lives on

Businesses are being brought to their knees amid the most disruptive global emergency in generations. For some, there can be no recovery. But many others are finding ways to get back on their feet when all seemed lost. Hartley Milner talks to three entrepreneurs who rose to the challenge.

As the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine continues apace, it seems we are turning to a more traditional medicine in ever increasing doses to help carry us through these darkest of days…humour.
Not so long ago, I found myself in a supermarket queue socially distanced from a chap with a scarily familiar face. It was none other than Donald Trump!

Yes, Donald John Trump, the 45th president of the United States no less, unmistakable with signature ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball cap and supercilious grin that would bust the smug-o-meter off the scale.

“Good morning Mr Trump, what brings you to these shores?” I ventured politely. “Ooh, I’m over here to inspect progress on my am-aaa-zing new golf complex on a piece of real estate I acquired in the north of England. It’s called York-shire.”

This sent ripples of laughter through the queue, not only in appreciation of the whimsical one-liner but for the mimicry skills of the man behind the Trump mask who delivered it. So it was notsurprising when he revealed himself to be an actor. Nathan Witchell said he made the mask
in his garden workshop from where in saner times he also runs a small prop making business.

Nathan told me that during these past few months it felt as if he was reprising a role he once had in a post-apocalyptic zombie movie when he played a hospital doctor who was ‘turned’. “Fortunately, I have stayed safe and well in this all-too-real pandemic,” he said. “But unfortunately, I have had virtually no work since March, either from acting or from my props business, and only a modest
amount of government grant support to tide me over.”

With a big question mark hanging over the lucrative panto season, Nathan has put his acting career behind him for the time being and tooled up his workshop to make novelty masks, enabling him to bring back two of his three furloughed craftsmen part-time.

Paying the bills

“It’s early days and my website is still under construction, but my range of celebrity masks is already attracting a lot of interest among the performing arts community and by me wearing them when out and about,” he said. “The latter is not likely to lead to huge sales, but it is the most fun because it allows me to put on a bit of a show before an audience, which as an old luvvy is what I enjoy doing more than anything.”

Other victims of Nathan’s lampooning include Boris Johnson, Mr Bean, Mick Jagger, Maggie Thatcher and Madonna, plus he is planning to bring out a range of animal caricatures. The masks have an approved built-in filter system and are made from a moulded lightweight material that can be sanitised between uses and is both recyclable and biodegradable. Despite their high-end pricing, between £15 and £40, Nathan said he sold 97 masks in the first month, mainly on ebay and Amazon.

“I’m not expecting to replicate Trump’s billions, just make enough to pay the bills until the performance industry gets fully back on its feet, whenever that may be,” Nathan said. “Most actors have periods out of work, but this is one ‘rest’ period when I simply cannot afford to sit by the phone waiting for it to ring. I don’t feel I am cashing in on the pandemic, more providing people with much-needed light relief from it. We all need a good laugh now and again.”

Business transformation

Meanwhile, young entrepreneurs Hugo Tilmouth and Charlie Baron were laughing all the way to the bank, to deposit their first million after radically transforming their business when its future was thrown into doubt.

The pair run ChargedUp, a network of smartphone charging stations in public spaces and venues across Europe where people can borrow a portable smartphone charger and drop it back off when they’ve finished using it, rather like bike sharing. The pair were set to roll out 150 mobile charging stations across UK airports, train stations and shopping centres the week lockdown hit.

Hugo said: “Immediately, we were like, how on earth do we keep the company afloat? We spent the entire night going through models and situations, taking the really austere view…what happens if there is no chance of revenue for ChargedUp until 2021? We then asked ourselves, what do we have in our skillset and how do we still support our supply network of shopping centres, pubs and transport hubs to help them operate safely in future?

“Somewhat serendipitously, the mobile stations that sat dormant had been designed specifically for high traffic locations, which spurred Charlie into thinking they could be refined into large capacity affordable hand sanitising bays with minimal investment. While I was number crunching, Charlie had not only seeded the idea with an existing client, but road tested it with a supermarket chain, and almost overnight we firmed up that there was an appetite.

“All in all, we had the idea on a Thursday, a working prototype by Monday. By the following Wednesday, the factory was ready to start production. In that same time, Charlie had already sold 150 units. We even used our network in the on-trade (pubs and bars) to find our first supplier, a gin distillery which had started making sanitisers due to Covid.”

From this agile piece of crisis management, the young tech founders launched their spin-off business CleanedUp, and in less than a week they landed their first contract, with London transport agency TfL. Incredibly, the start-up, born in the midst of the pandemic, turned over £1 million in its first month, providing a vital lifeline for their business and 45 staff. Hugo and Charlie have since sold more than 7,000 hand-sanitising units to what they describe as “dream clients”, including Costa, Crossrail, DHL and recipe box delivery service Hello Fresh.

Lu Li is another young entrepreneur who made a defiant stand against the Covid threat to her business and won. Lu saw her income nosedive after her London-based company, Blooming Founders, was hit by the lockdown restrictions.

Blooming Founders is a business network Lu set up in 2015 to give start-ups run by women a competitive edge in growing their market share, mainly through events held at its London headquarters. But social distancing made the model redundant overnight.

Connecting businesses

“We lost over 80 per cent of our revenues within just two weeks, so I had to come up with new ideas to keep us going and to keep supporting our network of female entrepreneurs,” she said. “I had to completely overhaul our business proposition because everything we did before required people to be in the same space together, whether that was for events or in our co-working space.”

Lu launched a new programme connecting small businesses with university and college students who need to do internships as part of their academic studies. She offered online webinars with a 50 per cent discount to members, but her income was still nowhere near what it was and she realised she needed a new idea.

Excited for the future

She said: “I came up with an internship placement service after seeing how many businesses used the furlough scheme or were forced to lay people off. At the same time, they still needed resources, and in some ways more so than before as many had to shift focus and pivot their businesses, just like I did. Then I heard about students having their summer internships cancelled due to the virus and so they also faced a dilemma.”

Lu knew that start-ups would be struggling to keep going but didn’t have the budget to pay for new resources and that students would be looking for new opportunities as part of their academic requirements. So she put two and two together. Businesses are not required to pay a salary to interns – although they can if they wish – and the students need the credit. “It’s a win-win for both sides,” she said. Within two weeks, she secured partnerships with Hult International Business School and Regent’s University London, and more universities are signing up all the time.

Lu said: “I am now working with over 20 start-ups and small businesses who have agreed to a small one-off placement fee, which is only payable on success and not upfront. This makes it practically risk-free for companies to submit a role and see what comes back. All internships are remote and focused on operational roles such as social media marketing, content, business development, customer support and finance.”

She added: “Higher education is changing rapidly and needs to adapt to the changes in the private sector. With all of these movements happening simultaneously, there are plenty of opportunities to seize, and I’m pretty excited about that.”


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