How to rebuild a business after the coronavirus lockdown

This year, activity in the business world has been frenetic for all the wrong reasons. In March, companies – many already running on razor-thin margins – faced surges of panic and damage limitation as coronavirus caused sector after sector to be shut down.
Few business leaders were prepared. Not Andy Wells, co-founder of team-building company Zing Events, who had just taken on eight new staff as part of the firm’s expansion plans.


“We launched Zing in 2012, but 2020 was meant to be the year of high growth,” he says, “our strategy had been months in the planning”. As Wells put it, the global events industry has been “pole-axed” by enforced isolation.
“Team building is social, interactive and mainly face-to-face. Clients are cancelling or postponing for the foreseeable future,” he explains.
Stories from early-stage companies suffering the worst timing emanate from everywhere. Soter Analytics, a London-based healthtech startup founded in 2015, supplies manual-handling training for workers via wearable AI. The company’s chief executive Matthew Hart suddenly realised his business model didn’t work: “Many firms we supply are considered non-essential, so were forced to close, placing work on hold. Our training is by health and safety managers who travel to sites, and that halted.”
It’s okay to let yourself be upset if you see everything you’ve worked so hard to build facing an existential threat. Suzanne Dibble, a lawyer who specialises in keeping small firms in business, says “We need to grieve for what has been lost, it’s natural and for most owners their work is part of their identity, it can be hard.”


The life raft was a quick and agile pivot, the new normal a prolonged lockdown, and businesses that wanted to survive the spring/summer social distancing season had to adapt – and many did exactly that.
“Pubs, hotels, restaurants, the first hit with closure, are recovering by transforming into takeaways,” said Conor McCarthy, chief executive of Flipdish, an online food ordering system.
“Pivoting a business model and creating a digital offering normally takes weeks,” he says, “to see businesses do it overnight to keep generating revenue is inspiring.”
Flipdish launched out of Dublin in 2015, and is now seizing an unexpected opportunity. After the UK government shut down hospitality in March, it relaxed rules on who could offer a takeaway service. According to McCarthy, 75 per cent of British restaurants weren’t doing take-out before, so needed help. One that took him up on his offer was McMonagles Boat, a fish and chip restaurant docked in the Forth and Clyde canal in the heart of Clydebank.


“Customers who go online to see if the restaurant is still open now find their way straight to our new website and order directly with us,” says Debbie Rose Reilly, its general manager.
“Although we’ve shut the restaurant, takeaway deliveries are through the roof. There’s been so much pressure on the team I was genuinely worried about burnout.”
The alternative to Flipdish’s offer – a website or app, and data to give insights into customer behaviour and potential new sources of revenue – is listing your restaurant on the likes of Just Eat or Uber Eats. McCarthy brands this an unprofitable “quick fix”.
“When the marketing stunts masked as introductory offers end, those sites will likely hike up fees,” says McCarthy. “After spending time, effort and money directing your loyal customers to their platform, they will take a large cut of every order – and all the data.”
Companies McCarthy has spoken with in this sector are optimistic: they believe that if they can keep afloat for the next few weeks, they’ll survive. “Hospitality is a fundamental part of the cultural fabric,” he says. “The public will rush back as soon as they can.”
To avert economic armageddon, the Government unleashed a slew of business support measures: rates holidays on premises; grants for certain sectors; the employee retention scheme to claim 80 per cent of furloughed staff’s monthly salaries (up to £2,500); business interruption loans to make cheap finance available; and now the Treasury has stopped lenders hiking interest rates.
Recession is still likely, and many business owners are reluctant to borrow into an ongoing crisis. Hannah Martin, founder of the Talented Ladies Club (an online community for working mothers) and business mentor for NatWest’s Entrepreneur Accelerator programme, advises looking inward instead.
“Go back to basics,” she says. “Who are your ideal customers, what problem do you solve for them, how has that changed, can you adapt? Approach people, don’t wait for them to update you. Look at what others are doing, in and outside your industry, see if you can get ideas.”
Soter Analytics is switching to supplying now-growing industries – logistics, supermarkets, healthcare – where its data shows a 10-50 per cent increase in hazardous movements in the last fortnight as under pressure key workers risk injury.
“Employers want our wearable tech to make up for shortfalls in their onboarding processes,” says Hart. Soter launched the Clip & Go – a small dongle that attaches to shirts and which, alongside tracking and training workers’ manual labour, can also alert them if they come within two metres of one another, to prevent the coronavirus spreading.
Zing has brought to market three apps to deliver remote team builds, boost morale and focus on wellbeing in lockdown. “Coronavirus will change team building,” says Wells, “our new remote offering lets clients connect local and global teams in minutes.”
Alex Theuma, founder of four-year-old tech conference organiser SaaStock, says the virus exposed a lack of diversity in his business model, when income “jumped off a cliff in March”.
“We had to understand how we could bring our value online, fast. Our response was to launch SaaStock Remote, an online-only conference, and focus 100 per cent on delivery of that in June. Now we have six other killer ideas to move to more of a recurring revenue business.”
Some things will be messy to start with. Dibble recommends reviewing contracts with suppliers to see which could be paused or terminated short-term without penalty.
“On the other hand, check to ensure your clients can’t terminate easily, and consider how you can add more value so yours is the last contract they want to terminate,” she says.
If you’re struggling to manage cashflow, speak to people and be honest, Martin advises: “You’ll find most people are understanding.” And remember, you’re not alone.
“History is full of stories of people who rebuilt lives and businesses after they were razed to the ground,” she says, “and found greater success and happiness from the ashes of what they lost.”
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