Chair: Richard Tunstall, University of Leeds
Panel: Rana Harvey, Founder and Managing Director, Monster Group and CEES Enterprise Ambassador
Dr James Gupta, Founder and CEO Synap and CEES Enterprise Ambassador
Simon King-Cline, Founder Aspect Communications Ltd
Facilitator: Alex Kevill, University of Leeds
The Covid-19 Pandemic has had enormous impact on many areas of life. The unprecedented experience of lockdown, and non-essential businesses being forced to close, caused a massive shockwave through business markets throughout the UK and beyond. Essential businesses that could remain open had to introduce social distancing measures that included ensuring distancing between both customers and staff. Queue control and restricting the number of customers inside premises, as well as providing hand sanitizing stations and signage added to costs and businesses were forced to act quickly to ensure that they complied with the emergency legislation.
The final enterprise panel of the academic year looked at three SME’s that had to act quickly to keep their businesses afloat during this turbulent period.
Our panelists briefly introduced themselves;
Rana Harvey: founder and MD of online retail business Monster Group based in York. Supplying a wide variety of products from catering and retail equipment to gardening supplies.
Dr James Gupta: a medic who studied at the University of Leeds, started Synap, a business with a fellow medical student. They developed an app to help make revision more interesting, using short bursts of questions to aid revision for medical students.
Simon King-Cline: a serial entrepreneur and Founder of Aspect Ltd, a creative communications business specialising in large scale events organization. Simon also runs a residential lettings business, and a further business, www.theupside.biz which inspires young people in schools and universities to be entrepreneurial.
Dr Richard Tunstall asked the panelists to look back at the last 12 months since lockdown started, and describe how their businesses were affected in the early days.
- Rana said that orders increased massively in the area of garden furniture. So much so that they didn’t have enough staff to process all the orders, their infrastructure couldn’t cope and they couldn’t react quickly enough. Their customer service levels dropped. Rana said that they had spent years building up a great customer services satisfaction level and that reputation was damaged in a couple of weeks.
- Simon, whose business was in large events management, said that the lockdown was a disaster for Aspect Ltd. They had previously had a good year financially, and had forecast another good year for 2020. Lockdown was enforced and within 2 weeks, 100% of their face to face events business had been cancelled.
- James said that as their business was already digital, they just moved to fully remote working. They now have a technical focus team fully based externally, this means they can use specialists in their areas of expertise as and when they need to.
- Synap realised that students didn’t want to pay to use their app, they wanted it for free, and so started to look at selling to colleges and universities. They have expanded their business to add-ons such as taxi-driver regulation tests or working with tutoring companies. Customers who previously thought that remote learning and exams would be a ‘nice to have’ option, suddenly realised it was essential so the business has grown quickly. However, they have decided to focus on the area for which they are best known, which is multiple choice and grow that.
How did you respond to these challenges?
- Rana commented, “At The Monster Group we were lucky that our business wasn’t reliant on just one line. Customers were at home, enjoying the sunshine, with spare money from being furloughed, and having nowhere to go out and spend it. The garden furniture side of the business was the area that went through the roof, so we concentrated on buying as much stock as possible as we already had suppliers of those goods. However as the number of sales increased from around 250 per week, to over 850 per day, the business simply couldn’t cope. We even put the prices up to try and reduce demand!”
Outsourcing was key to being able to get on top of this – computer inputting was outsourced to a company overseas. This took a lot of pressure off the team. Automation was also a high priority, anything that could be outsourced or automated, we did it.
- Simon said that they had to take drastic action and quickly. The business was experienced in digital and virtual events. Within a week, the business had decided to pivot fully into digital events organisation. Staff were furloughed, some redundancies were made and new digitally experienced staff recruited. By week three, the business had pivoted from face to face, fully into online. They launched themselves as a digital events company.
Richard Tunstall asked how the stakeholders/customers responded to the changes the businesses made?
- Rana said that they had to deal with customer complaints due to the delay in timescales, they needed to recruit more staff to deal with this, but struggled to do this quickly enough.
- Simon revealed that their customers ‘went very quiet’ at first. They were seemingly in shock at the huge changes that were going to have to be made to their plans. Slowly but surely though, the business pitched the benefits and opportunities on hosting remote/online events and after some hesitation, gradually bookings picked up. Once a customer had experienced hosting a virtual event, they realised the advantages by saving travel time, travel expenses etc and recognised that they could reach far more people by holding their events online. By the time their competitors had caught up, Aspect had established itself as an experienced virtual events business.
- Things were also changing in Synap. James reported that they had to pitch to colleges and universities to subscribe to their apps, and buy them in for their students to use. They have moved into providing online exams and tutoring rather than only revision aids for students. Again, Synap benefited from the fact they were already a digital company.
Dr Tunstall asked the entrepreneurs what they had learned from the last 12 months, what changes they would be keeping and what’s the next steps for their businesses.
- Rana feels that they have had a massive learning experience – automation, outsourcing and regularly reviewing prices are here to stay. She also enjoys the benefits of meeting potential suppliers online. There’s no travel time, and she can specify a meeting length time before the meeting. So no lengthy meetings with sales people.
- Simon feels that there’s no going back – digital is the future and face to face is over. They took a huge risk in re-inventing the business, but it paid back. Having a clear strategy and sticking to it was essential. “We moved fast, and stayed close to our customers.”
- All three panelists agreed that the importance of teamwork has been key to getting through this period of massive change. Having a clear strategy and policies in place have ensured that people are treated fairly. Staff appreciate being able to work more flexibly, and customers benefit from more focused time at meetings as there is less time taken up with travelling.
How did you ensure staff co-operation and keep them motivated/resilient?
- Regular team meetings – daily at first as things were changing so quickly. Staff said that they were better informed than when working in the office!
- Treated staff fairly and with integrity
- Share successes and problems – so staff felt involved even though they were working remotely
- Posted gifts such as cupcakes or vouchers for Just Eat/Amazon video – this kept a chemistry and physicality between the team
- The Monster Group had a MAP group ‘Monster Ambition and Progression’ to recognise the contribution of staff to the success of the business
- Synap offered their staff more flexibility in their working patterns, and if someone was struggling, they were offered a project to work on to give them a focus, working on the theory that being innovative helps motivattion
Do you think you will keep working online ‘after covid’?
- Simon said that they are already looking at their next pivot – working in a hybrid fashion of some face to face and some online events
- Also looking at how to sell their services online more in the future
- Rana and James’ businesses were already online, so James said that they are looking at developing a software/service company and looking at expanding overseas. Screen sharing and giving users more involvement in the app is another possibility
- Rana felt that doing business face to face is more powerful – there has been less efficiency with staff working from home.
How do you see the future of your businesses?
- Rana Harvey – There’s only one certainty – that nothing is certain! But entrepreneurs are naturally positive, creative and think anything is possible – so we will come out of this stronger.
- James Gupta – the last 12 months have given the company confidence to focus on one area of the market. They will introduce a suite of products around that.
- Simon King-Cline – Had forgotten how much he enjoyed setting up a new enterprise and dealing with the fast changes and challenges. This has been a motivator to carry on with re-invention!
We hope that our enterprising students enjoyed the panel and the sometimes unexpected results of the pandemic on our entrepreneurs’ businesses. If you are interested in finding out more about enterprise and entrepreneurship studies at The University of Leeds, visit our website cees.leeds.ac.uk.
Written by N Jackson on behalf of the Centre of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies. No material may be altered to any degree without the University’s written consent. In accessing the University of Leeds websites you are agreeing to download the content for your own personal and non-commercial use.