The power of a pivot

According to a recent survey by the Enterprise Research Centre, more than two-fifths of UK SMEs have seen sales drop since the start of the pandemic. And around a third have cut jobs. But where there’s crisis, there’s also opportunity. We talk to three small businesses whose big idea, and ability to diversify fast, has allowed them to survive and thrive.

Words / Claire Atherton 

Photo / Leon Chew 

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Jennifer Earle, Chocolate Ecstasy Tours

Before Covid-19, Jen and her team of six self-employed guides ran three to five tours of London’s chocolate boutiques a week. By pivoting to mystery online tastings, she’s managed to keep the business ticking over and now has customers globally.

How did you come up with the idea?

A couple of customers asked me if I could run tours online. The only way I could imagine them being fun was if people had to guess things like the ingredients and the percentage of cocoa. We do that on the in-person tours and people love it.

How do you get custom?

I started by emailing the 3,000 people on my newsletter mailing list. I also invite guest tasters, like Edd Kimber (@TheBoyWhoBakes) and the chocolatier Paul A Young. They’re amazing because they have big followings on social media, which helps me get bookings. December was my best month in three years – I did lots of Christmas parties and people bought gift vouchers to attend future tastings. And I’ve had 80 to 100 people on the last three tastings.

Have you evolved what you do?

Up until Easter 2020, I was liaising with five or six suppliers each month to make sure the filled chocolates all arrived at the same time, then packing and posting them. It was hugely time-consuming. Now, each month one chocolatier makes all six (including some exclusives) and posts them. The next stage is to potentially work with one chocolatier who’s a partner in the business.

What have you learnt from the crisis?

The value of thinking like a startup. We spent over a year developing a previous business before launching it, and it never got momentum. With the virtual tastings, we started with a minimum viable product and refined it as time went on.

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Dot McCarthy, Cronkshaw Fold Farm

For Lancashire hill farmer Dot, what started as a joke – hiring out goats for Zoom calls – has ended up netting more than £50,000 so far. That’s enough to keep her two employees in work while helping her save for a low-carbon future.

How was business before the pandemic?

We want to transition to low-carbon farming and renewable power, but that’s expensive. So five years ago, we started doing accommodation and weddings for extra income. And in autumn 2019, I took on two employees to look after those elements. Then Covid-19 came along and put a big foot in our plans.

How did you come up with the idea of hiring goats out for Zoom calls?

All our bookings had stopped, and we were selling manure faster than I could shovel it. So I posted the idea on the website one evening for a laugh. I hadn’t expected anyone to actually book, but the next day, my employee’s inbox was full of requests. We had to go from a manual booking system to an automated one to deal with the demand.

How do the calls work?

You go to our website, choose a goat from the profiles, book a time and join the call. The goat then appears and asks you how you are in the chat, or tells some goat jokes. More recently, we started offering a ‘goat with a note’, where we write a message on edible paper which the goat eats on the call. We’ve had to rewrite notes because the goats stole them and ate them before the calls even started.

What’s the secret of your success?

There’s no secret, really. We’re only talking about this idea because it worked; I’ve had loads that didn’t. As my granddad would say: “Try lots of things – you’ll never know which work until you try.” I have many other ideas, so watch this space!

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Jose Bort, EventsCase

Previously, all of EventsCase’s business was big in-person events like COP25 in Madrid. But when Covid-19 struck, the London-based tech company quickly adapted its event management platform to support virtual events – and raised £3.5m in funding in the process.

How did you respond to the first lockdown in March 2020?

My first thought was that all in-person events were going to move to Q4 2020 or Q1 2021. And as revenues had already dropped 50% in January, we moved fast to develop a solution to meet that short-term need. But our main assumption was that virtual events would remain after the pandemic to some extent. And hybrid would be the new default format for international events. That meant we needed to have a long-term vision: building a platform valuable for all.

What results has your pivot produced?

We launched the first solution for virtual events in May. Just one month later, sales had recovered and we’d raised £3.5m in investment. We have now access to further funding if we need it. But our goal is to grow organically and not depend on external capital. Compared with previous years, we now run fewer events, but they’re much bigger. Our company is also 35% bigger than before the pandemic. And our business model has changed for good. We now focus on user experience (attendee and organiser) rather than developing more complex features.

What lessons have you learnt from the crisis?

Make the tough decisions very early on, believe in your vision, and have the courage to invest in the new opportunity. 

Can you sum up the secret of your success in one word?

Care. Speaking and listening to our clients from the beginning was the key to offering them what they needed, when they needed it the most.

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