What We Learnt From Starting a Business on a Shoestring During the Lockdown
In late March, my partner and I were visiting potential sites for a cafe. “We can fit 20 people in here, at a squeeze” he said, as we stood in one tiny cafe in Notting Hill, looking around at the blank walls.
Later that evening, we had a meeting about our small business loan. I was apprehensive about borrowing so much money. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) model had been drilled into me as the only way to start a business.
But I went along with it, knowing the drill: cafe first, to establish a brand, name and customer-base. Then start building the e-commerce model. A model which, on its own, can easily disappear into the internet ether.
I knew the plan.
And then I didn’t.
Because, four days later, the UK went into lockdown. Cafes, as well as shops, pubs and restaurants, were closed for the foreseeable future. And, when they did reopen, chances were that “at a squeeze” would no longer be good enough.
It seemed like a disaster.
And then it didn’t.
Because now we’ve launched our very own business, an online ethical tea and wellness shop called NUDITEA. All for less money than our initial logo design quote.
So if you’ve ever wondered about opening your own business, then this article is for you. Read on to find out what we learnt from starting a business on a shoestring during the lockdown.
1. Identify your side skills
“How to” business manuals teach you to identify your strengths and work with them. In our experience, it’s just as important to identify your side strengths. These are the strengths that you don’t quite have — yet. But which would be relatively easy for you to pick up. Like how it’s easier to learn Spanish if you have already studied French.
For us, this goes back to the logo design. We couldn’t afford the agency’s fees, but we couldn’t launch without a logo either. So I asked my partner whether he’d have a go at designing our logo instead.
He had no experience whatsoever in this. But, two days later, we had a logo — something even better than we had imagined. All because he played to his side strengths. He’s a scientist by training, so logo design is a far cry from his actual skill set. But, his background had made him familiar with the beauty of geometric shapes, while his inherent perfectionism meant that he could get into the nitty gritty of logo design in a way that I never could.
2. Use the Disney model
Walt Disney had a great model for creativity, which I’ve already written about here. In short, Disney said that you should keep your inner critic out of the brainstorming sessions. And this, in our experience, is as true for business as it was for cartoons.
Our advice is this: identify what you want your business to be, look and feel like. Write it all down, talk it through with a business partner, if you have one. But don’t criticise or reality check it yet. Some of our best ideas came in these initial brain storming sessions. And while a few of them didn’t ultimately survive the “reality test”, had we started criticising at the brainstorming stage, we would definitely have frightened the muse away altogether.
3. Avoid showing people your first draft
Once you have your idea, you’ll probably want to tell absolutely everyone about it. This is understandable excitement, and we definitely felt it too. But we’d also advise against it.
Writer Terry Pratchett’s words ring true here: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story”. He cautions writers against sharing their first drafts too early, because while the story might exist fully formed in your head, the awkwardness of a first draft is all others will be able to see.
In this sense, starting a business from scratch is a bit like creating a building. You might be able to see how it will look eventually — all the different rooms, the plush carpets, painted walls and ceiling lights — but all anyone else sees right now is the scaffolding. It’s best to keep others away from the dust and frustrations of a building site — or business draft.
4. Only listen to the right advice
People will be generous with their advice. But it is up to you to decide which advice to take, and which to simply thank the person for, and move on from.
There are three things to consider when making this decision. The first is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the study where scientists discovered that people who know less about a subject are often more vocal about it than people who know more. Learning to tell the difference between knowledge and confidence is a great skill in life and business alike.
The second is a question of target audience. It’s very well taking on Uncle Fred’s well-meaning advice, but not very useful if Uncle Fred isn’t the target audience for your new smoothie bar. So instead ask yourself: “Is this person my target audience?”
The third question we learnt to ask ourselves was: “What is this person’s own approach to risk?”. Often, people speak out of their own fear, long before they share any wisdom. Becoming aware of when this is happening allows you to filter their advice for fear, and only take on the wisdom.
5. Leave corporate time behind
My partner and I both come from corporate backgrounds — him, a big pharma company and me, a law firm. We were familiar with the grind. We were also familiar with the concept of startup hours — relentless work and little sleep. We were less familiar with the idea of small business time (SBT).
SBT is the opposite of a Bullshit Job. It’s all about learning the difference between things that need to be done, and things that are created to fill the time. It’s about learning to relax during the down periods, and conserve your energy for when the crunch time comes.
In the week before the launch, we had everything ready at our end. But were waiting on our suppliers, who were waiting on their suppliers, for some small but essential bits. Now, we could have made up tasks for us to do. In a small business, there’s always more to be done. More Instagram posts to share, more marketing to do. But instead we went camping for a night. And, given how busy we’ve been this week, we’re so grateful that we did.
6. Don’t set a launch date too soon
It’s hard to control other people’s timelines. Unlike a corporate organisation, there’s no overarching authority keeping everyone to their promised deadlines.
Our initial launch date was meant to be mid-May. Luckily, we didn’t share this with anyone, as our actual launch happened over a month later.
It’s hard to predict timelines, and any hype that you build up around the launch is likely to fizzle out pretty quickly without the accompanying product. So, our advice would be to only set a launch date, and start building up to it, when you actually have the finished product in hand and can physically start fulfilling orders. In our experience, this is a good guideline, whether you’re selling a physical product or not.
7. Do things differently
If you’re starting your own business, chances are there’s some part of you that was unfulfilled in your previous job.
So our advice is to identify what that was, and do it differently this time. After all, one of the best bits of starting your own business, is the ability to determine your own business’s new culture. For us, it was all about creating an ethical business. The idea of our hidden mission being “how little can we give people and how much can we squeeze out of them?” was completely antithetical to everything that we believe in.
So our goal was to focus on what we can give people, rather than what we take from them. This underlies everything that we do, from our compostable packaging to the functional ingredients in our Wellness Range.
8. Work with the new market
In March, we faced a choice. To wait out the new reality, and open a cafe when everything went back to normal. Or to rethink it all, and work with the new reality in mind.
We decided to do the latter, and we’re so glad that we did. Because we would have been waiting a very long time under the first option.
Our key tip would be to acknowledge the key aspects of this new reality — uncertainty, lack of social congregation, increased demand for shopping online — and integrate them into your business model.
We did this in big ways, for instance by working with the e-commerce model, and in small ways too. For example, we arranged with the postal service to print our labels at home ourselves, meaning less time in queues for us, and a quicker and more efficient service for our customers.
9. Reach out to tangential contacts
Luckily, the cafe industry in London is very supportive of one another. Even when we were considering starting a physical shop, other cafe owners were super generous with their time and knowledge.
But some industries still operate under a scarcity mentality, meaning that competitiveness is rife. Our advice, especially in these cases, is to reach out to tangential contacts.
For instance, we’re an online ethical tea and wellness shop. So we’ve been reaching out to our friends who run coffee shops, yoga and wellness blogs, and even companies that make beautiful cups and mugs. We all fit into each other’s business models well, and are able and willing to help each other grow.
10. First impressions matter
A man we once met in France taught us his motto. With everything he did, he strove to “make it beautiful”. This turned out to be a good motto for business too.
Our first orders were from friends and family, and the whole thing was a learning experience. But we still made sure to send things out in the best state possible, with perfectly stamped boxes, hand-written notes and beautiful packets of tea.
By treating every customer, even if they’re a close family member, as important, we’ve built ourselves up to embody quality, high-standards and strong ethics.
So our advice would be, without stressing yourself out too much, to treat every single customer as though they could be your key to “making it”, whatever this means to you. If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that life works in mysterious ways. It’s unpredictable, and there is ultimately little that we can control. But, whatever you can control — make it beautiful.
Sophie Leane is a writer, coach and co-founder of the ethical wellness tea company, NUDITEA (www.nuditea.uk).