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A Covid journey: Fighting to keep the lights on

By Paul Rowlett is the founder and CEO of  EverythingBranded.co.uk – a promotional goods and branding company based in Leicester and Las Vegas.

When times are good it can be hard to believe it’ll ever stop. At the beginning of this year our corporate gifts and branding company was on track to hit record sales and achieve all of our yearly targets, but none of us had banked on Covid-19.

As Covid-19 struck and we were all forced into lockdown in March, almost overnight, we were 97% down in sales and left wondering how to scale back our business without destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of people. I called it Armageddon.

Businesses all over the UK were suffering just as we were. In an instant, Covid-19 had stolen our lives; business confidence plummeted and Britain atrophied while grasping to cope with a new world made up of a new language, new behaviour and new rules.

As we all know, the government stepped in with a number of lifelines to support business, and as a result, I believe that nearly three quarters of British employers took advantage of the furlough scheme. In my opinion, this is the thread that the labour market currently hangs on. The sad truth is that around 4,000 businesses went bust between March and April this year, while in the second quarter, economic output shrunk by 20.4%  – the worst quarterly slump on record. As a result, thousands of employees don’t know if they have a job to return to when the furlough scheme finishes on October 31st. We have, it seems, arrived at a level of economic uncertainty that most of us have not experienced in our lifetimes.

If you look at the UK hospitality industry, sales slumped 87% in the second quarter which had a knock-on effect to businesses like ours that rely on the sector for sales. Suddenly, the market had evaporated and trading all but stopped, pushing companies to the edge of breaking point and some beyond. Its cruel fate littered the news.

This time last year things were very different for us at Everything Branded. We were throwing ourselves into training and outreach programmes, partnering with the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy at our local Leicester College to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, opening $1.2m offices in Las Vegas, and I even appeared on Channel 4’s TV series ‘The Secret Teacher ‘ when I went undercover into a school in Hertfordshire to identify and support underperforming students. We were full of hope.

Covid-19 has taught me that things can change in unimaginable ways, and that change cannot be planned for. The reality is that the pandemic has forced business owners to adapt to new conditions or face existential questions over what the business is really there to do; making tough choices and thinking outside of the box has been crucial to survival.

Our Covid journey has been tough, so tough that there were days when it seemed like the lights would go out on my thriving 10 year old business, so tough that I started to vlog if only to vent my frustration. History was in the making and I wanted to leave an ‘uncut’ record of the raw experience, highlight the tough choices we had to make, the sadness and the despair, and then the hope as we found our way and began to pivot out of this chaos to, I hope, live to fight another day. This is what we have learned:

Covid-19 Business Tip #1: Find your pivot point

What problem can you solve for your customers in the new business environment? By looking at what your clients need, you can embrace the current situation and pivot into completely new areas. Stay true to what your business stands for but don’t be afraid to step into new territory.

A wholesaler has to look at what the market demands whether it be a pen, a mug or a bag. Beyond this, diversifying doesn’t just mean what you offer customers but how you do it and to whom you offer the product.

Paul Rowlett
Paul Rowlett

So you might need to change the model for how you deliver your product. Instead of selling 5,000 or 10,000 units of an item, we reduced the minimum quantity to 50 or 100 units to move from an exclusively B2B business to B2C as online purchases began to spike during lockdown.

Reaching out to new markets can be crucial to survival as we found out, and in the new climate we provided much needed products to SME’s and individuals working from home developing new product lines and new income streams. SME’s needed PPE and sanitising products which we urgently sourced from overseas suppliers, while the British workforce, now working from home, needed writing pads, pens and mugs.

Reaching the consumer market went further. With buying habits moving online we launched Everything Printed as a B2C platform where we expanded our offering of personalised gifts to reach new customers capitalising on new sentiment and buying habits.

Look for what you have left to sell, your management team may have expertise which you can start to offer to SMEs in dire need of new growth strategies. Look for opportunities where you can find it and take full advantage of your unique business skills. As digital marketers, we decided to offer our expertise to SME’s enabling them to take advantage of our newly created in house agency that cost effectively utilises clients’ budgets across all paid activity.

Covid-19 Business Tip #2: Communicate with customers

Email marketing and social media activity can be key to a winning strategy but it will be your best friend during Covid-19 conditions. Business tips don’t get much more straightforward than this; let customers know what you are doing in the new environment and do what you can online to keep your customers loyal and engaged. Let’s face it we’ve seen it all, exercise classes online, nail academies hosting webinars, aesthetics clinics hosting online consultations. Keep your customers informed, loyal and engaged.

Covid-19 Business Tip #3: Scale back smartly

Grim realities can force you to make some tough decisions as a business owner. We had no choice but to scale down to a skeleton staff and reduce our staffing number by 75%. UK traffic was down 70%, enquiries down 85% in the UK and 49% in the USA.

This can mean evaluating senior managers and laying off a significant number of people, with the hope that a better situation means you can rehire them. The upshot here is if things go back to normal, staff can return to work.

Covid-19 Business Tip #4: Act quickly and decisively

The longer it takes to act, the more damage your company can suffer. Your offices may have been forced to shut down after lockdown while you’re still contractually obliged to pay rent. This means that swift cost-cutting decisions are vital.

Quick decisions have to be made to save the company or your employees will not have a workplace to return to. In uncertain times, being decisive is a way to take back control of the situation in the hope that you can keep the lights on and your business will live to fight another day.