How female-led small businesses can still thrive – from those who’ve done it

open sign, business owner, entrepreneur

The odds may be stacked against them, but that doesn’t mean a female entrepreneur can’t find success in 2020.

Throughout the current global crisis, something has become abundantly clear: that whichever way you look at it, women will statistically come out of this worse off than men. Though less likely to die from COVID-19, 77 per cent of the UK’s frontline workers are female and of the million key workers currently being paid a wage that puts them below the poverty line, 98 per cent are women. According to recent statistics, more than £9.5bn has now been paid out by the government to support over 750,000 businesses, many of which are unable to operate whist the country remains in lockdown. Thanks to the necessary extension of restrictive measures, it is highly likely that a significant proportion of these businesses will have to fold.

Juliet Francis, JFPR, female entrepreneurThe importance of pivoting | Juliet Francis, founder, JFPR

The greatest challenge for many small business owners has been to find a way to ensure their survival once the crisis is over. With huge restrictions on interaction currently in place, they have been forced to rethink. This has involved expanding their offerings and taking their businesses online – something now referred to as ‘pivoting’.

For Juliet Francis, founder of public relations business JFPR, the key was to find ways to ensure the clients who weren’t operating as normal could remain relevant – to both their customers and the media. “Supporting clients through the process of pivoting their messaging and offerings has become a huge part of my day-to-day work now. Through consultation, I have been able to help them stay relevant during this crisis.

“One client, for example, has a very popular aesthetics beauty clinic in Central London which had to close down in accordance with government guidelines, so we decided to focus on a product that is usually only offered to patients for post-treatment care and make it available to the wider population. This has seen huge success in the media and with customers as a standalone consumer product and, in turn, has helped me retain the client.”

As shown by the businesswomen below one of the key elements of setting up a business is learning to mitigate risk and keep the business going, no matter what obstacles appear along the way. Here, these women share their advice on what all female business owners can learn about keeping their businesses afloat even in the most difficult times.

Larysa Kucak, Cushions and Creations, female entrepreneurDon’t overthink it | Larysa Kucak, Founder of Cushions & Creations

For Larysa Kucak, seamstress and owner of Cushions & Creations, the key has been to not paralyse herself into inaction by overthinking – used to completing large orders that were primarily carried out in her studio, once lockdown started, business as usual had to stop. Instead, she decided to make protective masks that would not only provide her a vital stream of income, but would also help with the crisis support efforts too:

“I was struggling with nothing purposeful to do at home, so when my godmother (who is a nurse) said her department were in desperate need of fabric masks, I made her some. It felt great to have a use again, so I kept it going, selling them to the public in order to also raise the funds to keep going for the hospital. This really kicked off far more than I could have ever expected. I quickly updated my new website and set up a web shop to sell the masks. I’ve been keeping my social media channels updated and also, found that spark that I had lost. I have gone from offering a service to products. While I will return to sewing when it is safe to reopen the studio, I like having this shop on the side and will keep it open, broadening the products that I sell.”

Rather than letting the fear of closure stop her, she used it to branch out into an area she had not tried before. The key, she advises, is to not get overwhelmed by the bigger picture: “Don’t let your worries or thoughts stop you. Just try. Start. Go for it.”

AnYes van Rhijn, founder of The Reinvention MentorGet creative | AnYes van Rhijn, founder of The Reinvention Mentor

As the Central London Regional Director of The Athena Network (a Female Business Network for entrepreneurs and business executives)  and founder of The Reinvention Mentor, AnYes van Rhijn was faced with the challenge of bringing all in-person meetings online. Realising that many of the business owners she supported and mentored would be struggling in the crisis, she also made the quick decision to expand the network’s offerings, ensuring members had access to additional trainings and individual mentoring. Going above and beyond, she found, was what particularly stoked members’ loyalty and appreciation:

“Our members, who now more than ever, were in need of support, have been extremely appreciative of our level of adaptability and the fact that we’ve been doing so much more than just bringing our monthly meetings online. This can be seen by the fact that 99% of the memberships that were due for renewal since COVID have indeed been renewed but also by the fact that I have launched (online) a new group and will be launching another one in a few weeks’ time. Having a clear vision, the right mindset and knowing how to stay intentional and focused is what has helped me face my own challenges and support my Athena members in facing theirs.”

For AnYes, this has been an opportunity to hone her creativity skills and she suggests other business owners try to view it as the same: “See it as an opportunity to revisit the personal and business choices you’ve made so far, as well to be creative and step up. From there, create a new vision of what you want your business to look like and take step-by-step action to turn it into reality.”

Lisa O’Shaughnessy, Founder of Always Stylish, female entrepreneurDon’t follow the crowd | Lisa O’Shaughnessy, Founder of Always Stylish

Though it’s tempting to look at what others in your industry are doing and copy what is going well, Lisa O’Shaughnessy advises not to follow the crowds. The founder of Always Stylish – a personal styling company for men and women – Lisa was forced to cancel all orders when COVID-19 hit. Like many, she had to take all her business online, despite it relying heavily on customer experience  – something that initially proved challenging.

“Initially March and the beginning April were almost dormant with only some existing clients happy to transfer to online styling. Now though more existing clients have transferred, and I am also attracting new customers.”

Through the use of blogging, Zoom and uploading helpful videos, Lisa has been able to keep her services relevant and access a new customer base, focusing on working with them to find clothes they really love, rather than shopping mindlessly for fast fashion.

“Play to your strengths. Don’t follow the crowd and look at what you can offer others can’t,” she suggests.

Lucy Huartson, Little City UK, female entrepreneurStay visible and open with customers | Lucy Huartson, founder of Little City UK

Lucy Huartson – founder of children’s mobile roleplay company Little City Chelmsford – the key has been to keep communication going with customers. Though the temptation to save face by pretending everything is fine can be very alluring, she believes it’s much better to be honest with clients about what’s going on as this builds up more trust.

As her business centres on hiring out toys and equipment for parties and events, much of her business dried up when the initial crisis hit. After going back to the drawing board, she realised that, rather than closing, she could offer families struggling to occupy kids stuck at home the opportunity to hire out her products for home use instead. The way she was able to ensure there was a customer base to work with was by keeping them up to date on what her plans were in the initial stages of the lockdown.

“Initially I found myself frustrated that some businesses around me were able to transfer online. I knew this wasn’t an option however as tangibility is at the heart of the Little City experience. I knew that we had to completely pivot the business to be able to stay visible and afloat during this time. After taking some time to reflect and gauge what was safe and acceptable, the idea grew.

“The feedback and take up have been really positive and I’ve definitely developed a resilience that I haven’t tested to this level before.”

Being open about these challenges, Lucy believes, is what kept her customers interested and is something she suggests other business owners don’t shy away from. “It’s ok to be honest on your social media and let your customers see that you’re human and also to keep your business in their minds by posting and doing stories however you can. It’s important then more than ever to stay visible.”

Suzi MitchellSee it for the opportunity it is | Suzi Mitchell, Photographer, suzannemitchell.co.uk

As a photographer and headshot franchise operator, Suzi experienced the same rapid decline of commissions that many business owners did when lockdown was put into place. In order to combat this, she decided to use the time to document the extraordinary events her neighbours were living through by setting up The Lockdown Doorstep Portrait Challenge. Though free of charge, Suzi has encouraged subjects to make a donation to the volunteer group, “Help Lewisham Hospital,” and sells prints to those who want them. She has also been conducting short shoot sessions at a social distance.

This engagement with her local community has even resulted in other commissions and Suzi plans to turn the project into a book once the crisis is over. Speaking about the challenges involved, Suzi believes that our mindset is what often leads to success:

“History tells us that every crisis, no matter how deep, can offer up opportunities. I guess it’s just about opening your mind and thinking positively and creatively about other ways you might be able to operate your business. Perhaps now is the time to put into practice something you may have had on the back burner for a while, something you didn’t have time to fully explore before, something that might have seemed too unconventional in more normal times. Recognise your freedoms in this respect, but realise also that you may not be able to monetise any so-called “pivot” right away, but that it may take time to build.”


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