Inspiring Women
How To Launch A Small Business In A Recession - From 5 Women Who’ve Done It
Words by GREER MCNALLY
Illustration by MARIA SAGUN
Inspiring Women
How To Launch A Small Business In A Recession - From 5 Women Who’ve Done It
Words by GREER MCNALLY
Illustration by MARIA SAGUN
Five women who beat the odds to launch businesses during times of huge economic upheaval share their stories and - most crucially - their hard-earned advice.

You'd have to be crazy to launch a business during a global recession, right? Wrong.

The reality of our current economic predicament not only means there are unique opportunities for entrepreneurs right now but also that many people, faced with either redundancy or being part of an industry on pause, will be forced to dig deep and find new ways of creating income.

In fact, according to a recent AllBright survey, while 61% of you are dreaming of a complete career change right now, a staggering 1 in 4 have already put the wheels in motion to launch a new venture. Publishing, fitness and health proved the most popular sectors that hopeful entrepreneurs plan to expand into, whilst recruitment, beauty, and finance followed not far behind. But are the realities of taking the entrepreneurial leap in a time of economic turmoil?

Here, five women who found the chinks of light amongst the gloom share their stories of launching a business in, to say the least, challenging times...

The Recession Veteran

Ali Miles-Jenkins runs BoomBoss® Ltd, helping women to establish expert-based businesses in their 50s. Over time she has built a community of more than 6500 women and this year she gave a TEDx talk entitled The Surprising Truth About Women Over 50. She started her management consultancy business during the recession in 1990 and ran it until 2016.

“Everyone was very surprised when I announced I wanted to be my own boss. People thought I was mad!” she says laughing. “I was 31 and had a 20-month-old daughter and a great career role, but I was determined to have that balance of time, income and location control, so I could have a more flexible lifestyle and spend more time with my daughter.

“I gave my 3 months’ notice, researched like mad, got my ducks in a row and took a huge entrepreneurial leap of faith. It was scary, because I wasn’t from a rich background and my then husband was earning less than me. But I knew if I could make it work in a recession then I would always be able to make it work.  

“Everyone was very surprised when I announced I wanted to be my own boss. People thought I was mad!”
Ali Miles-Jenkins

“My business took off in 1990, but then, when the 2008 recession hit, it was much tougher. During one week I lost 70% of my income.  A lot of my business came from Financial Services Clients, Insurance and Reinsurance Companies, Local Government and the NHS and they literally put training, development and consultancy services at the bottom of their priorities.  So, my bookings were wiped out.  

“What I learned during the two previous recessions and over the 30 years of my journey is that first and foremost you have to hold your nerve and think laterally and creatively without making knee-jerk reactions. I discovered the power of the niche, expert positioning and my personal brand.  I embraced digital marketing when not many were and became of the UK’s first qualified digital coaches.  All this learning encourages a willingness to change and reinvent which is essential to staying current and surviving. I went on to become a business start-up marketing specialist myself, and taught 1000s of others how to do the same.  So, it changed my business. And my life.”

The Early Adopter

Elena Millan is from Seville and lives in Barcelona with her husband and 11-year-old son. When the 2008 recession hit, she was working as a business intelligence assistant for an international online company, specialising in analytics. She was involved in the analytics Twitter community, sharing knowledge and organising events around what was then quite a new discipline. She spotted the knowledge gap in this area and started consulting in her free time. Then, when the company she was working for started to struggle, she left her job and launched The Digital Gig full-time. 

“The main challenge I had to overcome was fear. The recession generated a real feeling of uncertainty that made any career- or money-related decision more difficult and uncomfortable. I worried I was making the wrong decision, leaving a secure position in a company for something that was not as secure (and we had just a baby!). But, to be honest, the situation forced me to overcome my fears, because the company I worked for was not doing well. I had no choice but to be brave and jump into the unknown.

“In the middle of the whole career change, our son was born. This meant awkward working hours balancing the needs of a newborn with my workload and this created certain feelings of guilt as I questioned what kind of mum I was becoming. I remember thinking that every mother is different and there is no good or bad parenting as long as you do your best. That really helped me overcome those feelings. 

"I know there is a real sense of uncertainty at the moment. But in times of change there is opportunity."
Elena Millan

“Since then my consultancy, The Digital Gig, has evolved from one woman doing it all to a strong group of specialist professionals that get together depending on the skills required for each job. Our team is flexible and grows or decreases according to the project and client needs. Our aim is to create the best team to deliver the best service. 

“I know I made some mistakes along the way, mainly because I was trying to follow what was supposed to be "the norm". Now I question everything and don't follow predefined paths just because and I try to be creative when looking to solve any business needs that arise. 

“I know there is a real sense of uncertainty at the moment. But in times of change there is opportunity, and, in my experience, there is no better moment to go for it than when you have spotted an opportunity."

The Side Hustler 

Gemma Champ moved to London 20 years ago, to be a fashion and lifestyle journalist. These days she also copywrites for advertising agencies, DJs and takes printmaking commissions. During lockdown she set up T-shirt brand, New Normal.

“I’m always having business ideas with a fashion edge, but I never have the time to really pursue them. Lockdown changed that in two quite interesting ways. All my work for the next three months fell through, and I couldn’t claim anything from the government, so suddenly I had no money and lots of time. I was spending much of my day on LinkedIn desperately trying to show a good game and chase down work, and the phrase ‘the new normal’ just kept coming up everywhere! It’s the Coronavirus cliché. 

“So, I thought: what is the new normal? What does this new life mean for all of us? The answer was: screens. We were all meeting through Zoom and Teams and Meet, so I thought maybe we could get the small talk out of the way using our clothes. I came up with some tees and sweatshirts that said things like ‘You’re on mute!’ and ‘The cat says hi’ and ‘Hello grandma’. But then all these other lockdown phrases started coming up, so I redesigned it a little bit to go for something punchier but still COVID-related: ‘Does that look like two metres to you?’; ‘Let’s wear masks together’; ‘Meet the new normal. Same as the old normal’. ‘I don’t like sourdough’; ‘Just a human on a bike’, and so on. 

"I knew that coming up with a way to make money without a financial risk was essential for me. I’ve started micro-businesses before, and I’ve always ended up losing what I’ve put in."
Gemma Champ

“I knew that coming up with a way to make money without a financial risk was essential for me. I’ve started micro-businesses before, and I’ve always ended up losing what I’ve put in. Then I discovered Teemill.com, which makes and prints organic T-shirts, sustainably, ethically and, most importantly, on demand. 

“I started with handwritten slogans, but the simple upper-case sans serif font just sells better, so that’s where I’m going now. I learnt quickly to test and learn and change my plans. Agility is so important. If you think you know which of your products is best, but your customers are telling you something different, consider doing some agile prototyping to see what’s hitting the mark.

“When the BLM protests started, I knew I needed to do something beyond just turning up and agreeing, so I did a T-shirt with profits going to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust: ‘Silence is compliance’. And then when the Beirut explosion happened – a place very dear to me ­– I did a T-shirt with profits to Impact Lebanon: ‘Yalla Beirut’. So now I have a section on the site specifically for charity T-shirts, too. 

“I think probably the thing that’s makes it work is that my T-shirts are now more related to the things that are happening in the world – politics and so on – which means I can jump on Twitter and get them out there that way.”

The Lockdown Surprise

Sarah Melvin has been working in the events industry for the last 13 years, specialising in event catering for the last six. She lives with her partner Joe in South East London and runs the artisanal baked-goods business Crumbs, which they started together during the current pandemic, from their home. 

“Without lockdown, Crumbs wouldn't exist,” explains Sarah. “Before Covid-19 I was a freelance event manager at a high-end catering company and Joe was a freelance chef. Unfortunately, coronavirus hit our industry hard. We’d both recently gone freelance, so weren't entitled to furlough pay, or much help from the government. Then, Joe started experimenting with baking – sourdough in particular. It's a skill that a lot of chefs are interested in, but don't have much time to work on. But soon, we couldn't get our hands on any flour in the supermarkets. Joe found a catering supplier, but the minimum spend was £70, so to my dismay he bought three huge bags of 25kg flour. 

“After we'd baked bread for a few family members, we still had so much flour, so we thought we’d try selling a few loaves to the neighbours and locals. We put up a very basic post on the NextDoor app – and the orders started rolling in. The original aim was just to earn back the £70, but it was more popular than we'd anticipated. We realised we could make a go of this properly. So pretty quickly, Crumbs was born!

“As we’re a very new company, we're still learning, changing and evolving every day."
Sarah Melvin

“We actually thought our main challenges would be when lockdown ended, and customers returned to the shops. At the moment, we deliver directly to people’s homes around South East London, as well as to a couple of shops (mainly The Village Greengrocers in Charlton). We were worried that people would no longer be home during the day to accept orders. But actually, a lot of people now work from home, and we have some really loyal customers who still order every week, which is wonderful. 

“As we’re a very new company, we're still learning, changing and evolving every day. We’ve now added more options to our small menu and often have weekly specials. We've also expanded our offer and alongside our artisanal baked goods, we also make delicious chilli oils and sauces, which is an avenue we're keen to explore further.”

For others starting out now, Sarah says it’s important to know what you can afford. “We started slowly, only investing in new equipment when we'd had a good week of sales. When your business is quite unpredictable (and a lot are at the moment) it's good just to dip your toe in and see what it's like before splashing out on expensive things you might not even need. And we've had to increase our prices a little bit. We felt for all the work they were priced a bit low.

And her last word? Be confident. “I definitely have doubt in my head more than Joe does, and I think this is often a difference between men and women. But aim high, have faith in yourself and your skills and you’ll go far.”

The Community Connector

Himani Tiwary grew up in a small town in India. She dreamed of being a dancer but found her true passion actually lay in electronical engineering. She moved to London in 2005 to do her MBA and started her first business, digital product consultancy, Product Hub Hob, with her husband in 2013. Off the back of its success, they then founded training and coaching academy Digital Skills Mastery in 2018. She is now in the final stages of launching their new business Local Supplies.com.

“At the start of the pandemic, I remember sitting at my kitchen table trying to figure out how to get kitchen and garden supplies delivered to my home. Items that would have taken days before, now had weeks-long delivery times. Then, the stories about the garden centres closing and flowers being thrown away made the papers. It was heart-breaking. While there was nothing I could do physically, I knew if I thought creatively, I might find a way to help. 

“I realised an online marketplace for local shop owners might be the answer. The idea was to create a thriving local economy powered by an online marketplace platform, helping those residents who weren’t comfortable leaving their homes to shop and at the same time increasing the reach of small businesses. We just needed a name and we settled on Local Supplies – simple and direct. 

“My first challenge was funding. I needed the money fast because I wanted to create my product in four months not a year. A loan was out; it would come with a high interest rate and take months to sign the idea off. I knew I could ask friends and family but didn’t think that was the right considering the current job climate. Then, I looked at potentially borrowing from my other businesses, but again didn’t want to put pressure on their cashflow. 

"As entrepreneurs, we have to believe in our ideas first and rely on our ability to do the research before going out into the world to validate the concept."
Himani Tiwary

“At any other time, I would have networked with angel investors but understandably people aren’t funding new projects at the moment. I realised that outsourcing the build to a third-party supplier would keep overheads down. So, I applied for the government’s bounce-back loan and got started.

“My other challenge was helping others adapt to the idea. A lot of the very small businesses we encountered had never thought about using e-com as a revenue stream. They believed that serving their customers face to face was what brought them closer to their community. They didn’t want that to change, but they also needed to become more robust in case of a second (or third) lockdown. 

“Four months of late nights and early mornings later and www.localsupplies.com is ready to launch this September. Starting the site has presented its challenges, but I believed my business idea was worth it, and that propelled me forward. As entrepreneurs, we have to believe in our ideas first and rely on our ability to do the research before going out into the world to validate the concept. For far too long, I waited for someone else to confirm that it was ok for me to take the risk, go forward and convert my idea into something real. Self-reliance for me means having the courage to take a chance, putting faith in my ability and above all, believing in myself.”

Join The Digital Sisterhood

We have launched the Digital Sisterhood to provide women everywhere with the community and support they need at the moment. Be that a safe space to ask questions – and receive honest answers – or somewhere to find a digital event that will offer you the information, or perhaps the encouragement, you need to get you through the coming days and weeks. We’re here for you, so please do head to digital.allbrightcollective.com to claim your 14 day free trial and join our community.

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Join AllBright Digital And Connect To A Network Of Incredible Women
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Join AllBright Digital And Connect To A Network Of Incredible Women
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