Three entrepreneur CAs reflect on their pandemic learnings
Running your own business in the pandemic brought extraordinary challenges – but also invaluable lessons. We talk to three entrepreneur CAs who have not only survived but thrived over the past two years
The value of creativity
Diana Muendo CA founded her art studio MYO with her husband (and fellow accountant) Sam in 2017. Creativity, humility and accountancy skills helped pull the business through the pandemic...
In Mombasa, where I grew up, there’s a saying: “every Kenyan has a side hustle”. You could say I’m imbued with that entrepreneurial spirit. By day, I’m Senior Consultant at Baringa Partners, working with everybody from Sainsbury’s to Ella’s Kitchen. Weekends and nights, I run MYO (Make Your Own) with my husband Sam, a London art studio where I could be leading workshops in “boob pottery” – making body-positive bosoms from clay – one evening or plant-pot painting the next.
Consultancy and craft – they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. One thing I love about accountancy is there’s always a story behind the numbers. Being creative makes you a better businessperson. Leaders tend to have self-doubt, but creativity takes you outside your comfort zone. If you create something from nothing, even a mug from clay, it’s empowering. You think: “I’ve just achieved this. What else can I do?”
I summoned this confidence when launching MYO with Sam, who is also an accountant, in 2017. We had a dream about running a business, and found ourselves teaching crafts in a rented studio space after work, despite having no professional experience. Initially, we picked up skills from YouTube! At that time, my day-job was advising early-stage entrepreneurs at Virgin StartUp. From them I learned there’s always an element of winging it and being brave if you want success.
I also discovered that as a leader, you can’t be above anything. My spare time in those early days was spent flyposting MYO adverts across London. It was humbling, but it paid off. News about MYO spread like wildfire: we were hosting corporate team-building events for ITV, Google and LinkedIn, as well as hen parties, baby showers… you name it.
The pandemic was tough. We shut down MYO’s studio, furloughed staff and had to figure a way to keep our physical business running. But another benefit of creativity for leaders is that it helps you connect seemingly unconnected things, which improves problem-solving. MYO cobbled together at-home crafting kits. We initially sent out 10. Before long, that increased to 20, then 300. We ran virtual classes. It proved to be the embodiment of Simon Sinek’s “finding opportunities in crisis” theory: instead of teaching 50 people in our studios, we were teaching 100 virtually.
The pain over Black Lives Matter also inspired me to write and publish a children’s book, Big Hair Parade, about a child loving her afro hair. I now do school readings too.
Whether it’s penning kids’ literature or painting watercolours, creativity gives you space and enhances wellbeing. As a leader it is important to give yourself a mental pause, a creative break, as it leads to more clarity and make better decision making. Being creative helps me balance two jobs. MYO’s studio is fully booked up for summer 2022 and we’re doing festivals too. Do something creative, give yourself that mental break, and you’ll find motivating your team and finding solutions become much easier.
The power of positivity
Josh Harris CA built his document template prototype in his childhood bedroom – three years and a pandemic later, he’s still thriving
The idea for Doc2 came about when I was working in the corporate tax team at EY. While doing manual contract work I spotted an opportunity to automate what is a relatively repetitive task. So after handing in my notice in early 2019, my brother and I began building a prototype programme in my childhood bedroom, creating a platform that would enable businesses to automate the creation of their contracts from their standard templates without manually editing everything, but by just answering a few simple questions.
People told me it was risky, but my mindset was the complete opposite. I’d always wanted to run my own business and I was finally doing it, so I wasn’t scared. I’d saved up enough to give me at least a year of funding and I knew the CA meant I had this fantastic qualification to fall back on if it didn’t work.
I’ve brought a few things I learnt from the corporate world to my business. One thing people rate us highly for is the quality of customer support – something instilled in me at EY. Likewise, EY was so pedantic with documents, which I hated at the time because it took so long to do contracts, but in the end, they were always of a really good quality.
We started building Doc2’s customer base by scrolling through the internet, talking to people and learning how to do sales. With a very early product, we relatively quickly got our first five paying clients – the first being a web design agency in Edinburgh. We had very few expenses – in the early days, our biggest cost was a team curry. After securing five clients, we realised we had a proven product, so we decided to go out and raise some money to speed up growth.
Having my qualification helped when speaking with investors. I always started off my pitch with: “I’m Josh Harris, I’m a qualified chartered accountant working at EY.” That helped build trust, which is important as, ultimately, angel investors are looking for people they can rely on.
We raised our first angel investor round in November 2019 and held an investor party in January 2020. We were full of excitement and energy. And then, in March, the pandemic hit. There were two or three weeks where everything just stopped in time. That would’ve been scary for a lot of people, but for me… I’d literally given up everything!
After the initial shock, I remained relatively calm throughout the pandemic and, slowly, everything started to pick up. We found that while businesses had closed their wallets, there was still the need for contracts to be signed – and not in person. A lot of B2B businesses needed the ability to get contracts signed remotely and, thankfully, that was one of our offerings. Our main offering was contract automation, but as they came as a pair, this enables businesses to be more efficient and cut costs.
Over the past two years we’ve been improving the product constantly. Now that’s it’s almost running itself, I can rely purely on business growth, bigger customers and networking within our industry.
During my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve learnt that you have to be constantly overoptimistic. I look back at my original projections and we’re nowhere near those figures. But I’m not disheartened. While building a start-up, there are so many unexpected challenges. You have to learn to sort them really quickly and hold on to that constant optimism to keep going and push through.
Food for thought
Chris Miller CA was preparing to turbocharge growth of his restaurant business when the pandemic shut him down. So he picked himself up and carried on…
In January 2020, I spent a week at a business retreat, planning how I would grow White Rabbit to a £100m-plus company. Then Covid happened. Turnover fell to zero. But everything I’d been working towards meant I was mentally prepared.
My background is in corporate finance – I did my CA at EY, then moved into private equity. I was involved in a large fund-raise for Soho House, which led to me being Commercial Director for Soho House Group. In 2016, I set up White Rabbit as a hospitality development platform – which is like a tech incubator but for hospitality. We invest capital alongside our in-house support platform of operations, HR, marketing, finance, creative and culinary. We find creative chefs or concepts, as well as building them in-house, to then develop and grow around the world. We’ve gone from our first site in 2016 to 51 now across England, Scotland, France and Japan, and soon Ireland, Holland and Switzerland.
At the start of the pandemic, the immediate focus was looking after the team. Then it was asking where we could create value. This meant a colossal effort to rapidly develop each area of the business. We built online delivery platforms, dark kitchens, retail offers, more efficient processes and reviewed every line item to minimise costs. We knew people would always want to eat, drink and socialise and, with the decimation of the pandemic, there would be great opportunities coming out of it.
Many of the most valuable companies are built during downturns. Facing cataclysm in the industry, the belief was that there would be a shift to quality offerings. So once the business stabilised, we rolled the dice on growth. We opened 25 restaurants while the industry was still in a holding pattern. It was a high-risk strategy that is now starting to pay off. We are forecasting £30m turnover this year. To be in a growth phase again is incredibly exciting.
We survived though the efforts of a close, focused team who believe in our vision. When we had no income and were facing millions in losses, people across the business said, “Pay me whatever you can afford”. That’s incredibly humbling as a founder.
It would’ve been easy to panic. While a lot of people were unable to work, I and many of the team worked harder than ever. I knew my decisions would affect hundreds of jobs. Any kind of social life went on hold. Everything was focused on survival. I am incredibly lucky compared with the many people who lost businesses. I love what I do – it’s exciting and rewarding – but I wouldn’t wish such stress on my worst enemies!
The challenge isn’t over. In hospitality there is always another disaster to face. Staffing is now the biggest issue. Post-Brexit and Covid many of the best hospitality staff returned to Europe and haven’t come back. We have grand growth plans, but we need the people to make that happen, so a huge part of our strategy is making hospitality an exciting industry to work in, with fulfilling roles with high growth and development potential. Our model is such that people can progress from working as a back-of-house in a tiny poké restaurant to becoming a sous chef at a luxury restaurant overlooking the 18th hole at St Andrews. Providing those opportunities is very rewarding to me.
Then there’s inflation. I’ve never seen anything like it. We are doing what we can to avoid just pulling the lever on price. I challenged the team to look at every line item before price. You need to be value for money – especially going into a recession.
Through all this, I’ve made a big effort to stay healthy through nutrition, the gym, walks, body tracking with an Oura ring and lots of audiobooks. One book I found very helpful was Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. It’s about getting through difficult times and how when you think you are at your absolute max, you’re only tapping into about 40% of your capabilities. Reading about other founders’ roller-coaster experiences helps to normalise the experience and inspire me to continue the journey.