Fleur Emery is a startup expert and the founder of online co-working space REALWORK.
My friends can be divided into three pandemic ‘types’. Either they bought a puppy, got pregnant or spontaneously launched a business. Which type are you?
I'm not saying you're a cliché – they're all great things to do if you've been trapped indoors for a long time and feel like you need something to happen. They're also all things that might be looking a bit different now that the world is opening up again. One more mouth to cluster feed, one more canine psychologist to pay because your Italian Greyhound doesn't know it's a dog, and one business where explosive growth has stopped – or, let's say, ‘plateaued’.
Of course, I'm talking about myself. I started an online membership business at the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, I had (virtual) queues down the (virtual) street. It felt so affirming that I didn't stop to consider the possibility that people were signing up like there was no tomorrow because it was looking for a minute like there wasn't. To put it in business terminology, I mistook initial traction for product-market fit.
I launched with no plan at all, just a sales page saying ‘buy here’ and a payment link. I hired a team and reverse-engineered a product to fit the needs of the cohort. It sounds sweet, making money from a standing start, but I got carried away. I didn't take into account that, although my idea was bang on (to create community and business content for women that was fun and accessible), other factors had lined up to conspire in my favor. Women were disproportionately affected by lockdown and needed help.
So, maybe my idea was more of a happy accident, and now that we're not locked in, everything doesn't just look different – everything is different. So, here I am, realizing that the work of remaining relevant through this next period is critical not to business growth, but to survival.
For first-timers, this would be moderately to severely anxiety-inducing. But from my school-of-hard-knocks experience of starting companies before the word ‘startup’ was even invented, I know that growing a business is an art and not a science. We collect our favorite data points and make the best calculations we can at the time. The trick is to avoid the Kool-Aid and to keep getting the data about what your customers are saying and doing.
A few months ago, projects like mine (a different kind of pandemic baby) were greeted with cheers and a dash of envy, while the bricks-and-mortar businesses drew a pitying shrug. Now, as I look at my friend, who has had a year at home making banana bread while the government paid the rent on her beauty salons, I'm the one feeling jealous. A real-life business that is steady, with customers on hold for appointments, excited for an opportunity to spaff some of the cash they saved in lockdown, is looking pretty nice right now.
A message notification from the friend I'm talking about just appeared on my phone. ‘Lunch this week?’ she asks cheerfully, free as a bird, because at her end of the market it's business as usual. I try to be happy for her, as I re-approach my business plan.