Independent Women: The faces of the businesses that are booming in lockdown

Times are tough for us all at the moment. Whether you’ve lost your job, can’t see your family or are on the frontline battling COVID-19, we’ve all got a struggle to face in the light of the virus.

For small businesses, trade has been snatched away by the disease. With some unable to operate from their shops and others ineligible for the government grant for the self-employed, the future is uncertain.

If you’re struggling to find ways to support independent businesses, your UNLOCKED Features team have rounded up their favourites from across the country.

NHS Foundation Trust fitness classes

Lockdown has affected millions of peoples’ livelihoods all over the world, but one woman from Dudley has used her business to make a change for the better.

Michelle Marsh has been a group exercise instructor for the last 21-years, teaching an array of classes from aerobics and aqua fit to yoga and senior conditioning – and on top of that, being a personal trainer and therapist. She’s certainly no stranger to keeping busy. But the COVID-19 pandemic initially had a devastating impact on her work life, when all facilities went into lockdown back in March.

“I cried for two days. I was incredibly upset and initially didn’t know what to do. I had to think of a plan and act quickly as I knew I had lost my job overnight, with no income”. Having a home and two children to provide for was a scary thought, as Michelle’s husband had instantly lost his work too, being a self-employed carpenter and kitchen fitter.

Then, an idea sparked in Michelle’s head: “I posted on my Facebook page over the first week of lockdown that I would be teaching some classes online via Facebook Live if anyone would like to join me. I am not one to sit around and wait”. As the response for the Facebook fitness videos was so positive, Michelle decided to devise a timetable of classes, posting them regularly as she quickly gained a large online following.

“I was completely overwhelmed and so grateful for everyone supporting me and kindly sending me donations for my classes. This has been a huge help and has kept me afloat throughout these difficult circumstances – and will for many more months to come I believe”. Michelle said the feedback has been amazing and she feels that she has a purpose again, which is helping her to thoroughly enjoy teaching classes.

“I feel it has been my motivation to keep strong. Knowing I am helping others and making this lockdown more enjoyable has been positive as well”.

But that’s not all, having heard about Michelle’s online classes, she was approached by Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust who are based in the Dudley and Sandwell district, and work specifically in the frontline of the ‘mental health’ department. They asked if she could deliver a weekly holistic class for the department of over 1000 BCHFT members in the group, including Yoga, Pilates and Relaxation for the benefit of the staff to help them deal with the current situation. This would hopefully benefit those who are bravely dealing with the immense workload and the pressuring impact of working in conditions related to COVID-19.

“I was thrilled to be able to help, and the BCHFT Trust have offered to pay me as they have a budget which is a fabulous help for all of us. I plan to take more of my classes into the community after the pandemic lockdown has been lifted and eased later in the year”.

Michelle now feels that her direction is to support the local people who have helped her through these tough times and give back to the community, rather than the big health and fitness centres to which she has received no communication or support from since the lockdown began.

“There is a positive from all of this and I hope it brings more calmness, pleasure and new friendships to peoples’ lives”.

Words by Zoe Gater

NaturalWorldsBloom Organic and Vegan Skincare

There has never been a better time to start properly taking care of your skin, and this woman from Birmingham has just the thing.

NaturalWorldsBloom is an organic, vegan skin and hair care provider ran by Ilyada Firouzi right from her living room. After starting NaturalWorldsBloom by herself at the age of just 18, Ilyada’s business has blossomed, landing her a spot in the Top 10 Etsy UK Sellers List.

Despite her success, Ilyada was massively concerned at the start of the lockdown about how the situation would affect her business:

“I’m not eligible for the government support for small businesses as I’ve only been self-employed for 2 years and the government only provide support to people who have been self-employed for 3 tax paying years.

“Another worry for me was that I thought post offices would be shut. I run my business from home and mail out my customers orders, so I would’ve had to shut down my business if I hadn’t been able to get my products out.”

Although the post office remained open during the pandemic, allowing Ilyada to continue with her business, the mail delays left her with angry customers, who had been committed to her business in the past:

“A lot of parcels were going missing which caused me a lot of stress. I have a lot of customers in Birmingham, too, which is where I’m based, and their parcels were taking up to 2 weeks to arrive. I started dropping off parcels to the customers whose houses aren’t too far. It was less stress in my mind knowing that I’ve done the most I can do to make sure people get their parcels on time.”

When I asked Ilyada what made her go the extra mile for her local customers despite the worrying and challenging times we’re facing, she was in no way shy about expressing the customer-focus of her business that makes her so passionate about what she does:

“I love what I do because it brings happiness to people, and I’m all about that. Knowing something I’ve created or something I’ve said can make someone feel happy is the best pleasure for me. I have a strong connection with most of my customers, which has led to great friendships and I’m so thankful for every single person I’ve come across.

“Running a business alone full time at 20 is difficult but the people you come across really do make it for you and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

To view and buy Ilyada’s products, including her bestselling Lash & Brow Growth Serum, visit her Etsy page.

Words by Eloise Jones

Pretty Special Boutique

Gloucestershire’s independent retailers are proving resilient in the current climate as they’re finding a variety of ways to remain trading during lockdown.

Tewkesbury High Street, a town renowned for its independent shops and cafes, is home to Pretty Special Boutique which has been proudly owned by Amanda Orton for the past four years.

Selling an array of East Indian women’s clothes and accessories has been a constant in Amanda’s life, and after the Covid-19 pandemic meant her business went into lockdown she admits she was in ‘stunned disbelief’.

‘I was in complete shock as I had to suddenly close the shop even though it had been getting gradually quieter over the previous couple of weeks. It was a situation that I had never considered happening, so my reaction was stunned disbelief, coupled with a strange kind of calm that at least decisions had been taken out of my hands for the time being’.

Having to be temporarily out of work did not just apply to Amanda but was the case for her two employees also. Despite the initial apprehension, Amanda is confident in the Government’s furlough scheme and believes the process has been ‘absolutely amazing’.

‘The furlough scheme has been absolutely amazing and has ensured that I have been able to keep my two members of staff- we are looking forward to getting back to work and hit the ground running’.

Amanda may have had to lock her boutique doors due to lockdown, but it hasn’t meant that she has completely stepped away from her business. In hopes of returning to work on June 1st, Amanda has been utilising her time by completing a variety of admin and domestic tasks and updating her eBay shop to ensure her re-opening is successful.

‘I have been doing admin from home and taken the opportunity of partaking in business webinars hosted by The Growth Hub and some others that I have found online. I have also been into the shop every week to do decorating and deep cleaning, ready for reopening’.

Looking into the future, Amanda portrays a variety of emotions in regard to her boutique, “We rely quite heavily on tourist trade, which obviously is going to take a long time to get back to anything like it was’. Nevertheless, Amanda does confirm that the lockdown restrictions have allowed her to learn several things about not only her business, but herself too.

‘Covid-19 has made it even more important that we have a really good e-commerce website that will give our customers the same experience that they would have if they came into the shop.  I have been learning a lot about the technicalities of what makes a website customer friendly and I will be putting this into good use as soon as possible.  I think this is vital to the long-term health of the business – even more so now, although I still believe that town centres are important as community hubs as much as places to shop. I’m extremely grateful to the Government for the Small Business Grant, Furlough and Self-Employed benefits schemes, which I know will be absolute lifelines’.

In aid of supporting this independent business, you can currently buy online with the eBay shop or follow the website or page on Facebook.

Words by Amy Bailey

Carly Cooke: Mobile Massage Therapist

One independent business that has felt the affects of lockdown is Carly Cooke’s massage business. Doing it all on her own, Carly’s mobile service strongly relied on her customers. Even before lockdown had been announced her customers were already apprehensive as Carly saw a “high level of cancellation for two weeks before”, so it didn’t come of shock to her when all clients stopped booking appointments.

Lockdown had caused many self employed people to evaluate their businesses due to the lack of income. “i’m not able to make money, apart from the odd gift voucher purchase”. But Carly has been using lockdown to excel her business online and plan for the future “[setting] up my website, communicating with clients…including making a waiting list of people who want to be contacted when I reopen”.

Whilst people have been focusing on the negative impact of lockdown on businesses, Carly’s managed to find the positive from it all, realising that “its given [her] a chance to step back and look at [her] business, branding, admin, and the way [she] takes bookings”. The impact of lockdown has given Carly a chance to reflect on her business, allowing her to develop her business for the future, giving her “more of a professional look, and more enquirers in the long term”.

Carly has had a positive outlook on the impact of lockdown on her business, adding to her site gifts cards and oils which customers can buy during lockdown. With her business rebranding and organisation, Carly’s looking forward to saving time and money when she reopens.

Click Here to check out Carly’s website

Words by Malin Jones

‘Dirty Needle Crafts’ Embroidery Business

In a time where we’re all stuck inside, creativity is something that can lift our spirits during lockdown. ‘Dirty needle craft’ is a small business bringing joy to people in a difficult time through artistry.

19-year-old Kara Phillips has taken on her own embroidery business, alongside carrying out her studies at Falmouth University. Since starting ‘Dirty Needle Craft’ in early March, Kara says that the Coronavirus hasn’t had a major impact on the way that her business is functioning, but getting hold of materials was a bit of a struggle.

Embedded from Kara’s Instagram page

“Supplies became very hard to gather when my local supplier shut due to the lockdown and the larger suppliers couldn’t work.”

Like many other people, she has also found that her motivation has been affected since quarantine, but the endless support and great feedback that Kara receives from her customers have inspired her to carry on making embroidered products.

“I attended a local art fair when I just started out, and not being able to do that every two weeks caused my motivation to lack quite severely. I just try and keep myself motivated to make sure I’m still creating.

“I’ve been told that the work I produce brings joy to a lot of people and at the moment that’s all I want to focus on – making sure I can spread joy in whatever way possible”.

Kara also believes that talking to her customers on a personal level is a key factor to earning trust as an independent business, and making sure that her customers have a great experience when shopping with ‘Dirty Needle Crafts’.

“Engaging with people as well, just having a chat and making sure they’re doing okay. Just because they’re a customer doesn’t mean they’re not a friend”.

Kara is currently updating her shop, but it is set to re-open for June 1st. When life eventually goes back to ‘normality’, Kara hopes that the future of her embroidery business will continue to be successful.

“I’m hoping the future of this business is a bright one! With everyone at home, I’ve had a lot of new friends request custom pieces and show an interest in what I do so I’m looking forward to operating as normal and being able to immediately get supplies to make things for others!!”

You can visit Kara’s shop ‘Dirty Needle Crafts’ here.

Words by Emma Taylor

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