Was I an April fool to start my own business during lockdown?

On Tuesday 31st March 2020, I closed the lid of my work laptop and put it away for the last time. My career as a full-time academic had ended and I was about to join the ranks of the self-employed for the first time in 21 years. When I first worked for myself, some 25 years ago, I was surprised and delighted that I landed a couple of big projects almost immediately. I never had to go out and find new leads after the first few months – I continued to get repeat business and new business from referrals. This time around, I was much more experienced. I had helped nearly 100 business start-ups and taught 1000’s of students about business planning. I had a much bigger network,  and I was infinitely more confident than that young woman in her 20s. Surely, this would be a doddle compared to 25 years ago…

The next morning, April 1st, I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my new laptop. I paused. This wasn’t the start I was expecting. We were right at the beginning of the first lockdown in the UK and I realised I would not be able to start networking face to face or meet potential clients for some time. It didn’t matter initially. The first few weeks were busy – the new weekly shop routine took half a day as I queued to get into a supermarket, ditched the shopping list, buying what I could before joining a similar queue at the local farm shop. I began by reaching out to my business contacts to let them know I had left the university. I changed my LinkedIn profile and started to consider whether I needed a business name or not. 25 years ago, I traded as ‘Market In Perspective’ but that didn’t feel right this time round. Initially, I decided to trade as ‘June Dennis’ as I assumed most work was likely to come via existing contacts. Later I chose ‘Mountain Top Perspectives’ – a nod to my original business and my home village. I felt the name could encompass my academic, expert witness and marketing activities.

There are so many decisions to make when one starts a business and so much research that can go into these decisions. Setting up a new bank account was relatively easy. I wanted to raise my profile as a marketing expert witness again – but what directory should I promote myself in? I can’t afford all of them. What should I call my website? Who is my ‘customer’? Some decisions are important as they impact decisions further down the line. At times, I experienced decision paralysis. Yet, in reality, there’s very little that’s difficult to change at a later stage – the business name, perhaps – but I realised everything else can be modified as things become clearer.

Within a month of lockdown starting, online networking groups began to pop up everywhere and I found that going to one event a day helped create structure to the day. My diary, which used to be filled with 5 hours of meetings each day, now looked very empty. While most of my work has come through existing contacts, being supported and encouraged by people in these networks has been a lifeline. We have gone through a lot together over the past year and I’ve enjoyed getting to know some wonderful local small businesses which I shall endeavour to support when they are able to reopen.

This year has also been a year of reigniting my passion for marketing and taking time out to absorb as much training as I can – a luxury I could never afford the time for in the past. Sometimes, it’s been difficult to fit in all the amazing free training that’s been available during lockdown!

Another benefit of lockdown has been the increased use of video-conferencing. Yes, it has its disadvantages but I recall one day where I had meetings with businesses in China, India and Cookham. Normally, at least two of these would have been face to face, taking days, if not weeks, out of my diary.

It has taken much longer than I envisaged to get the business up and running. In particular, I had to find my place in the marketing world.  The sector has changed over the last 20 years. Most small marketing businesses and agencies focus on digital and social media marketing nowadays. I don’t, and it took me a while to express what I do in a way that others understood it. I also never envisaged that I would be asked to mentor others or work with businesses and clients in China, India, Singapore and the Caribbean – I assumed all my work would be UK-based.

I am enjoying working with such a diverse group of organisations and clients – from coaching and mentoring individuals at critical points in their careers or setting up their own business through to quite technical higher education work with international businesses. I’ve also had the chance to support organisations through non-exec roles – something I wouldn’t have had time for in if I was still working in a university setting. Once lockdown has ended, I hope to set up a job club in an area of Bradford with very high youth unemployment.

My heart rate is nearly 10 beats per minute lower than it was last year, I get an extra hour of sleep every day, I’ve lost weight, am more active and, most importantly, I’m able to spend much more time with the family and friends – even in lockdown.

So, all in all, I don’t think I was an April Fool. There’s more to life than a fancy title and a big salary.

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