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Humber LEP’s Business Champion discusses how her business diversified to not only meet challenges of the coronavirus lockdown – but to thrive.

Jo Smedley is the Humber LEP’s Small Business Champion and sits on both our Board and Business Development Board.

Her company, Red Herring Games, is an events business focusing on murder mystery events. Before the lockdown, the business provided DIY kits for groups of six or more people to enjoy at home, as well as mail order games for people who enjoyed solving mysteries solo, as well as live events.

When lockdown started, Jo knew she had to change the way her business operated in order for it to continue during these difficult times.

Jo said: “We knew our business in its current format couldn’t survive lockdown. The first two weeks was spent refunding over £3k worth of ticket and event sales. And watching our sales bottom out to nearly nothing. The government grant arrived in time to page wages, but we had no idea how we were going to cover some of our regular bills!”

Hitting the ground running, Jo used an ICT for Growth grant from the Humber Growth Hub to facilitate her staff working from home and purchase new equipment.

The business developed new products that could be used by small groups of people isolating together, while exploring options for virtual games via software such as Zoom. The business also utilised PR opportunities to get the word out there about their new operations.

Jo said: “Initially we focused on creating a game for four players – thinking that if we were to survive we’d have to create games for smaller families in lockdown scenarios.

“We also started exploring what zoom could do, thinking about how we could run events via zoom, what they might look like. How customers could play via zoom. We also started doing a lot of PR releases talking about virtual parties, as well as rewording the website to give customers the information quickly about how virtual parties would work. We positioned ourselves within the market in case it took off.”

In order for this new plan to be successful, Jo had to make some changes to the way she operated her business. Marketing budgets were reallocated, the IT the business used changed, and the business listened to where the most demand was, and changed its focus accordingly.

Having implemented this new plan and evaluating what works and what doesn’t, Jo has some words of wisdom for other businesses in a similar position.

She said: “Look now at how you can do things differently and plan for what the world might look like a few weeks ahead all the time. Look for partnering businesses. Everyone is out there looking to work collectively at the moment. Being ready for that and able to react will net you long term partnerships.

“Change how you deliver and WHAT you deliver if you can. Look at what is selling now and be prepared to change focus rapidly. What we thought people wanted two weeks into the lockdown has changed in four weeks and we’ve changed delivery plans and product plans within that time to follow the trending market.

“Do PR. There’s a dearth of interesting news out there. Businesses that are adapting are newsworthy businesses and you’ll get airtime and newspaper coverage if you promote what you are doing.”

Looking ahead to the future, Jo is considering how to maximise the opportunities the lockdown has brought and how she might develop the business further to meet the needs of the market. The company are even considering taking on new staff.

Jo said: “2020 is shaping up to be a dynamic and interesting year as everyone adapts. Being ahead of the trend has enabled us to positively flourish and we’re actually looking at recruiting and what we can do next to stay ahead of the trend and curve.”

Finally, Jo discusses adaptability and flexibility to ensure your business can move with the times – including extremely challenging situations.

Jo said: “You’ve got to maximise what you have when you have it as there are no guarantees with the way the changes are happening unpredictably and rapidly so we have to be prepared to move rapidly with them and change with them.”

If you want FREE professional business advice, guidance and funding to help ‘pivot’ and make your business more resilient as Jo did with hers, then contact the Humber Business Growth Hub to start your business resilience journey today at www.humbergrowthhub.org

Visit Red Herring Games here: www.red-herring-games.com

Read Jo’s question and answer session in full below:

Tell us about how your business operated before coronavirus?

We were an events business. Selling DIY events and event services for six people or more. We also ran mail order for solo sleuthing at home. We weren’t doing “excellently” before lockdown. We were bumbling along average. Breaking even like most small businesses and putting slow growth plans in place.

How did the lockdown and new restrictions affect your business and what difficulties did you encounter?

The initial four weeks were horrific. We knew our business in its current format couldn’t survive lockdown. The first two weeks was spent refunding over £3k worth of ticket and event sales. And watching our sales bottom out to nearly nothing. The government grant arrived in time to page wages, but we had no idea how we were going to cover some of our regular bills!

We needed to get all the staff working remotely quickly – so needed to purchase equipment we couldn’t pay for (fortunately the LEP had a grant available for that! And we used the grant to pay towards that!)

We also needed to totally revise our website – and that costs money… so we asked the website team to take credit card that month rather than BACS just to shift the payment 30 days so we could see how long lockdown would last for.

How did you come up with this new plan of action?

Initially we focussed on creating a game for four players – thinking that if we were to survive we’d have to create games for smaller families in lockdown scenarios.

We also worked to make contact with our current customer base providing free lock-down puzzles and weekly quizzes to entertain them at home and maintain contact until the lockdown as over, not expecting any to decide to host virtual parties – but obviously when the news got out – we were their first thought!

We also started exploring what zoom could do. Thinking about how we could run events via zoom. What they might look like. How customers could play via zoom. And doing a lot of PR releases talking about virtual parties. As well as rewording the website to give customers the information quickly about how virtual parties would work. Positioning ourselves within the market in case it took off.

How did you implement this plan?

We just did it. There was no “plan” we all just got on with it. We chatted to the website team. Had the design team come up with supporting graphics and social media posts. Etc. We applied for the grant to get the staff laptops to work remotely. We marketed our subscription box heavily and removed all marketing spend on regular events and services so we could use the money elsewhere. Then shifted marketing onto virtual parties as we started to see a trend in the sales towards those.

We also listened to what our customers were looking for – and supplied the answers on our website via blogs. And automated emails.

We’re still away from being 100% adapted for virtual parties, and it’ll be four weeks before everything is set up – but in the meantime we’re getting customers and running tweaks in delivery as we go.

Now you have adapted, what hints, tips and advice would you give to other business owners?

Look now at how you can do things differently and plan for what the world might look like a few weeks ahead all the time. Look for partnering businesses. Everyone is out there looking to work collectively at the moment. Being ready for that and able to react will net you long term partnerships.

Change how you deliver and WHAT you deliver if you can. Look at what is selling now and be prepared to change focus rapidly.  What we thought people wanted two weeks into the lockdown has changed in four weeks and we’ve changed delivery plans and product plans within that time to follow the trending market.

Do PR. There’s a dearth of interesting news out there. Businesses that are adapting are newsworthy businesses and you’ll get airtime and newspaper coverage if you promote what you are doing.

What are your business expectations for the future in light of coronavirus and have the last few weeks made you a better business owner and made your business more resilient?

2020 is shaping up to be a dynamic and interesting year as everyone adapts. Being ahead of the trend has enabled us to positively flourish and we’re actually looking at recruiting and what we can do next to stay ahead of the trend and curve.

We’re all putting in overtime at the moment. I’m lucky if I get seven hours away from the PC right now. But you’ve got to maximise what you have when you have it as there are no guarantees with the way the changes are happening unpredictably and rapidly so we have to be prepared to move rapidly with them and change with them.

People have always said half of business is luck. We were in the right place at the right time to benefit from the new virtual party growth. How long it’ll last we don’t know. So we’re constantly looking to the horizon to see what will happen next. The moment quarantine restrictions release we’re expecting to return to our base rates… which are 900% lower than they are now! So we’re watching the pennies knowing this can’t last.