“This has been the greatest test imaginable”

Cara Cummings (13 November, 2020)

What’s it like launching a business as a pandemic hits - or even during the fallout? These three entrepreneurs found out firsthand.

40272Brixton Castle is at 2-6 Atlantic Road, SW9 8HY

“People are much more resilient than they give themselves credit for”

David French opened Brixton Castle, a productivity-focused co-working space on Atlantic Road, in February.
‘It was quite a journey to our first opening day. Two years to raise the money, six months to negotiate the lease, six months of fitting it out – and then we opened for just a month. Initially, it was great. We had about 40 people working here by mid-March. Brixton is such a brilliant place, but it’s overlooked in terms of a work location; people have been wanting something like what we’re offering for quite a long time. The office is purpose built to a high standard, with things like sound-reducing meeting rooms, super fast broadband and custom-made desks to make the best use of the space. But by the 23rd – when lockdown was announced – there was only one person left. I sent him home and we shut the doors for six months.

David French opened the productivity-focused co-working space in February

‘At first, I thought it was hysteria. Then as I watched people leave and not come back, I got hysterical myself! I went and bought all the tinned food from Tesco, which seems mad to remember now.
‘I didn’t think it would last the whole of the summer; I don‘t think many people did. I was always optimistic because our offering is exactly what the post-Covid world needs: nice space with all the amenities that you’d get in a central London office, but on the doorstep so you can avoid public transport. But that optimism reduced when lockdown just went on and on.
‘We reopened on September 1st. I think Boris telling people to stay away from the office again was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many. People had been incredibly resilient in working from home for six months, but the thought of doing it for another stirred them to want an alternative. Our mantra even before COVID was always: delete your commute, work closer to where you live. That seems to have been adopted by much of London now – it doesn’t make any sense for people to go into central, even more so now.
‘We’ve made the Castle Covid secure with space between desks, additional cleaning rosters and perspex partitions. There’s a huge mix of people here now – some are from central offices that have been disbanded and they can’t face working from home anymore. We’ve got various entrepreneurs and freelancers, all doing super interesting things. It’s a really inspiring atmosphere. Plus, everyone’s so delighted to be out of the house! They’ve decided it’s better for their mental health – and their backs – than being stuck working from their sofa.
‘There’s always curveballs when you run a business, and all entrepreneurs need to be flexible. This has been the greatest test imaginable; but that’s like a funfair for an entrepreneur! I feel I can deal with anything now. People are much more resilient than they give themselves credit for. We’ve all just got to get on with it.’

www.brixtoncastle.com

 

Cloé Duchalet opened independent organic grocery Sans Store with her partner, Max, in Forest Hill in August

“Now with a second lockdown, we’ll do what’s best for London”

Cloé Duchalet opened independent organic grocery Sans Store with her partner, Max, in Forest Hill in August
‘We opened on August 17th this year. My partner Max was an account manager for a tech company in the city before lockdown, and I’m a secondary school teacher! We always wanted to create something together – and then lockdown happened. Max was furloughed and thought: “Instead of looking for another job, I may as well focus on starting a business like we’ve been talking about for three years.” I was going into school once a week to look after key workers’ children, so I had more time too. We started to look at places at the end of April and have never looked back. We got the keys for Brockley Rise in mid-July and opened within 23 days.
‘We never thought we’d start a business during a pandemic. Max was going to quit his job at the end of this year anyway, so it was a blessing for us to have that time. Having to stay near your home meant that people were shopping more locally, and we realised that has a big impact. Even not getting in the car and walking instead… We thought, this is great! We’ve been living here since 2012 so we know the community and what people want. We know there’s a demand for the products we sell, because we wanted them ourselves. It all just aligned in these crazy times.
‘It’s brilliant to be up and running. I’m still only there in the evenings and weekends, so Max is mostly running it by himself. We’re open every day at the moment. It’s hard work, but we’re loving it. We’ve had such great support from locals, and people coming from across south London and even further beyond.
‘The local community has been so positive. People have been amazing at spreading the word with neighbours, friends and family. It’s so supportive, especially knowing that it’s so difficult right now.
‘The people make this area special. I can’t really put my finger on it but it feels like home, even though I’m originally from France. It just feels safe, with such a lovely atmosphere.
‘Since opening, we have a real sense of togetherness; a responsibility, and wanting to help. We’re gearing up towards Halloween and Christmas and we just hope we can stay open and keep doing what we’re doing. Now with a second lockdown, we’ll do what’s best for London. We’ll have to adapt. If it means doing collections and deliveries, we’ll work our way around it. We’ll be resourceful.
‘In the new year we’d like to try and sell zero waste personal care and household products. That’s something we’ve always wanted to do. We’re waiting to get our alcohol licence, too; that’s our next step, hopefully before Christmas. We want to build a community – and connect people – where we love living.’

5-7 Brockley Rise, SE23 1JG

Peachy Goat co-owners Martyn White and Oliver Sechi

“It helps to know that things can turn on a dime”

Martyn White opened Herne Hill vegan restaurant Peachy Goat in February, with childhood friends and co-owners Ollie and Luca Sechi.
‘Peachy Goat has been a long project in the making. Ollie and Luca’s parents had a small Sardinian restaurant when we were kids, so those seeds were always there. We always spoke about a restaurant of our own; the kickstarter for actually doing it was us all being vegan. We really believe in it. We’re not political about it, and we don’t claim we’re 100% right – we just felt the benefits for ourselves and saw the trend taking off and thought: we can do this.
‘It was emotional when we finally opened. The response was amazing. Even in the first week, we saw people coming in repeatedly; that made us so happy. Although we were running on empty after all the building work, we were doing all the shifts ourselves. We were knackered, but what we’d put together was working and people seemed really positive. We were planning how to have a lie-in when lockdown was announced.
‘It was surreal, realising we’d have to shut. We didn’t think it would go on for that long, so we were naive in that sense. As two weeks started to look like months on end, things started to feel more negative. We were concerned about our staff, whether or not we could keep them on; Ollie, Luca and I hadn’t paid ourselves yet through PAYE so we weren’t individually eligible for furlough. We didn’t know if we could pay our own rent, having put all our money into the business. We tried to stay positive but it was a bit hairy, for a couple of months.
‘Starting our burger takeaway service really helped. Mentally, it was great to have conversations with people, seeing that everyone was ready to
come and support us again. Although we’re in London, it feels almost like a village – people
know what’s happening in the area and check out what you’re doing. People seem desperate to support us and were really concerned about whether
we’d reopen. It motivated us to keep going in the darker times, from a human perspective. There’s no sugar coating that it’s a negative situation, but it’s not all doom and gloom when people want you back.
‘We definitely had to bounce back. Being best friends, we had the energy to do that. The energy is becoming more and more necessary with new measures looming. It’s taught me that you can
make changes quickly and people will support
your decisions. When it feels like everything’s in a spiral, it helps to know that things can turn on a dime if we stay positive and look after ourselves and our staff. We’ll fly again. We’ll laugh about it one day. ‘

www.peachygoat.com

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