Among the <i>10,000 Small Businesses</i> UK alumni interviewed (L-R): Lisa Miller, Joe Formisano, John Tasker, Kaye Sotomi

The Resilient Business: UK Entrepreneurs on How to Lead During Periods of Uncertainty

Published on15 DEC 2022

Among the 10,000 Small Businesses UK alumni interviewed (L-R): Lisa Miller, Joe Formisano, John Tasker, Kaye Sotomi

Managing through uncertainty is a business imperative. In recent years, small business owners in the UK have faced the ripple effects of multiple crises, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine. As the UK faces a potentially long and deep recession, small business owners must, again, plan to withstand a volatile economic climate while seeking, and hoping, to emerge stronger.

At Goldman Sachs’ ‘Resilient Business' event in November, we sat down with 10,000 Small Businesses UK alumni to understand how they've successfully led their organizations through extreme uncertainty.

In adversity, is opportunity

In periods of uncertainty, seeking new opportunities is an important facet of resilience. During the Covid-19 pandemic, John Tasker’s event business, Massive, faced unprecedented disruption, and he was forced to pivot:

“Our specialism is bringing large groups of people together in one space, which wasn't possible during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of our key skills is logistics planning for events and we realized that Covid-19 testing sites are essentially long events. That work kept the business afloat, kept the team together, and got us through that period of uncertainty.”

While small businesses in the UK face a challenging economic outlook, John’s advice is to identify and address new opportunities created by the changing landscape:

"Uncertainty always brings change, and change brings opportunity. It's about managing the business you've got currently and protecting it, but also looking at the changes in the market and identifying ways to grow and generate new opportunities.”

For Joe Formisano, co-founder of DeliVita, resilience is also about thinking creatively to find new revenue pools and create a competitive advantage:

"For us, it's about looking outside the box, finding new markets, and not just concentrating on retail. We started working for building companies that create beautiful homes but are currently finding it more challenging to sell. We suggested adding a DeliVita pizza oven and creating an outdoor kitchen, which gives consumers added value."

Lead with purpose

Connecting your work to a deeper sense of meaning helps to orientate your business, empower your team, and improve your resilience, according to 10,000 Small Businesses UK alumni. For Kaye Sotomi, co-founder of Chop Chop London, his core values guide and frame everything that his business does from the top down:

“We want to be the most inclusive haircare company in the world and create a service experience that reflects the society we want to be a part of. ‘No gender, no texture, just hair’ is our calling sign. It’s the thing that we lead by. It has really helped align my team’s focus on why we exist and what is important to us as a business.”

Embedding a shared purpose and vision improves your team’s resilience and drive, according to Lisa Miller, founder of Arco Academy:

“Our culture at Arco embodies our values. I ensure that reminders of that culture are displayed everywhere: on our website and around the school. These are the values we return to whenever times are tough. Ultimately, when your ‘why’ is bigger than you, you end up transcending all sorts of barriers. It’s the values that give you motivation and drive.”

In times of extreme uncertainty, a clearly articulated purpose can act as a reference point to keep your business moving in the right direction. Kate Temple Brown, co-founder of Opportunity Group, uses her North Star to assess opportunities quickly:

“We keep going back to: Is this our purpose? Is this getting us where we want to be? Are we changing people's lives for the better? And if we are, then we can do it.”

Invest in your people

The current economic environment is compounding the UK’s skills crisis, making it more difficult for companies to attract and recruit staff. Against this backdrop, 10,000 Small Businesses UK alumni have doubled down on developing their teams and creating a culture of continual learning. Brian Tilt, Founder of The Compact Group, is acutely focused on nurturing his staff and demonstrating his commitment to their long-term career:

"We're very keen on developing people within the business and enabling them to grow as the business expands. It is difficult to get the right staff, and during uncertain times, our biggest thing is to ensure that we keep hold of them. We know that eventually, we'd have growth again, and we couldn't do it without our people."

Creating a more flexible, inclusive work environment has enabled Sarah-Jane Butler, founder of Farringford Legal, to recruit the highly skilled and experienced staff she needs:

“Many people, in particular parents for example, want flexibility and whilst they don't want to work long hours at a usual law firm, they still want to work with clients and make a difference. They are our key talent target because, with us, they can work 15 to 30 hours a week within school hours, without stress. We’ve also got people who have retired, who don’t want to work full time, but want to continue supporting businesses with the legal skills and experiences they have built up over the years."

Focus on what you can control

Small businesses are facing inflationary pressures, market volatility, and a slowing economy. It’s a daunting time to lead a company. In recent months, Kaye Sotomi has experienced a sharp rise in his overheads and a dip in demand:

"My energy costs have gone up by 500%. The cost of living has affected the team, so I've given pay rises. And my customers have less disposable income, which has reduced footfall and spend instore.”

However, by focusing on what he can control, Kaye is laying the groundwork for future growth:

"We can't change all the variables happening outside us; we can only focus on things within our sphere of control. Part of my focus right now is building our community. I want to double down on what makes us different from other salons and that it is to show the diversity of people coming into my stores, so that [potential customers] can see themselves. The message is, 'we're a community, and you're welcome here.' And, when things get better, we'll get people back in, in bigger numbers, and push our profits."

During the pandemic, Sarah-Jane Butler focused on what she could control and reassessed her overheads. It led to an entirely new way of working for her and her team: 

"When we came out of lockdown, we had a good look at what we could cut. That was one of the reasons we don't have premises; we're based all over the country meaning we can visit our clients wherever they are. It means we're not paying for overheads, and we've been able to cut our costs to our clients, which means they're paying much less, and they're more likely to keep coming back."

Lean into your community

During periods of extreme uncertainty, networks can be a vital source of support. According to Joe Formisano, the 10,000 Small Businesses UK program has given him a robust, problem-solving community:

“I can pick up the phone and ask, are you having this challenge? I can avoid making mistakes by asking the right questions.”

According to Brian Tilt, being part of the 10,000 Small Businesses UK community has shown him that, often, the challenges he comes up against aren’t unique. Being able to discuss issues with fellow alumni has given him a robust sounding board:

“If you had a problem, there was always somebody you can contact. And often, it’s nothing new. Everybody's faced similar problems. It doesn't mean you have to take everybody's advice, you take what's right for you, but having the community is really helpful.”

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