We all know about Covid-19 and the issues it has caused, but what if you are a business owner trying to survive through it, or perhaps just trying to start out either just before it started or just after it had begun to spread? We asked some relevant questions to a local entrepreneur, Caroline Porter at Foxstones Training and Learning, most of us I think will empathise with the answers she gave below and relate to them if we too are in business of any kind.

What she and Foxstones Training have gone through over the last few months reflects what so many small businesses up and down the country have had to endure, how they have adapted and how many have survived. We hope that by reading how others have dealt with difficult it may help, motivate and even inspire others. Over to Caroline…

When you first learned of the Covid-19 outbreak, was there any initial concern relating to public health and your business?

As a lot of the work I was delivering at that time was direct to Local Authority employees everything stopped very suddenly prior to lockdown coming in. The LAs were understandably nervous about bringing groups of staff together from different teams to take part in group training. I had lots of training events booked throughout March, April and onwards and everything abruptly stopped. My inbox was a catalogue of cancellations! 

Once changes to the nature of your sector began to take hold, how was your business affected and changed?

It was obvious fairly quickly that bringing large numbers of people together to participate in training was a long way off. What had been a busy schedule with lots of potential work lined up dropped to nothing. It was a very peculiar and isolating feeling. Being a sole trader, an independent, with no one to talk it through with was unsettling. There was a good few weeks of radio silence whilst I digested the information and then I began to think of solutions.

If like most small to medium businesses your trade suffered a significant downturn, did you manage to find any unique and innovative ways to address it and try to keep revenue flowing?

 Once I realised this wasn’t short term I knew I had to get creative. I had never delivered my mentoring and training services online. Like most people I’d never heard of Zoom at that point! I started to research, I found people to practice on and I made the switch to online delivery. It was a lot of work and included rewriting my training packages for a virtual world. I was terrified at first but couldn’t believe how quickly it started to feel normal. Because my work is supportive it was soon evident that training, consultation and mentoring were needed more than ever. The mentoring sessions I began to deliver for one Local Authority management team were particularly welcome; managers were so grateful of the opportunity to talk in confidence and reflect on how they were feeling, how their staff were struggling and how much emotional and mental health support they were needing to give their teams. And that has continued. A lot of my business has become about offering that safe and neutral space for professionals to explore the current challenges they face.

What has been fantastic is that people have adapted to online learning. My session evaluations ask delegates how they rate the value to online training compared to face to face and people are overwhelmingly positive. I work really hard to make it engaging, fun and to feel safe. I know how scared I was at first so I work hard to put attendees at ease.  I know how they feel!

Did your business and/or you receive any help from the Government by way of grants/loans/financial support or other types of assistance?

None. As a young business with no 2018/19 accounts to show I wasn’t entitled to a single thing.  I’d only started Foxstones Training and Learning in March 2019 having been made redundant after 20 years working for North Yorkshire County Council. It felt like a double blow.

How do you think/feel your business has fared in comparison to others around you in the same or similar sectors?

I think most people are now adopting and delivering online. I talk to other freelance trainers and it’s a very mixed picture. I think I was fortunate that I’d begun to build a good reputation and clients were willing to trust me. One in particular said “look we trust you – use us as your Guinea pigs” (about the switch to online delivery). I’m very grateful to him and other individuals for going with it.  

Have things been more/less challenging for you and your business during the current lockdown period than the first one?

 It’s been less challenging for me this time as the transition had already been made to virtual. This time it made no difference.

Do you think/feel that what has happened over the last few months has brought communities together more or divided them?

 More divided sadly. There are great schemes like Skipton Step into Action and Skipton Foodbank (both of which I have volunteered for) which show communities at their best. But on social media there is so much blame, suspicion, lack of tolerance. I have been asked to do some urgent training for another council in Yorkshire around Handling Conflict because their frontline staff are being subjected to so much abuse from the public they serve. It’s so sad.

What plans and hopes do you have for your business post lock-down and how optimistic do you feel about being able to sustain or grow it?

I hope I can continue to grow – I hope to attract new clients who would benefit from nurturing their teams and their services at this time. Some organisations have understandably been in crisis management for the past few months but I hope as things start to settle then can reflect on what their staff members need to develop. I’m pretty sure online work is here to stay and that too has benefits as it means I can work with more clients further afield. Last month I delivered training to teams in the Isle of Wight which I certainly wouldn’t have done before Covid-19 and the switch to virtual!

We now wish Foxstones Training and Learning every success for the future and feel sure that any business which can survive and even thrive in such difficult times will go on to great things as and when we manage to return to some kind of normal, whatever the “New Normal” may look like!

If you have any training requirements and are looking for local experts who know how a small business works, what its needs are and how best help, then please get in touch with Caroline Porter direct or contact us at skiptoncentre.uk