A quick Google search pulls up countless journals and papers full of articles on why financial crises are the best time to start a company. Their arguments are just as apt during the pandemic as they were back in 2008. Whilst several businesses have gone under during COVID-19, others have found and capitalised on new opportunities from it, while some entrepreneurs have done both. The ability to learn from one’s mistakes and to adapt to changing circumstances are both imperative to becoming a successful founder.
One year on from the first national lockdown, we’re focusing on a handful of steadfast entrepreneurs who have both lost and launched ambitious companies over the past 12 months. Some of these founders are addressing new demands, prompted by a shift in consumer habits as we adjust to the ‘new normal’, whilst others have taken advantage of businesses becoming more open to digital transformation during COVID. We found out how the pandemic has affected their companies, and why they chose to start a new project during this volatile time.
Finding these individuals was made simple using the Beauhurst platform, a searchable database of every high-growth company in the UK, plus the funds and accelerators that back them. We were able to run a search across people associated with high-growth companies that had become inactive or died since the start of the pandemic, as well as ones which had launched during this time. We can even see the effect the pandemic is having on these companies, thanks to our COVID-19 impact tags, reviewed monthly (at a minimum) and whenever new restrictions come in.
Emmanuel Hadoux, Scribe
Emmanuel Hadoux was Co-Founder and CTO of Persuadr.ai, a UCL spinout that launched in December 2019, a matter of months before the first national lockdown. Its software was designed to enhance the persuasive abilities of chatbots, to help businesses increase user engagement and conversion rates. The company’s technology simulated all possible outcomes of a conversation, then recommended the optimal argument and communication style to use with each customer, learning from every interaction.
Although Persuadr has been inactive since January this year, Hadoux is already running another successful business, Scribe, set up amidst the pandemic. Scribe is an automated decision-making platform, using artificial intelligence to accelerate lending and investment decisions in the financial sector. Founded in June 2020, Scribe quickly secured equity funding: it received £120k worth of investment in August. The company has also seen a ‘potentially positive’ impact from COVID-19, and has continued to create job opportunities throughout the latest lockdown.
Hadoux, who has a PhD in AI, explained the decision to close up shop and start a new venture during the pandemic: “We decided to stop Persuadr as COVID hit, as we saw that innovation budgets froze and focus moved towards more immediate value propositions, making it harder for us to generate traction. Applying my research background to Scribe, we’ve found that the crisis has actually worked the other way—clients in finance are accelerating change, exploring new solutions that can help alleviate strained resources.”
Calum MacKinnon, Restaurant Kits
Calum MacKinnon has founded four of our tracked or previously-tracked companies, including Casso Cocktails and Mac & Wild.
MacKinnon was CEO of Casso Cocktails from 2013 to 2020, producing a range of pre-mixed cocktails, designed to be drunk straight from the jar and hence ideal for festivals and high-volume venues like bars and clubs. Following the arrival of COVID-19, and the ensuing shutdown of the hospitality industry and entertainment venues, Casso Cocktails lost its key customer group. The company then stopped operations altogether in December.
But whilst leading Casso Cocktails, MacKinnon had also co-founded Mac & Wild, back in 2014. Mac & Wild operated two London restaurants (one in Fitzrovia, the other by Liverpool Street Station), specialising in modern Scottish cuisine, serving up wild venison, game and seafood, alongside a plentiful supply of whisky. In December 2020, the company went into liquidation, with lockdown restrictions keeping its restaurant closed for much of last year. It has since continued offering customers a taste of Mac & Wild during the pandemic through new startup Restaurant Kits, MacKinnon’s latest venture.
Restaurant Kits is a meal kit delivery platform that allows customers to recreate dishes from a number of restaurants at home. MacKinnon co-founded the company back in May, having already set up his own take-home kits for Mac & Wild. He set out to help fellow independent restaurateurs facing COVID closures to do the same, with a business model “designed to support, delight, and endure long after lockdown” in this burgeoning new industry. Restaurants already signed up to the platform include Flesh & Buns, Tapas Brindisa, and Kricket, amongst several other foodie-favourites.
Restaurant Kits secured a £150k equity fundraising in January this year, at a pre-money valuation of £2m, and is currently seeing a surge in demand and ‘potentially positive’ impact from COVID-19. Meanwhile, MacKinnon is also Co-Founder of Bonnie & Wild whose Scottish Marketplace, Edinburgh’s first food hall, is due to open in the Spring.
Alessio & Riccardo Bruni, Heroes
Identical twin brothers Alessio and Riccardo Bruni set up Many in 2018. The company operated an online platform offering direct-to-consumer healthcare services and prescription medication for men. Many aimed to change the way men approach and discuss their health, by breaking the taboos associated with so many male health conditions. The e-health startup was backed by leading VCs JamJar, LocalGlobe and Seedcamp, but went into liquidation in December 2020.
Earlier in the year, however, the brothers had co-founded their latest venture, e-commerce company Heroes. We recently named Heroes as one of our top startups to watch during 2021, having raised its first equity and loan funding round last year, worth £49.7m, not long after launching in May.
Capitalising on the rapid growth of online retail during the pandemic, Heroes acquires, operates, and scales promising SMEs trading on Amazon. Their focus brands, Fulfilment by Amazon (FBA) businesses, are not often targeted through traditional private equity channels, but Heroes offers them an opportunity to exit. Heroes is currently seeing a ‘potentially positive’ impact from COVID-19, and is hiring across multiple functions.
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