Meet the small business owners who pivoted to digital-first offerings - and thrived during lockdown
From a bakery setting up its first online shop to a personal trainer who moved her fitness classes online, these entrepreneurs used lockdown to reinvent their businesses, explore new revenue streams and tap into the mood of the nation.
By Jennifer Barton
When the pandemic first hit, small businesses across the UK had to quickly come to terms with the “new normal,” be it social distancing regulations, implemented capacity limits, or forced lockdowns. While 2020 was a challenging time for all, some small business owners found ways to show their creativity, resilience and adaptability in the midst of the pandemic.
Two UK-based small businesses, London’s leading ‘free-from’ bakery, Vida Bakery, run by Vanessa Miquilena and Daniela Ortega, and fitness trainer Ciara Madden, whose Body by Ciara training programme has helped sculpt the bodies of Rita Ora and Neelam Gill, found success during the pandemic by completely reinventing their business models.
Both small businesses pivoted to digital-first business strategies, using online payment system PayPal to accept payments from consumers and leverage finance tools that helped them make solid business decisions. They also listened to their customers, and tapped into the nation’s appetite for home baking and community-centred fitness options during lockdown. By doing so, these small businesses did not just survive the pandemic – they thrived.
Vida Bakery: “It was a whole new revenue stream that happened just like that, in three days of selling online”
Venezualan-born, London-based entrepreneur Vanessa Miquilena runs Vida Bakery with her business partner, Daniela Ortega. The bakery opened five years ago out of “personal necessity” - Daniela is a coeliac and Vanessa is lactose and egg-intolerant, and both wanted to enjoy delicious desserts but found few London bakeries that catered to their dietary restrictions.
Daniela began studying vegan and gluten-free baking, and the duo started developing recipes. After launching a pop-up shop in 2016 off Brick Lane on Cheshire Street, Vida Bakery was officially born. The brand quickly built up strong in-person and social media followings, and in 2018, their permanent Brick Lane kitchen and café space opened. A second outpost opened in King’s Cross in January 2020 but was operating for just two months before both shops were forced to shut their doors. Suddenly, Vida Bakery’s entire business model was in jeopardy.
“It was meant to be a part of a whole business plan of us opening little outlets all over London, and then Covid happened,” Vanessa said. “We started seeing a drop in sales… by the second week of March, sales were 95% down.” Vanessa and Dani began grappling with concerns about how to protect their staff while also managing the food wastage from over-producing, before the impacts of the pandemic on the bakery’s footfall were clear.
It was obvious that the small business owners needed to do something dramatic in order for the business to survive. With previous customers now spending much of their time at home and online, Vida Bakery decided to open an online shop – a first for the business.
“I worked for three nights without sleeping just to put together a website,” Vanessa said. “It was non-stop.”
Customer feedback proved pivotal in helping Vida Bakery establish its online presence: after Vanessa announced the website launch, a customer posted on social media that they wished they could use PayPal to pay for their order. Vanessa was determined to make things as easy as possible for the bakery’s fanbase.
“I was like, ‘give me five minutes, and I’ll fix that’ - without knowing if I could or not,” she said. “We were really desperate to get as many sales as we could.”
In a matter of minutes, Vanessa created a PayPal business account and added PayPal Checkout as a payment option on the bakery’s website - much to the satisfaction of that customer who had messaged.
With the online store open, Vida Bakery was finally able to sell and ship their tasty treats to their loyal fans. On the first day, a whopping 500 orders from across the UK were placed, with the bakery managing to reach a whole new customer base outside of London in cities like Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow. Vanessa and Dani worked around the clock to get all the orders baked and shipped. The orders kept increasing, and suddenly Vida Bakery was back in demand.
“We made even more money than we were doing in the shops,” Vanessa said. “It was a revenue stream that we never thought that we could do or explore.”
PayPal not only facilitated payments for the brand’s wider client base ordering from across the UK, but helped establish Vida Bakery as an online brand customers could rely on.
“I think as a new business, people don’t know what to really expect and at that time I think people felt secure by paying with PayPal,” Vanessa said. “People really decided to trust us through PayPal.” Now, roughly 70% of the bakery’s customers use PayPal Checkout to pay for their online purchases.
Vanessa has also seamlessly integrated another PayPal product – the PayPal Business Debit Card – into the business. The debit card, which has no monthly fee for business owners, offers cash back incentives on eligible purchases.
When the online store first launched, the company, which had made a name for itself with elaborate, frosted cakes, could only send goods like cookies and brownies that would survive the post. Determined to please their customers, Vanessa and Dani began rethinking the bakery’s menu.
“At that time, we realised there were a lot of people trying to bake at home. We were like, should we release a banana bread because everyone was into banana breads?” Vanessa said. Vanessa and Dani stayed true to themselves, though, and just as the nation hit peak home-baking obsession, a new product was born: Vida Bakery cookie dough, which comes in a handy pouch.
With 60% of the bakery’s online orders now coming from outside of London, Vanessa and Dani are now redeveloping the cookie dough slightly to create a supermarket-ready, retail product to be available in stores around the country. Watch this space.
Top three tips from Vida Bakery for other small businesses:
● Listen to your customers: from implementing customer feedback for the bakery to offer PayPal as a payment option on the new website, to asking home bakers on social media to send in photos of their bakes, the customer remains at the heart of Vida Bakery’s business model.
● Don’t be afraid to abandon your original plan: Vanessa and Dani were planning to open more storefronts in Soho and Paddington to meet their customers in-person before the pandemic hit, Instead, the duo went completely online in the midst of a global crisis and found success.
There’s always a new direction to expand in: the circumstances were less than ideal, but when Vanessa and Dani were challenged, they realised what they were capable of. In just a few months, Vida Bakery has gone from a local to a national business, a bricks-and-mortar retailer to an online shop and has created a new retail product.
Body by Ciara: “If I don’t do it online, then I guess I don’t do anything… It was one of those ‘do or die’ moments”
Ciara Madden is the personal trainer behind the Body by Ciara fitness brand, which has helped sculpt the perfect posteriors and toned physiques of the likes of Rita Ora, Maya Jama and Demi Rose. The personal trainer regularly taught packed classes in gyms around London in addition to her personal training sessions and was looking into opening her own gym - but then the pandemic hit.
Ciara started to teach online workouts during lockdown, which quickly gained traction. “More and more people joined, to the point where there’d be a couple of thousand people doing it with me,” she said. “And at that point, I just wasn’t earning any money because the gyms were closed.”
In order to survive the lockdown period, Ciara decided to turn those casual online workouts into a professional business: Body By Ciara Squad, a livestream subscription service, was born. The private subscription service offers clients over 30 classes a week, for £15 a month.
“It was one of those ‘do or die’ moments,” Ciara said. “If I don’t do it [teaching fitness classes] online, then I guess I don’t do anything.”
Initially, Ciara taught one class a day, six days a week. Over the ensuing weeks and months of lockdown, as demand for her sessions grew, she reached out to family members and friends in the fitness business to bring them on board as additional trainers. The Body By Ciara Squad now has a busy timetable of as many as 30 classes a week, covering Pilates, yoga, meditation, barre and dance (including Afrobeats carnival workouts and hip hop dance classes). There are also pre- and post-natal offerings, with more than a dozen instructors across the programme.
“We’ve got a bit of something for everyone,” Ciara said. “Whereas, if I had stayed on my own, I couldn’t grow that because I don’t do all of those things. It was a case of trusting other people to bring them into your business.”
Like many, Ciara noticed that fitness became more of a priority for people over lockdown, as a result of being home and feeling motivated to be healthier and release feel-good endorphins in a stressful period. Her classes offered the energy that was missing from many other virtual exercise routines, with Ciara booking live singers like Sinead Harnett and Mahalia to play for her squad, hosting online brunches and home DJ parties, and encouraging people to “check in” with the Body by Ciara community.
In Ciara’s real-world classes - which were always popular - you could get 40 people into the room, at a push. Now she’s reaching thousands around the globe, in far-flung destinations like Antigua, Jamaica, Australia, Japan, Canada, Dubai and Bermuda.
As Ciara’s online streaming programme grew, the integration of PayPal Checkout on her business website meant customers – including those international clients -- could feel secure about their transactions - as could Ciara.
PayPal has been a massive part of Ciara’s transformation from someone who previously only worked in gyms to running a successful online business. She credits PayPal with helping her know “that my money was secure.” PayPal’s fraud prevention practices and encryption tools have also made her confident the website is constantly being monitored.
As the online business grew rapidly during lockdown, Ciara diversified her revenue streams by introducing nutrition plans and launching a line of products, including workout mats and resistance bands. A Body by Ciara line of socks, scrunchies and clothing is now also in the works.
“The success of lockdown has meant there’s been an amazing community. As soon as you launch any products, the website crashes. You’ve got the audience there ready, whereas before it would have been a harder sell. I’ve understood the power of having an audience and a community because when you do have products and they are good quality, you can quite easily drip feed them out,” she said.
When she’s not busy training clients and building her brand, Ciara’s giving back to the community that’s lifted her up during such a difficult period. She started ‘Small Business Shoutouts’ using social platforms like Instagram to promote other small businesses and encourage the Body by Ciara squad to also support her community.
Top three tips from Body by Ciara for other small businesses:
● Notice the trends happening around you: with more time on their hands and missing socialising and physical activities, working out became a priority for many over lockdown, including those new to fitness. Ciara’s online business tapped into this national and global trend - and enjoyed success as a result.
● Know when to expand your repertoire – and your team: as Ciara’s online business grew, she needed help to teach dozens of classes per week. By hiring more staff, she was able to expand her repertoire to introduce new styles of classes and reach more people with varied fitness goals.
● Overcome your fears: Prior to lockdown, Ciara never had any ambition to do online classes, which she says she found “scary” - she didn’t feel she could perform and instruct on camera at the same time, and be judged by others. The lockdown gave her the push she needed to take her business online, and the Body by Ciara Squad was born.