The lockdown side-hustles that turned into full-time businesses

By Dougal Shaw
Business reporter, BBC News

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Mobile grocery
Image caption,
Nisha Ravat says her business selling fruit and veg "started as a bit of a side-hustle"

When the pandemic took hold in 2020, many people who had lost work or been put on furlough started their own businesses as a way to make ends meet.

For some of these lockdown entrepreneurs, those companies have now become their day job and main source of income.

Delivering groceries in a 1970s milk float

"It started as a bit of a side-hustle, to be honest," says Nisha Ravat, 54, who had been a science teacher in Leicester for eight years when the pandemic began.

She loved her time in the classroom but had always had an entrepreneurial side and during the first lockdown had a brainwave.

She realised many people either needed or wanted food delivered to their doorsteps. So she decided to create a mobile grocery service that would travel around her community like an ice cream van.

Inspired by similar mobile grocers she had seen selling fruit and vegetables in India she got hold of a 1970s milk float from an old dairy firm, then divided her community into six routes that she could serve in a fixed pattern over six days. A brass bell would announce her arrival.

Image caption,
The van follows a set series of routes around Leicester each week

She originally bought enough food stock to last two days, but it had gone by lunchtime during her first round, she says.

"[At first] I couldn't see myself giving up teaching, but the business took off beyond my best-case scenario."

She puts the reason it took off down to finding a broad customer base of people who liked to shop in this way, because they were avoiding supermarkets, it was outdoors and gave a nostalgic sense of community, because people gathered at the van to chat.

She now runs the business with a team of seven. Her husband works on it full-time too, and their children also lend a hand. A third float is about to be added to the fleet. Nisha's expanding business has become her main focus and source of income.

"I didn't realise that starting your own business is so energising! I get up at 4am some days, excited."

'I'd always been looking to get out of the corporate job'

Image caption,
Andrew Woodhouse built his own smoker in his back garden

Prior to the pandemic, Andrew Woodhouse, 29, from south-east London, worked in the corporate events industry. When he was put on furlough he wanted to explore a business relating to fishing. He built a salmon smoker in his garden and began selling the delicacy in his neighbourhood.

Fast forward to the summer of 2022 and the business is doing well enough for him to make it his full-time job.

"Even though I could see things picking up [again] in the world of events," says Andrew, "I couldn't get my head into it anymore. I'd always been looking to get out of the corporate job."

Lockdown gave his fledgling business some unique selling opportunities that are gone now, he admits.

People were "living online" and had lots of time on their hands, which gave him a "captive audience". It's harder to get attention and find new customers now, he says, though he continues to post images of his fish regularly on Instagram, hoping to catch new customers.

The business brings him a subsistence income, but it's about more than money.

"The first feeling I had when I quit my full-time corporate job was a feeling of boundless opportunity and freedom. It's that, coupled with a feeling of total responsibility, which is something I've always wanted for myself. The buck stops with me," Andrew says.

Start-ups v company collapses

There was an increase in new business registrations in the UK in the first year of the pandemic.

In many ways the surge is surprising - financial shocks and recessions tend to result in fewer businesses being created. There was no government policy to specifically support start-ups - like the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which targeted established businesses in the hospitality industry.

New business registrations were 8% higher one year into the pandemic than in 2018-2019, driven by first-time solo entrepreneurs and new online retailers, according to a recent research paper by the Bank of England.

This increase wasn't necessarily offset by companies dissolving, due to bankruptcy or any other reason. Official figures suggest this was in fact lower than usual in the first year of the pandemic, though companies of course were receiving unprecedented financial support to survive, and indeed rules around dissolving companies were relaxed to give them more time.

Furlough gave would-be entrepreneurs a chance to explore ideas and lockdown conditions proved fertile ground for online retailers, says Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, a network that supports small businesses. But these new businesses really have to solve an ongoing problem for customers to maximise their chances of survival, she adds.

"The number of new enterprises set up over the pandemic is a heartening display of the deep pools of entrepreneurship, talent and innovation that we have in the UK," says Tina McKenzie, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

"But in order for these fledgling ventures to make it beyond the vital first few years, they need a supportive operating environment, with real action from the government on business rates, energy costs, late payment, and more."

'The old me felt backed into a corner'

Image caption,
Megan McCann and her co-founders developed their idea while she was on furlough

"I'd been burning the candle at both ends, looking back on it," says Megan McCann, 31, from west London.

She had worked in the art world before Covid struck, doing marketing for galleries and fairs. When she was put on furlough in early 2020 this gave her a chance to "reset", she says, to reassess her life, which she was finding hectic and stressful.

"Lockdown caused so much pain and uncertainty but the silver lining was that I had free time and mental space to dream," says Megan.

She used to cycle around London for work, something that helped her come up with her business idea."You couldn't rock up to meetings wearing head-to-toe lycra," she explains.

She would also frequently turn up to meet clients in new buildings and find there were no showers, or that her trousers or skirt were ripped.

During lockdown she launched the company M1LE LONDON. It makes a "commuter trouser" she designed with her business partner.

Image caption,
Megan McCann models her commuter trousers, which are designed for men

"The idea is that they're smart and functional, you can cycle in them, but you can also meet the CEO in them," she says.

The business is growing slowly, with sometimes only a handful of orders each week, but it is enough to cover her costs, invest in the business and draw a modest wage, she says. Initially, they only designed trousers for men as that was seen as their biggest customer base but now have plans to launch a women's collection.

She has no intention of going back to the art world. Running her own business gives her control over her time and a new sense of freedom, something she particularly appreciates since having her first baby recently.

"The old me would be amused that I was working in menswear," says Megan, chuckling.

"But she would also be relieved, because the old me felt backed into a corner and didn't feel she had many options besides running herself ragged."

You can find business reporter Dougal Shaw on Twitter