Coronavirus: The businesses crowdfunding to survive

By Hamish Mackay
BBC News

Image source, Craving Coffee
Image caption,
Matt and Rachel Ho have raised more than £21,000 so far for their business Craving Coffee

"Running a small business is touch and go at the best of times," says Rachel Ho, director of an independent coffee shop in Tottenham, north London. And these, it seems fair to say, are far from the best of times.

Ahead of warnings the UK's economy could shrink by 35%, the Treasury set aside billions to keep businesses afloat during the coronavirus lockdown.

But for many, access to that funding is proving too difficult or too slow - and fewer than 2% of the 300,000 inquiries to the government's loan scheme are thought to have reached fruition so far.

After being told she was not eligible for a grant because she pays business rates via her landlord, and after getting "nowhere" with her insurance claim, Ms Ho decided to set up a crowdfunding page for Craving Coffee, which she owns with her husband Matt.

Within 24 hours, they had raised two thirds of their £25,000 target.

The team at the coffee shop were "blown away", Ms Ho tells the BBC.

Without this money, which will go towards rent, loan repayments, suppliers and utility bills, the business was set to "go under", she says.

"We were prepared to go bankrupt. We knew the lockdown would outlast any reserves we had."

When the lockdown announcement came, they told their staff there were no more shifts and sold off as much stock as possible to recoup what they could.

"That was a very emotional and stressful day."

But in the end, Ms Ho says, it was the local community that saved them - with donations ranging from £5 to £1,000.

"Tottenham is really good like that. It's an area where people really get behind things," she says. "I'm not surprised by the passion but I'm a little bit overwhelmed by the amounts people have given."

Image source, Craving Coffee
Image caption,
Ms Ho says she was "blown away" by the local community's generosity

And Craving Coffee is not the only business taking this approach.

US crowdfunding website GoFundMe says it has seen a 246% rise in British business campaigns compared with the same time last year, while UK-based Crowdfunder has also seen a spike, as well as a doubling of its daily website traffic.

It is important to note some crowdfunded businesses fail even in normal times, and for those investing money through crowdfunding, there is a risk of losing that money if the business goes under. However, those considering their contribution a donation may be less concerned about the risk.

One new scheme from Crowdfunder, to help those affected by the virus, encourages businesses to offer rewards - rather than equity - in exchange for donations.

At Craving Coffee, offerings ranged from drinks, food and clothing, to invitations to a reopening party.

And businesses using different platforms have taken a similar approach.

Ricky Fox runs a children's entertainment company in Uxbridge.

The business - Captain Fantastic - employed five full-time staff and 40 entertainers before coronavirus. It was putting on about 200 children's parties a month.

Social distancing changed that.

"People starting postponing their parties," he says. "We had 200 bookings a month, then it started to drop, then everyone started postponing, then they cancelled. We went down to zero."

It had taken 10 years for Mr Fox and co-founder Tommy Balaam to build up a business that ground to a halt in a matter of days.

They furloughed some staff, but that is where government support ended. The business operates from home offices, so they are not eligible for a grant, and both founders took dividends rather than salaries.

Realising they needed to offer something different, Mr Fox and Mr Balaam launched free online entertainment videos for children, and asked for donations in return via GoFundMe and PayPal.

Image source, Captain Fantastic
Image caption,
Captain Fantastic now does dozens of online children's shows a week, and asks for donations in return

More than 6,000 people tuned in to their first live video, and their followers on Facebook soon rose from 3,000 to more than 50,000.

Captain Fantastic now does 30 live sessions a week, with the donations split between the entertainers involved in each video.

"It's not much at all but it pays for the staff that are left and it gives our entertainers something to pay their rent with," says Mr Fox.

"It keeps us afloat and that is what we wanted. At the moment, we can survive."

The Treasury told the BBC that local authorities were working to ensure "eligible ratepayers" receive the grants they are entitled to, adding that those that are not entitled to grants can still receive "other measures".

But even those who are entitled to other support are struggling to access it, or finding it is not enough.

Dave Grant is the managing director of Fierce Beer, an Aberdeen-based craft brewery that has seen its sales drop by 75% due to the lockdown.

The company used the government furlough scheme for some of its staff and got business rate relief - but still needed cash to survive.

Mr Grant applied for one of the government-backed loans announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last month - but was turned down by the bank after being told his company was "not a viable business".

In the end, he turned to crowdfunding, offering people a 50% return on their pledge - "Spend 50 quid to get 75 quid's worth of beer... it's easy for people to recognise what they're going to get."

Fierce Beer raised £156,000 in a day.

"We couldn't honestly believe it," says Mr Grant. "We were constantly refreshing the total and it was unbelievable. It was so nice to think so many people wanted to help us out."

Image source, Fierce Beer
Image caption,
Fierce Beer surpassed its crowdfunding target in just one day

So what is it that inspires such generosity, is it simply the promise of free goods or services?

"I think people are starting to realise that we're going to have to work together to get through this," says Ms Ho.

"I think everyone's feeling so helpless, they just want to help where they can... and they want the business to be here when they get back."