Lockdown start-ups find new ways to do business in Oxfordshire

Eye watering amounts, hundreds of billions, have been spent supporting people and businesses to ride out the huge impact of the pandemic. Despite the pain for many existing businesses, there are positive signs in Oxfordshire too from new businesses emerging full of great ideas, optimism and a fresh take on what it means to be an entrepreneur. They all want to be doing something positive for a community, a cause or because it can make an impact.

At a two-day Boot Camp in Oxford, organised by OxLEP Business, fifteen people have been getting to grips with some of the essentials needed to make a success from their ideas. Each of them found being locked down gave them more determination to start a business or change how they were going to approach business. In fact, all of them have businesses which have been shaped by their pandemic experience.

Hannah Bironza calls herself the Gypsy Baker. She is alive with enthusiasm for her new business. “I’m bringing people together online to bake together” she explained. “Back in 2020 everyone was stuck at home, short of company outside their own family and eager to know how to bake bread. That was my stimulus.” Her idea was simplicity itself. Combining the power of video Zoom chats with her passion for baking, people who’d never met before joined in and learned to make bread. “My grandfather had a bakery in Wantage and we have some gypsy heritage, so the Gypsy Baker is a good name” she explained. “What people actually get is far more than a baking skill. It has become a series of little communities. It’s creative, it’s connecting with nature and it’s good for people’s general wellbeing.”

At the Boot Camp, Hannah was busy pulling together fresh ideas to broaden her business. “I have evolved into offering what I am calling Kitchen Stories, with chefs and bakers telling their stories about foraging or their approach to baking. It’s proving really successful so far.”

“Here at the Boot Camp there is a real buzz. I feel supported and you just can’t put a price on being here and hearing how other people are solving their problems. It’s inspiring.”

To build any business from scratch takes energy, resources, and know-how. Most of all it needs connections. OxLEP Business been busy offering a wide range of help online for the last 18 months, but this is the first time it has been able to bring people together in one space. Sarah Beal, who runs their eScalate programme to support social enterprises and businesses with growth potential, says it’s great to see everyone together.

“These are all new businesses who have seen how things can be done differently, partly as a result of their experiences over the last 18 months. Now, they are eager not only to make a living and a profit, but have an impact too.”

There has been a significant growth in the number of businesses who are adopting this more purposeful approach, looking beyond profit. It is hard to find a good side to COVID-19, but a growth in concerns about being more sustainable, more community-focused, or generally being a ‘force for good’ is probably one of them.

Another woman entrepreneur, Sam Brown, is in the final stages of setting up a new brewery Roots Brew Space in Oxford. Initially, she and her colleagues borrowed brewing space from the Teardrop Pub in Oxford. Now they are about to launch a range of IPAs, sour beers and lager. Unusually, they are looking to complement the rush for real ale by going for canned products.

“Lockdown made us harden our resolve to be an environmental business” Sam explained. “For instance, we have sourced local malt and hops. We have also invested in equipment that enables us to use the carbon dioxide emitted during brewing to purify it and use in the carbonation process for our beers. As we go on, we are finding more and more low carbon elements within our business.”

To Sam, the sense of ‘doing the right thing’ has been liberating. “We aren’t trading yet, but we have discovered a supportive network of businesses during this research and set-up stage. Now with OxLEP help we are getting ready to scale up.”

Grant Hayward, of the Oxfordshire Social Enterprise Partnership, who have been running part of the programme for OxLEP said: “It has been remarkable seeing how some people have moved more towards social enterprise. Even existing businesses are reviewing what they are doing and exploring how they can give back something or provide a service to a community by operating commercially. So, without doubt, there is more to come from this sector.”

OxLEP programme manager Sarah Beal says the energy coming from this rapidly growing type of business is going to be a feature of Oxfordshire’s economy in future. “There’s no doubt they are here to stay. Now we are recovering from the pandemic, we want to hear from anyone looking to run a business, whether they are thinking about a social enterprise or not. Whatever the business idea, the help we can provide is free.”

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