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5 lessons from starting a business during lockdown

The last year has been strange for all of us. It’s certainly a unique time to start up a business. Muddy Trowel was founded at the start of April last year – and was a response to the UK going into its first lockdown, helping gardeners to get plants that would otherwise have “withered on the vine” at nurseries and garden centres (see our earlier blog about it here).

There’s been quite a lot of interest in Muddy Trowel, precisely because it’s a lockdown business. I’ve been on the radio and at conferences talking about our experience. People have been intrigued how we managed to launch a fully-fledged business within 14 days and then how we evolved the business after the initial lockdown ended. So I thought I’d distil the lessons we’ve learned just in case they’re useful to others who are striking out with their own idea and also so we have this as a record to look back on when all this madness is hopefully over. So here are five “growing in inhospitable conditions” tips for you:

  1. Be decisive, move quickly. To respond meaningfully to the initial crisis in the industry, we knew we had to make rapid progress. So, in our first team meeting, we set a launch date (just fourteen days away), agreed who would do what, and when decisions needed to be made by so that work could be done. This forced us to make those decisions, largely based on gut feel, including how we priced, our name, our choice of web platform, how we would operate and so on. Because we never delayed a decision, we hit our deadline with a product and site that was 80% right. Under different conditions we might got to a 90% answer but have spent 14 months, not 14 days getting there!
  1. Keep things clear and simple. The world was always complex, but it got messier and noisier last year. Lots of the rituals that we’ve established in our normal working lives help deal with this complexity. Didn’t get the subtext in that meeting? Don’t worry, you can chat it over with a colleague over lunch. Forgot to send the agenda for that meeting? Don’t worry, you can have a quick chat on the way over in the cab. Working from your bedroom or home office, without these casual connections means you have to  keep things really simple. Simplicity (alongside sustainability and joy) happens to be a core element of our brand so we try to walk the walk. We know what we deliver, we know who for, and we know how we are going to do it. And we can write it down on the back of an envelope. This clarity simplifies the way we work and also helps us prioritise. When we go wrong, it’s because we add unhelpful complexity.
  1. Build a team of all the talents. One of the great advantages of setting up during a crisis like this is that anyone you hire is as practically useful to you as anyone else, no matter where they live. This lack of dependency on geography enabled me to bring a team together from day one from as far afield as Yorkshire, Devon, and the South of France. It also meant that we could bring in people on a daily or part-daily basis – something much more difficult to do when commuting dominates people’s days. As a result, our team currently is made up of CEOs, partners, directors all working alongside grads. I’ve always been keen on the benefits of flat structures – something that has been made easier by lockdown.
  1. Don’t overpromise. This is a great time for pragmatic optimists. You need to believe you can achieve something that others wouldn’t dare trying, but you also need to understand that so much is out of your control. Not just the big things, like the economy or lockdowns, but also whether members of your team have to quarantine or whether suppliers have to close. So build some slack into the model. This goes both for your promise to customers (we were clear that we would promise 5 day delivery times to customers from the offset), to your team (I have created staged commitments to my founding team throughout and been clear on these at the outset – “you get this if we achieve this” being the approach), and to investors (we have created realistic projections for the business and ensured we don’t come back for cash before we said we would).
  1. Keep your promises. The great thing about not overpromising is that it raises the bar for meeting your commitments – and forces you to make good trade-offs. At the outset, we could have been more aggressive in marketing to customers in London before we had secured the plant supply for nurseries. Many of our “competitors” went down this route gaining lots of customers as a result, but with the outcome that those customers had to wait for several weeks to receive their plants. We aim for happy customers and to help them be more confident gardeners – our reviews testify to this.

This is what worked for us over the last nine months. Whatever the next nine months delivers,  we know that we’ll keep delivering simple, sustainable joy to you. Roll on spring!