SME MD, Richard Askew shares his business’s experience through the pandemic and beyond.
Across the world, people contemplate the effects of the pandemic and attempt to gain learnings from the experience so that ‘we’ can become more resilient for the future. SMEs in our region, the backbone of our York and North Yorkshire economy, have little time for reflection but do look to peers for learnings through lived experiences.
As Managing Director of Askew Brook, a digital software development business on the Yorkshire Coast, I look back to early 2020 and business was good. Growing at around 10% year on year, we’d expanded the team from 4 to 7 and were fortunate enough to have some prestigious clients locally and across the North.
As COVID took hold, projects in the pipeline were postponed. Fortunately, we had some ongoing retained business that kept things ticking over. As a digital agency used to trying out new things, we decided to put our skills to good use supporting businesses around us who were really struggling.
Theatres were shut with audiences forced to stay at home. The UK theatre and production industry was losing crucial revenue with estimates putting box office and retail revenue losses at over £1billion. Askew Brook decided to help an existing client, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, to stream their first ever event online. Reviewed by the New York Times, this received fantastic plaudits.
Throughout lockdown, the hospitality sector was among the hardest hit sectors and to this day, spending is 25% lower than 2019. Before the NHS App was launched, we developed a test and trace system for pubs and restaurants. This was offered free to Scarborough-based pubs and cafes for 3 months whilst also being available to buy across the rest of the UK. The tool enabled these businesses to partially re-open and welcome back reduced numbers of customers in a safe way. For us, this was our first time actually building a product and it has given us greater confidence to experiment and expand into new territories.
So, what now? Work delayed due to the pandemic has recently been kick-started. What did we learn as an SME? Clichés are true; cash is king and agility is key to survival. Without a strong, dedicated team, Askew Brook would not be here today and I hope this team continues to work together long into the future. Like many other businesses, we were reminded about the importance of community and our role within it. Together with other local businesses, we raised £2000 for the Marcus Rashford School meal campaign and we celebrated loudly the news that government will permanently allow children from certain families to have access to free school meals.
The world continues to turn and challenges continue to make doing business interesting. The pandemic has shown us that remote working is not only possible, but brings with it a raft of benefits. We always had to work that bit harder to attract people to the Yorkshire Coast away from cities. We no longer have a recruitment issue, as we are fully remote and are now a team of 8. Not only does remote working help us to recruit the right people with the right skills, we now have the capacity to increase our reach across the North West allowing our business to grow.
As Chair of the English Policy Unit with the FSB, I recognise that the country and our region relied on small businesses throughout the pandemic and that they absolutely stepped up to the challenge and, in many cases, went above and beyond to provide services to the vulnerable within society. We’re not out of this difficult period yet. Those same businesses who we relied on have recently been hit with National Insurance increases, record inflation as well as record energy and fuel costs, right at the time when COVID loan repayments and VAT deferment payments become due. Most businesses will find a way to get through this. They always do. Tenacity and resilience are their trademarks. As SMEs make up 99.2% of total businesses in the UK, policy makers at both local and national levels need to develop supportive policies to enable them to be viable for the future. With support from organisations like the FSB and the York & North Yorkshire Growth Hub, local SMEs like Askew Brook will continue to adapt and become an even stronger part of our region’s greener, fairer, economy.