Surrounded by candles and in a downward dog pose, Meegan Bradley, a 34-year-old yoga teacher, is leading a class of 30 for an hour of stretching and relaxation. But for the first time as a practitioner, she is not in her a studio. Instead Bradley is live-streaming via Zoom and her students are participating in their own homes.
With the coronavirus forcing businesses to close their doors as governments around the world move to either ban or limit social contact, many freelancers and self-employed people are finding their income decimated by the virus. The catastrophe is forcing some small companies and freelancers like Bradley to turn their business online. This is how they are doing it.
“The cancellations started a week ago and people were putting their memberships on hold,” says Bradley, who lives in Margate and runs Hotpod Yoga. “It progressed quickly. In the end I had to pause the 250 memberships. While I was panicking, my wife started looking at solutions and suggested creating an online business.”
Encouraged by the supportive messages via the likes of Instagram, email and Facebook, Bradley quickly created a website, meeganbradley.com, and started offering her customers three options: live-streaming yoga classes priced between £2-£8; aweb video series ; and one-to-one sessions online for about £30.
How much will the shift online compensate for the physical sessions? “There’s absolutely no way will I can scratch the amount we make,” Bradley says. “It’s all completely devastating but I’m being productive and masking how worried I am.”
Jack Wallington, 38, runs a garden design business in London. He says Covid-19 has led to much of his work being been cancelled or postponed. “I only started the business two years ago, and although I’ve been lucky to get off to a good start with a number of exciting commissions from some wonderful clients, I don’t have a war chest of cash to fall back on,” he says.
In addition to postponing work for at-risk customers, he says all talks to promote his first gardening book, Wild About Weeds, have been cancelled. “Writing doesn’t pay particularly well, so I was reliant on all of the small fees for talks, plus the extra promotion they give for the book where I might make one or two extra sales.”
However, Wallington has found new ways to help fill the gap: he now runs garden design meetings with clients via video calls, which allow them to take him on a virtual tour of their garden. He’s also starting to explore different revenue streams such as online courses for people wanting to learn more about growing vegetables, fruit and herbs. “This is a topic I’m incredibly passionate about because I know it will help people, growing crops to mitigate self-isolation boredom, and it’s good for you too,” he says.
Like millions of others, he has strict rules on what remaining work he can do that is not online as a result of the government’s lockdown rules this week. “I’ve actually now postponed all ‘in garden’ jobs for at least these three weeks. The only ones I might still consider are those with side access and within walking distance, so without transport and client contact. Designing gardens from home can continue.”
With a proliferation of course-creation platforms such as Teachable and Udemy, where business owners are running courses on everything from social media management and Reiki to photography and coding, the e-learning market is booming. The value of the sector is estimated to jump to $300bn (£252bn) by 2025, up from $190bn in 2018, according to the research firm Global Market Insights.
With the coronavirus pandemic rapidly accelerating, e-learning platforms have been reporting a surge in the numbers of entrepreneurs and businesses moving their content online.
“We are seeing a dramatic increase in online course creation across every single industry right now – everything from business and marketing to personal development and fitness,” says Andrea Merson, the director of marketing at online course platform Thinkific.
“It’s an extremely challenging time for most businesses right now, and it has been powerful and reassuring to see that a lot of firms have been able to stay connected to their customers and keep running by building their own online courses.”
Udemy, an online learning and teaching marketplace, is reporting a double-digit growth in learning from countries where people are spending the majority of their time at home. “Some of the most popular topics include time management and personal development,” says the vice president of marketing, Llibert Argerich.
He says the necessary ingredients for instructor success include expertise and passion for the topic, and a commitment to creating a great course-taking experience for students. “Our best-performing instructors are responsive to student questions and feedback and continually work to improve their courses,” he says.
WebinarNinja reported a 400% jump in website traffic in the week to 21 March, and new users had tripled. “We as a webinar software always knew that this is where the future is heading, but the future just came early for all of us,” says Omar Zenhom, the company’s co-founder and chief executive.
Suzanne Vaughan, 36, who lives in Harrogate and is the founder and director of creative events companies Make a Wish Entertainment and Fantasy Kids Clubs, is trying to stay positive and proactive.
“All our events have been wiped overnight, so if we don’t turn things around now, we will have to close our doors for ever,” she says. “So instead of sinking we are swimming fast underwater with our jet packs on.”
As of last week, Vaughan started to use the studio space she usually delivers workshops in to run online classes such as children singalong sessions and mindfulness classes for families, from £2 to £7. “We are taking it online so people can join the platform and enjoy classes and connect virtually to one other,” says Vaughan, who is running the sessions via Zoom. “I think a virtual community gives an uplifting feeling that still connects us humans.”
While she says it will not provide as much revenue as the physical sessions, she believes online “will go some way to helping keep our studio running and cover the costs of the studio space. Also it does mean that we can reach out to a wider audience who usually don’t come to the classes.”
Rosamund de la Hey, 49, the co-owner of Mainstreet Trading Company, a book and homeware store and cafe in Melrose in the Scottish Borders, says the company is organising an online shop.
“Like everyone in retail, fundamentally [the virus] has had a huge impact. But what has been heartening is that we have received loads of phone orders and email orders.
“The most important thing we’re doing is getting our online bookshop up and running, which will also populate with non-book products people need, like coffee and soaps that we sell anyway. Obviously it’s only going to replace a small proportion of what comes through the door, but it’s critical to make online work and offer local delivery where we can and post other orders out.”
Dr Shirin Lakhani, 44, the founder of Elite Aesthetics in Hythe Green in Kent, which offers treatments such as Botox and facials, has kept her clinic open, but she has moved all her consultations and follow-up appointments online.
“People have been cancelling, especially our older clients who have been advised to self-isolate,” she says. “The majority of my business is face to face, so obviously I am concerned, but I’m more concerned about the wellbeing of my staff and patients. I am doing more video consultations and follow-ups for things like skin conditions using FaceTime and WhatsApp.”
However, she admits she’s concerned about the future. “I don’t think it’s sustainable long term as the majority of my customers require injections or hands-on contact.”
Mike Cherry, the national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, says many companies are finding new ways to be resilient and generate income to help them survive.
“Small businesses are at the forefront of adapting and are keen new-to-firm innovators. Whether it be offering increased or new delivery or collection services or offering virtual guides to products or stores when premises aren’t accessible to customers, small businesses are trying to make this work.”
Alasdair Hutchison, the policy development manager at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, says people everywhere are having to change their lifestyles to adjust to the new normal.
“The good news is that freelancers and the self-employed are generally well-equipped to work remotely. In fact, our research has shown that nine out of 10 freelancers work away from the office at some point each year – and generally from home. So, even if it hasn’t been usual for freelancers until now, most will have some experience of working remotely through video calls, shared documents, online work systems and other vital technology.”
He says even freelancers who have not worked remotely before are finding innovative ways to adapt to the new situation.
However, Hutchison says: “The truth is, though, that remote working won’t be possible for all freelancers. There are some professions that simply can’t be continued remotely. And right now, there simply isn’t enough government provision for freelancers in this situation.”
Back in Margate, Bradley has been finding some positive consequences of shifting her business online. “I’m not limited to how many mats there are in the room,” she says. “In my first session I had almost 30 people join and from lots of different countries including Canada. It was amazing.”
Shifting online: how to set up a course
To create an online course, you need to have a skill that is teachable, such as baking, marketing or meditation. But a good online course will be very specific, so rather than “how to meditate”, something like “meditating to de-stress during coronavirus” is better. People need to instantly see why your course is for them.
Once the idea is refined, choose a name that is simple – no wordplay – and takes search engine optimisation into account. You want people to Google the words that make up the name of your course and find the one you have created.
You should also be sharing tips and advice on social media on this subject, so that people trust you to talk about this subject. If you have an online profile and have developed a relationship with your followers, and they are keen to read all the information you share about this subject, you have a ready-formed customer base for your course.
You should include text and video, as people have different tastes. Separate the information into modules and topics. Keep it simple, informative and digestible.
There are third-party hosting sites such as Thinkific, or you can create a password-protected page on your website, and sell through Eventbrite. Once your courses are selling well, you might like to invest in a proper online course website. I have done this through Wordpress, using the Learndash online course platform, and it works really well.
Think carefully about pricing: too low and it devalues your course; too high and people either will not buy it or will have very high expectations. If it then does not match the price tag, participants will not stick around to buy your next course, which, by the way, you should be designing as soon as the first one is launched because your existing customers will be easier to sell to than new ones.
Consider having a start date. Customers often need an incentive to purchase. Early-bird discounts can be useful – although many people are looking to up-skill while at home, so the current climate might be all the incentive they need. Annie Ridout