Beginning a New Business During Lockdown

Pen and notebook with the words "WHERE TO NEXT" on the cover.

Today we beg your indulgence to share a little of the experience of starting a business during the current lockdown for Covid-19. We’d love to hear how you are all coping with the changes you’ve been experiencing too.

Hasten Slowly

It took a me long time to get to the stage of setting up a business. Some people take out loans and other forms of credit and just go for it, but that’s just not my nature. I need to operate from a position of financial security, so the only way I was ever going to set up as my own boss would be to pay off my mortgage and build up enough “rainy day” money to see me through. Some other people are bolder, but, as my Grannie always said, you can’t live other people’s lives, only your own.

Business Plans

One of the advantages of taking the slow approach is not having to apply for start-up grants or loans, but I found it helpful to draw up a business plan. I used knowledge gained from my Masters all those years ago in Aberystwyth – I’m sure only Judith Broady-Preston could have got this working class, dyed-in-the-wool cataloguer to understand why we need visions and aims and not just objectives! I also tapped into some of the resources that high street banks have online. There’s loads out there, but these are the ones I found helpful.

Making the Right Tax Decisions

One of the things that really scared me was tax and National Insurance. Again, I think this may be because of my working class roots – the fear of “getting in trouble with the authorities.” Of course, as an Ayrshire native, I’m just going to blame the bard, whose poem ‘The Deil’s Awa’ Wi’ The Exciseman‘ we had to learn for the Festival in Primary 6.

I spoke to HMRC several times over the last three years, as I built up to going freelance. Their general helpline staff were always incredibly helpful, and usually at some point in the call would tell my apologetic self that they were happy to speak to people anxious about not paying their taxes (and then getting a big unexpected bill in future). Investigations into tax evaders cost a lot of money, compared to reassuring law-abiding citizens that they don’t owe the government any extra cash.

I also spoke to colleagues I respect, some of whom have registered as sole traders and others as limited companies. It was difficult to know which would be better for me. Ultimately, a really helpful HMRC adviser, whose Mum was a librarian and so just really got me, said, “Why don’t I go through the jargon we use and then you can librarian the issue online?” This was immensely helpful in giving me agency over this tricky decision. With the background of the conversations I’d had, it took me 15 minutes using the search box on to find the information I needed to make my decision. There isn’t a right or wrong answer – there’s only what you think is going to be best for your business. Here’s the jargon that helped me find what I needed:

Registering as Self-employed

Once I had answered all these questions to my own satisfaction, it really was very simple to register as self-employed.

At the end of the online process, there were links to other useful resources, including webinars which sounded hugely boring but have actually been helpful and reassuring. I clicked through to them because I figured they would be like the Information Literacy sessions so many colleagues offer students each October. They absolutely were. I opted for the pre-recorded basic one, Self-employment – Let’s Get Started and then picked up some shorter, more specific ones on their YouTube channel.

There is also a lot of information on the site about coronovirus, outlining various forms of relief and benefits available. I’ve opted not to look into that yet, as my decision to save mightily before going freelance means I don’t meet thresholds for relief, and, in any case, I feel I’m in a fortunate position right now, compared to many people. The main page on what to do if self-employed and facing Covid-19-related issues is here, in case you need it.


Banking is the set-up area in which I have been affected by the current pandemic. Most banks have closed to new customers, because there is so much for them to do supporting the businesses they have. I’ve been lucky because I have been able to submit an application to the bank with whom I have my personal banking, but things are moving slowly. Both they and HMRC have advised me to have invoices paid into “a low activity account” so that if an inspection of my accounts is needed it won’t be too complicated. I’m using a small savings account for this purpose until my business banking is set up. My clients have been really understanding about that.

“The Best Laid Schemes …”

Again, I’m quoting Burns, and my Scottish cynicism has helped – as well as the advice from my Management module at Aber all those years ago, that the best business plans have flexibility built into them. I’d planned a three-way split of income-generating activities: Consultancy (cataloguing, writing policy documents, helping individual clients sort out their books and papers); Training (running events to train people how to catalogue, and acting as an event organiser for associates training across related areas); and Writing (principally my books, which have been very slow to progress while I was working as an academic – an environment that just wasn’t productive for me personally). But, because I’m hard-wired for disaster planning, when I wrote my business plan, I asked these three questions:

  1. What will I do if there is an economic global crisis?
  2. What will I do if for some reason I can’t go out and train people?
  3. What will I do if my anchor client can’t give me regular cataloguing work and I need to tout for business elsewhere?

So, when the pandemic happened, and all three of these emergency scenarios came into play, I was a little bit ready.

While colleagues in HE have been pivoting to online teaching, with many of them having to sacrifice almost all their own research and writing time to do so, I’ve pivoted the other way. I have some small income streams from consultancy, and I will have book royalties on their way, but I’ve also started to take on other more immediate pieces of writing. When we launched the first version of the website, we expected to major on Training. However, by the time we were able to go live, there was a greater emphasis on Writing, and especially non-academic writing. I even signed up for a short course led by freelance journalist and journalism lecturer Abigail Edge, which has taught me how to pitch to mainstream publications.

It’s been brilliant to connect with people outside libraries and academia on bookish subjects, and although I was full of Scottish doom and gloom about not being able to just catalogue a whole lot of stuff (something to which I’d been looking forward), I actually prefer the new business model. Obviously, not the reason for it – like everyone, the global pandemic has crept closer and closer and infected first people I knew, then people I consider friends and now even a couple of people I love. I’m not glad for the current situation. However, as someone who started out in a working class family on a single income because of parental disability, I consider myself hugely fortunate to be where I currently am.

I hope anyone reading this article finds some useful links to resources, and I hope that you too can weather out the current storms.

Disclaimer: links to sites outside do not indicate endorsement or a business relationship with other sites – they are simply pages that seem informative for readers.

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