How to Turn the Corner in the Middle of a Pandemic

Business lessons and tips from Vintage Cash Cow

As we mark a year since the pandemic defined a ‘new normal’, Vintage Cash Cow, the UK’s first one platform which offers people an easy way to sell old stuff, is sharing its learnings after turning the business on its head during the lockdown. Having flirted with wrecking balls in the past, embracing the pain and learning from it allowed the company to be pragmatic about the pandemic and what it could or could not control and change. As 2020 arrived, Vintage Cash Cow was ready to move into a strong and exciting new chapter, supporting more people in generating an extra income sustainably by sending in their unused items through a postal-free service.

From a 70% drop in monthly boxes intake and 25 out of a total 32 staff furloughed, to bringing back all but one employee from furlough and growing the team from 32 to 52, Vintage Cash Cow’s chastened and pragmatic team tackled the initial pandemic setbacks and achieved an annual turnover of £4.5 million.

David Weaver, co-founder of Vintage Cash Cow says:

Embrace the pain and learn from it

There’s no welcome pack when you enter the business world, and the lessons are usually learned the hard way. The faster you accept the fact that it’s not all smooth sailing, the easier it will be for you to use it to your advantage and adapt. Ray Dalio taught me through his book Principles that your outlook and the way you deal with negative situations determines whether you can turn your luck around and profit from it, or end up being defined and defeated by it. We all have a choice of either embracing the pain and learning from it or avoiding it and staying stuck. Hard situations are likely to come about either way, so it’s more a matter of how you deal with them. Just know for certain that they are definitely coming.

Giving up is not an option

There was a moment in 2019 when we had to move our outbound post to a new company. An integration issue caused knock-on effects that lasted months and threatened to derail everything. We had stock building up that we couldn’t sell. Was it a stressful situation? Yes. Did it make me lose sleep and want to stay in bed some days? Definitely. But while you’re still in business, you don’t have the option of giving up. Instead, we learned the importance of staying proactive despite unfortunate curveballs which kill all momentum. While absorbing the aftershocks, we also focused on keeping the team strong, continuing to spend our time together even outside of work too. While you still got some time or still got some money, it’s important to never give up.

A healthy mindset makes a big difference

Expect to fail a lot, and always learn from your mistakes. If being an entrepreneur had a tagline, that would quite literally be it. It’s like an A/B testing business, your own life, and other people’s choices with real repercussions. Resilience, grit, and positivity are essential. It’s not possible to have back-up options for every function of your operation. Periods when you do not know what to do need to be expected and are ok. Be pragmatic, accept what you can’t change, and then go all-in with the things you do control. We couldn’t help that our core audience was at the highest risk from the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak. But we reacted fast and made our free home collection option far more prevalent on our adverts, website, and all ongoing communications to customers.

Be solution-oriented

The best kind of entrepreneurship is the kind that solves a problem people frequently encounter. One of the reasons why our service weathered the storm is because it offers a real contribution to people’s quality of life and income. Antony Charman, an antique trader with a lot of experience in running popular roadshow events but little experience online, came up with the idea for Vintage Cash Cow with the help of his kids. They noted that if people exchange CDs, games, and phones on Music Magpie, there must also be interest in an equally simple way to sell old antiques and collectibles. A gap in the market that they were right about! The digitisation of the silver surfers is what’s made the timing perfect. This allowed him to move from a one-man band to a vision of co-creating a business that has the capacity to help the whole country sell items easily. If what you’re building is truly helping people, it can keep the flame alive when you’re close to throwing in the towel.

Leading by example is old school, but leading by storytelling is the future

Movie creators maintain the people’s attention for up to three hours by having a strong story with relatable characters and underlying themes. Thinking about your customers’ journey and story will immediately get their attention as opposed to just talking about yourself. People need to understand how what you’re offering fits into their lives and helps them. When we started showing people what they can do with the money earned through decluttering with our help, interest shot up almost immediately. We went from telling people how much money they might earn, to literally showing previous customers spending it. Showing a customer treating their friends to a takeaway got a far better response than photos of jewellery that earned someone else more than £1,000. No one’s ever actually woken up in the morning and said they want a business coach. What they actually want is more profit, more happiness, more time in the business. This is why we shifted our messaging away from what we do, and more towards what the customer will do as a result of using us.

Listening to customers is key, but watch what they do as well 

Going from plan A to a plan that works is only possible when you listen and watch the people you’re building the service for. Keeping many open lines of communication gives you a wider range of insights. Don’t just rely on your review platform. For our first two years, every customer received a plain, personal and simple ask for help email from me. When people are replying back to a founder personally, it’s amazing what they’re prepared to share. Every month a team analyses all replies to spot opportunities to improve the service. We speak to every single customer we buy a box from and are constantly asking how the experience has been for them. But it’s not always about what your customers tell you. Before Henry Ford came around, people just wanted faster horses. A great example of this from our third year is when we noticed one in four boxes had ‘fragile’ on it in marker pen. Since then, we supply two ‘fragile’ stickers to every customer that joins, which can only build their confidence when deciding if they’re going to send a box. Now it’s rarer that a box arrives without one of these stickers, so while they never asked for it, we know they love it.

Empowering your team can empower your business

Sometimes the best kind of leadership oversees instead of suffocates. It’s your job to create conditions for autonomous decisions if you truly trust your people. Accountability should be an important collective value. Trust goes both ways; if you want those who help build your company to trust you, you need to do the same in return and believe in what they have to offer. This relies on radical transparency, especially with the numbers that matter in a time of crisis. What gets measured gets managed and the more you share with your team, the more they can help you get out of sticky situations. We learned from earlier near-death challenges that we can’t benefit from our staff’s similar experiences if we’re trying to fix something without them, in a founding team silo. We now have a habit of approaching things honestly, talking about problems, being real with everyone. This allowed us to navigate the storm as a different, stronger group this time around. With constant visibility on their own and the business’ KPIs, autonomy to improve their remit, and a little sprinkle of encouragement, a flat structure can definitely flourish.

Be prepared to pull the plug fast when it isn’t going your way

When drastically increasing your advertising spend, be prepared to drastically increase your analysis of the results. A massive increase in interest in your business doesn’t always lead to an equally large increase in revenue. Even before the pandemic, we were faced with a seemingly positive situation that caught us off guard. After receiving significant investment from our Dutch partners, we were able to increase our daily ad spend 10x from one month to the next. This allowed us to generate more leads, however, despite hiring more people, we weren’t in a position to cope with the demand. For a brief period of time, we lost control over the quality of the service, which was one of our key differentiators. This led to receiving fewer boxes than anticipated, making the ad costs unsustainable. However, we’re fortunate for the learnings. The painful process put a magnifying glass on many parts of every element of the operation. We plugged some leaks, innovated our CRM processes, and used the forced slow-down period that followed to rebuild from the ground up. In hindsight, we should never have increased the ad spend so fast, as you can still stress-test your business while gradually growing.

Sarah Arrow

About the author

Sarah Arrow created the popular 30-day blogging challenge back in 2007. Since then 750,000+ business owners have learned to blog and grow their business through her content, her challenge and her blogging books.

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