Startup founder shares business survival tips during COVID-19
UNSW Founders entrepreneur Sarah Agboola (BMediaHons `14) has faced the insurmountable task of navigating a startup through COVID-19. Now, as her business expands into new markets, Sarah shares the impact of the pandemic on her business and how it continues to thrive despite challenging times.
Drawing on her own lived experience, Sarah started on a mission to help busy working parents reclaim time and balance in their life. In 2017, Sarah launched mtime, a service that matches parents with an in-home family assistant – referred to as a moncierge.
Part of mtime’s unique business model is the concentrated effort to hire women who are new or returning to the workforce, in particular migrants and refugees. In just three years, mtime has paid over $1M in women’s wages and provided almost 20,000 hours of free time to busy families. With this success, Sarah had grand plans for mtime to expand into other markets - that was until COVID-19.
“My immediate concern when COVID-19 emerged was how we would ensure the safety of our community, keep our staff employed and care for the needs of the families who relied on us for support.
“To help manage safety we had to implement some policies. While we had a few cancellations of the service, we witnessed a number of SOS moments from parents who were experiencing acute stress and major time-crunch. This new reality accelerated our growth, both geographically and technically,” says Sarah.
With an increase in demand, mtime needed more staff, but the COVID-19 restrictions prohibited Sarah and her team from conducting their usual face-to-face interviews and in-home training.
“We saw this as a real problem; while our formal interview and training processes were quite time consuming and expensive, we considered them necessary to ensure the quality of our moncierges.
“But as it turns out, that belief was incredibly self-limiting,” she says.
During the pandemic, Sarah built and trialled an online recruitment and training model which has since allowed her to scale mtime into Sydney.
“Expanding was something we originally planned to do in late 2021 as we thought it would be quite laborious. As it turns out, we were able to do so without compromising on quality at all”.
In addition to streamlining the recruitment process, Sarah realised that several organisations were rallying to offset the stress of their employees, so mtime began offering customised programs to companies so they could support their working parents.
“We’d always planned to have a B2B offering where businesses could either gift the service to employees or use it as a return to work package after having children - but the pandemic presented a more acute need. Businesses can now support their workforce by providing them with tangible support while they work from home,” says Sarah.
Mtime has gone from strength-to-strength, testament to Sarah’s tenacity to push forward with her vision of ensuring everyone has the support they need. But as every entrepreneur would know, success doesn’t come without its challenges. Sarah shares her four key learnings from navigating a startup through hard times.
1. Support other startup founders
Where possible, support your fellow leaders in the broader founder community. Remaining open to new conversations can lead to an exchange of useful information and equally important, can build a sense of community during these intense times.
2. Remember to work “on” and not just “in” the business
Before the pandemic, I was so caught up in dealing with everyday operational concerns, that I never had a chance to think about what mtime needed to do to move forward. By stepping back and assessing the bigger picture, I was able to work “on” the business, not just “in” the business.
3. Be kind to yourself and be mindful of your mental health
Your body and your mind are your biggest assets. Don’t get caught up in the need to “pivot” at the expense of your well-being - after all, being an entrepreneur is ridiculously difficult even when there isn’t a pandemic. So, you owe yourself some self-compassion.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask
Ask for help, ask for space to think, ask the universe for the kind of connection you need. You’ll be amazed at how the tone of how you speak to yourself can change the outcome of your day, your month or even the toughest year of your life.