‘I might be crazy’: The people who set up new businesses during Covid

In an already chaotic year, these hardy souls started new businesses amid a pandemic

This article is part of a series focusing on hope, courage and resilience in the time of Covid-19

There won’t be many people who will forget 2020 or remember it with any fondness. Coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than a million people, sickened millions more and wrecked the global economy. It has trapped people in their homes, cost them their jobs, closed schools and destroyed holiday, wedding and even funeral plans.

But for some, 2020 will be unforgettable for happier reasons. It will be the year they started a new business, grew an existing one or set off down a path they may never have considered had it not been for the pandemic.

Optician Julie Neylon was on maternity leave from her business in Kilrush, Co Clare, when the world turned upside down. With her practice shut in March, she decided to set up an online gift shop she called Wild Atlantic Living. "After I opened the opticians in 2016 people used to always ask where I'd got this lamp or that cushion, stuff I'd bought to make the place homely," she says.


He uncle suggested she sell some “bits and bobs” so she gave over a small corner of her business to “candles, mugs lamps and coasters, bits of art work and signs and gadgets, a little treasure trove of stuff you wouldn’t find on the high street”, she says.

It was “just trickling along” but after lockdown the trickle stopped. “I sensed the gifts had the potential to be a standalone business but didn’t even have a functioning website.”

So Neylon asked 19-year-old part-time employee Jamie Mulqueen to design one, which went live in May, and today, she says wildatlanticliving.comis now as integral a part of her business as the optician side.

Louise Brooks and her partner Simon Dunne started renting a home in Dublin 4 a year ago after she got a job as a beauty therapist nearby and he started work as a chef close to their new home.

Fast forward to lockdown and they were both on the Covid pandemic unemployment payment and their one-bedroom apartment was looking pretty small. “By May, I was unemployed as the salon had closed and Simon had no word of a return to work. It took a huge toll on us mentally and yet we still told each other we would be okay each day.”

In June, Brooks got a short-term enterprise allowance from the Department of Social Welfare and took courses in setting up and managing a business. “We both tried to educate ourselves in what we needed to do when working for ourselves.”

Then a former colleague at her Sandymount beauty salon asked if she'd be keen to take on the upstairs of the premises they'd worked in for a salon of their own. "I agreed before she finished asking. I knew whether I was ready or not, I was doing this." Less than two weeks later the business was up and running.

Meanwhile, Dunne couldn't find work as a chef and there was no sign of his job coming back so he and his brother Gavin took action. A pub in Wicklow town had closed so they approached the landlord "with their concept", Brooks says.

And what was that concept? A gastro pub with comfort food and craft beers and cocktails, the Mariner Bar & Eathouse, which opened on September 25th. Business has been going well, despite coronavirus restrictions: “We had to turn customers away due to social distancing rules and still managed to run out of food by Saturday and needed to restock the kitchen for Sunday’s service,” she says.

When the bells rang out to mark the start of 2020, Annette Scanlon had no idea she'd be selling cheeses and chutneys by autumn. With a BA in hospitality management and a career in hotels and restaurants, she was working in the corporate food contracting business.

“With the pandemic, almost every single event disappeared and I had to find something else to do other than stare at the four walls,” she says. “So this was as much to keep myself sane as anything else.”

She set up a food grazing company and starting selling boxes and platters of Irish cheeses and home-made chutneys in high-end packages to people “as a kind of pick-me-up”.

Her new website, cheeseandchutney.ie has picked a lot of customers up in recent months. "I'd no idea at the start of the year I'd be doing this, but I want to keep it going. I think the pandemic and the changed world gave me a push. I've nothing to lose and everything to gain."

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Michael Fanning registered his hygiene supplies company North East Hygiene last November and admits now he'd no idea then what he was at. A few months later, the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of his business.

"We could source hand sanitiser when others struggled and soon had contracts with the likes of Musgraves/SuperValu, AIB, Burlington Real Estate, Sonica, nursing homes, Government departments and schools. I was exactly where I wanted to be," Fanning says.

He was “just thrown into the middle of it and it was sink or swim”. So he swam – and between sales of dispensers, gels and PPE and the sanitisation stations, he has managed to quadruple his estimated revenue this year. “I think long term extra sanitisation is going to be a thing and there will be an expectation of it and it is going to be part of what we do.”

Yasmin Sakalla, who works in Dublin, is from Israel, of Palestinian heritage, and was on a trip home when lockdown happened. "I work for Facebook in Dublin so was able to work from where I was for two months," she says.

As she worked remotely she started thinking about things she could do to help people. She “posted something on social media offering a free mentoring session because this is my passion. Then two of my friends reached out and said let’s take it to the next level.”

That level was “Can I Mentor You?”, an online platform connecting mentors and mentees. Within weeks, dozens of people had got in touch seeking mentors and others were offering to mentor for free. “We were quickly covering 22 subjects in 18 different languages all over the world,” Sakalla says.

There were “new graduates, students, people looking for their first break or people who had lost their jobs and were looking to change the direction of their career.

“We are completely non-profit and no one involved is getting paid and we are all focused on giving back. I don’t think this would have happened without the pandemic. This has been a terrible time for everyone, but it has taught us we can all be technological, and the Covid-19 crisis was the perfect setting for us to launch something like this.” Find Can I Mentor You? on Facebook.

Margaret Young was self-employed in health support and administration until the end of 2019, but admits her "heart wasn't really in it any more". She'd been training to become a yoga instructor and planned to do some temporary admin work until June 2020, when she would qualify. After lockdown there were no jobs. With her background in health admin she volunteered for the Be On Call for Ireland programme and worked in that area for a spell. "I was doing the minutes for meetings in the afternoons and balancing people's chakras in the evenings," she laughs.

In June she qualified and started teaching yoga online on her site wildsoul.ie. "It has been going really well, although the market is pretty saturated," she says. She also teaches in a studio and a hotel. "The restrictions mean that everything keeps changing in terms of how many people I can teach so that is an ongoing challenge."

Grainne Flynn and Lewis Cummings signed the lease on their Kerala Kitchen Indian restaurant in Dublin's Stoneybatter two weeks before lockdown. Their Baggot Street restaurant was doing well and they were confident. "It felt like the perfect time but almost immediately we had to hit the pause button," Flynn says. "We obviously got an awful shock but we were determined to stay positive."

The doors to the restaurant finally opened in July. “The welcome from Stoneybatter gave us such a boost, it was absolutely overwhelming,” she says.

They had done no publicity apart from one picture of the sign above the door on Instagram. "When we put that up, it went bananas," Flynn says, and almost from the moment they opened, they were booked out. "It was just so encouraging and made it all worthwhile. Then we had to close again."

She says the restaurant is "lucky, because we've been well established as a takeaway and there has been a really good message from the media and food writers about supporting local restaurants. We hope we will all be here when this passes." keralakitchen.ie

Sebastien Conway's Wing It restaurant chain was flying it as 2020 started. He'd also launched an event management company and he and his wife were expecting their first child. Early in the new year he started reading about a mystery virus in China and grew increasingly nervous as January became February and Italy became China. "I was reading all these horror stories about what was happening in other countries and how difficult it was for people to do even a basic grocery shop," he says.

Then the pandemic hit closer to home and hit his business hard. "From other countries it was clear ecommerce and food delivery would be crucial so we started StuffUNeed.ie." The website combines delivery of food and "the basics: toilet roll which was in huge demand and flour".

The site filled a gap in the market left by grocery chains who either offered no delivery or could not meet demand.

Conway also noticed there was a big demand for meal kits from restaurants such as Box Burger, Platform Pizza and his own Wing It.

“That started going great guns for us. We started getting requests from small retailers and producers looking for ways to connect with customers.”

As the crisis continued he tweaked the concept, effectively turning the site into an online department store to help local food producers and retailers reach customers. It is a platform for shops such as FX Buckley butchers, Sheridans cheese, the Bretzel Bakery and George’s Fish Shop coming on board and significantly widening their reach across the country.

“In the run-up to Christmas people will be nervous about queues and crowds and meeting other people. This business is all about people interacting and that has been disrupted so what we are trying to do is re-establish that connection maybe in a different and safer way.”

Mothercare was a high-profile casualty of the coronavirus crisis. Like other non-food retailers it closed in March, and like many others, it was unable to reopen when the time came.

It was a family business run by founder David Ward's children. "Losing the business, which was part of our lives for so long, was absolutely heartbreaking and we did everything we could to keep it going," Laura Ward says. "But it wasn't to be and once it closed, we all had to figure out what to do next."

Rather than travelling a different path, the family teamed up with other Mothercare staff and a website for young Irish families was launched after months of intensive work sourcing stock, working out logistics and developing an online presence.

Kaliedy.com has stock most parents and parents-to-be will be familiar with, such as the Early Learning Centre, plus a new Kaliedy brand. "The aim is to focus more on sustainability and on doing what we can to protect the environment and we will keep working to discover new ways to be more eco-conscious," Laura says.

Its own-brand products are being sold without plastic packaging while deliveries are made using boxes and tape that are 100 per cent recyclable. “We have been blown away by the goodwill shown to this new company. We know we are new arrivals but we have every intention to be here for the long haul.”

Rachel Flynn had "one foot in the door" of the wellness studio she'd planned to open for years when the virus hit. "I had to make a call on what to do," she says. She decided – to borrow a phrase – to just do it. After months of planning and prepping, she opens Breathing Space, her yoga, Pilates and meditation studio on Cork Street in Dublin 8 this month. "I've been trying to do this for years and it obviously isn't ideal timing," she says with some understatement.

At the time of writing, physical classes were not allowed but she was hopeful that the lockdown would soon be lifted.

“I think fitness and mindfulness and wellness will do well whatever happens. People need it now and at least I am not trying to retrofit somewhere due to all the new restrictions. We have upgraded the ventilation and put in more windows.” It might well be the first coronavirus-ready yoga studio in Ireland.

"We are lucky to be based in a residential area and it might be good for us because more people are spending more time at home and need an outlet. I hope small classes will happen but if that doesn't we will offer private classes at a really good price." breathingspacedublin.com

"I might be crazy," laughs Grainne Mullen by way of introduction. Up until March she was working as a pastry chef, but work dried up. With time on her hands she made Easter Eggs for her family and posted pictures on Instagram. "I was amazed when people started to get in touch asking where they could buy them."

It was a light bulb moment. She did some research into making and selling handmade chocolates, and "after lots of pondering decided to launch a website to sell directly to the consumer". Her website grachocolates.com was born.

Within nine minutes on that opening night in July, all the chocolates were sold. “It was better than anything I could have imagined,” she says. Demand hasn’t lessened and she has had to implement a pre-ordering system.

She has just put the finishing touches to “a little chocolate factory and that will mean people won’t have to wait too long for chocolate. I’ve also just done a deal to supply a big department store,” she says. At the time of writing she couldn’t say publicly what department store but you might be able to guess. “I’m so excited and honoured by all the interest,” she says. “Because I’m doing it by myself, every moment is consumed by chocolate. I am not complaining. It is really nice to be doing something you are passionate about and something you love and I love chocolate.”

Doesn’t everyone?