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Business from home: ‘The upsides smash the downsides’

Despite some isolation, it seems remote working has been a resounding success

When lockdown sent us all home to work from kitchen tables, bedrooms, attics or even garden sheds, nobody could foresee how remote working would pan out. For those running their own businesses, and particularly those in early-growth phases, it was a nerve-racking experience. But it seems that remote working has been a resounding success for many and is here to stay.

We spoke to three business owners who are now successfully running companies from the comfort of their own homes.

Socially-distanced concert

Sofft Productions is run by Natasha Duffy, Caroline Duke and Conor Jacob. They curate bespoke concert experiences and produce live streams for people in music, theatre and events.

“We are unique in that our focus is on set and lighting design and in creating beautiful experiences with the audience in mind, both in person and online,” says Duffy. “Our socially-distanced intimate concert series is called Sofft Nights and it kicks off in March.

“Previous to Covid I was working freelance as a production manager for music and events and as a set designer for theatre. I worked either from an office in Dublin or was on site managing different parts of a production. It was very hands-on and you are around different teams of people all the time. I also worked from other festivals’ headquarters if I was managing a project for them.

“That has all changed now. My office is now in my bedroom. At the start of lockdown I was working from the kitchen but I house-share with people, so that was not ideal. I decided to invest in a really good desk and chair and to make it really pleasant with plants, flowers and good stationery.

“I am pretty self-motivated so that side of it wasn’t difficult but I do miss people very much. I miss the potential for running into different co-workers. The random craic you might have on tea breaks. It makes you feel much more isolated this way. However, I have started to manage that better as well with organised walks and Zoom breaks. The team has also set up a group chat that is pretty much an online office. We can ask each other questions in real time and brainstorm on problems that occur. That is very helpful as you’re not waiting for answers on email which usually take longer.

“I definitely find I have more time remote working. My work would include a lot of collaboration and, in turn, a lot of meetings. Before Covid it just went without saying that these would be in person but now I can organise Zoom meetings one after the other and work on documents or emails in between them.

“I find my team is just as productive also. We have had to become very resilient. Each one of us lost every piece of work we had lined up in March for the following couple of months and we’ve had to pull ourselves up to pivot our work.

“Our industry – theatre, music and events – was decimated by Covid and it will take a while for it to recover. We recently put our first set of events for 2021 on sale and we are almost sold out.

“In some ways when something gets burned to the ground you have to completely reimagine how it gets built up again. This can be difficult, challenging but it can also be rewarding. I am blessed to have a very strong and talented team in Sofft so all I can say is, bring on 2021.”

Online tuition

Dr Conor Purcell runs xyMaths.ie, Ireland's first and only live-video coaching platform for Leaving Certificate maths students.

“We provide sixth years with group and one-to-one online grinds. There’s now no more need to travel for your private tuition, something that is a real issue in both urban and rural areas. We just launched in September and students are enjoying the new format so far. I’m pretty sure the old way of doing grinds is gone. Maths is all we do at xyMaths and I am currently the sole tutor. I love to teach.

“Before the pandemic I was working as a science journalist, and still do, and was also a private tutor. Now I work from home and have everything I need and recently got a treadmill so, whenever possible, I can walk while working – but not while teaching. I am lucky because I don’t have any significant distractions, just two cats when my partner is out at work.

“The hardest part of remote working is the isolation, without question. Traditional workplaces provide us with a social outlet, for better or worse. I find regular phone chats with old friends and colleagues is key to maintaining good mental health. Lots of exercise and healthy eating helps too.

“However, there are many upsides and these smash the downsides. Being your own boss, running your own schedule and going for a cycle whenever you want are all great. Testing and implementing new ideas quickly in terms of technology around the xyMaths service allows total independence.

“At the moment, I am employing a team of consultants to help me with marketing, web design and graphics. The team is distributed throughout the country and is certainly productive from wherever they are working. Virtual teams rock.

“There are high margins because of low costs. I imagine that through our growth stage we will keep a virtual model with a team of tutors working remotely. There is no real need for a centralised xyMaths office space. Maybe there will be in the future but not at the moment.”

Delivering nationwide

Husband and wife James and Noreen Cunningham run Donegal Farmhouse Cheese from their home in Kilcar, southwest Donegal, on the Wild Atlantic Way.

“We set up the business in November 2018. We have a small farm of cattle and sheep and our dream was to diversify and add value in different ways,” Noreen says. “Using traditional techniques, we produce a cheddar cheese from locally-produced milk. Our Kilard Cheddar is hand-made from May to September when the cows are grazing the fresh summer grass on the Donegal shores, as we want to use the best-quality Donegal milk.

“Before the pandemic we were out on the road a lot more, meeting our customers, chefs, doing in-store tastings and attending events. We were quite new so we were actively seeking out events trying to source new customers but that all stopped during the first lockdown. However, we decided to use the lockdown period to focus on building our online sales. We secured a priming grant from Donegal Local Enterprise Office and set up our new website and online shop. We are now delivering nationwide and can reach a much wider audience.

“As a new business, working from the kitchen table actually works well for us. It saves us a lot of money rather than renting office space and we also save in travel costs. However, it can be easier to get distracted at home, there’s always housework to do and dinners to make, so it is important to keep strict working hours. That said, it’s not always possible. And sometimes the internet at home is not as reliable as the internet in the office.

“It suits us quite well as we have two small children, a four year old and a one year old, so having the flexibility of working around them and doing work when they go to bed or in the evenings works well for us. As we are only starting out in business it is just the two of us for now, however, we have big plans and hope to expand in the future.”