The challenges that alumni entrepreneurs faced during COVID-19 and how they met them


The challenges that alumni entrepreneurs faced during COVID-19 and how they met them

The University of Exeter alumni community contains many business owners and entrepreneurs in all sorts of different industries around the world. Around 9,000 business in fact, are owned by Exeter alumni and operating in 183 countries around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of our lives from our health, travel and our jobs. One group that have been particularly hit by this are the self-employed, entrepreneurs and business owners who have been challenged by the changing circumstances created by the pandemic and forced to adapt in various ways. We recently caught up with several businesses founded by Exeter alumni to learn more about the impact and how they’ve coped.

Madeleine Morley (Economics, 2015), Co-founder and CEO of TOMOJO

TOMOJO is a business selling pet food made in France for dogs and cats which is made from insect proteins, for a healthy, traceable and environmentally friendly diet. Exeter alumna and co-founder Madeleine let us know how she was inspired to set up the business and her experience of the pandemic:

“One evening three years ago I was reading an article about alternative proteins and Mojo, our 50kg ridgeback, was begging for the leftovers of our dinner. That’s when it clicked in my head: I wasn’t extremely keen on the idea of eating insects as a vegetarian myself, but Mojo would most certainly not even see the difference in his kibble, and it would presumably dramatically reduce his environmental pawprint. I immediately called my childhood friend Paola and six months later, we both quit our jobs to launch TOMOJO in France as the insect market was more developed on the other side of the channel.

“We had just started fundraising €1.5M when COVID-19 struck. We had worked on our business plan, pitch deck and had had a few calls with potential investors. The pandemic forced us to shift our strategy a little, given that all investors were now focusing on their portfolio companies and not open to new investments. We decided to raise a smaller amount (€500k) from business angels in order to pursue some of the product developments we had planned and distribution targets.

"We were however forced to pause other innovation projects and reduce our marketing budgets. In terms of sales, our Business to consumer growth was pretty consistent, however our Business to business sales significantly stalled. Things are picking up again, especially with exports.

"We were fortunate enough to still be able to deliver our online customers during the pandemic, so we put a lot of effort into that.

“In terms of our plans for the future we are hoping to extend our pet food range for puppies and kittens within the next three months. In 2021 we are also going to launch Tomojo in a big retailer in France, which is very exciting for us and proof that insects are becoming more and more accessible to the wider public.

"After having launched Tomojo in the UK, we have also just began distributing our sustainable pet food to South Korea and Poland and many other countries. Ultimately, our goal is to partner with local insect farms and manufacturing partners to offer the most sustainable and healthy pet food on the market worldwide!”

You can find out more about TOMOJO via their website.

Neil Tanna (Law, 2015), Duncan Cowan (Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, 2016), and Jake Jenner (Economics, 2015) Co-founders of Howbout

Howbout is the easiest way to get friends together in real life or virtually. It’s a social planning app that helps you instantly find when you’re all free, easily organise anything and quickly manage your social & personal life. It was co-founded by three Exeter alumni – Neil Tanna, Duncan Cowan and Jake Jenner - and since its release in December 2019, it has attracted more than 30,000 downloads and around 1,000 events get organised every day on it.

Before Howbout, Neil worked as a corporate lawyer, Jake worked in investment banking and Duncan worked as a spacecraft engineer. Neil first had the idea for Howbout after graduating in 2015 but was focused at the time on a legal career. Although he’d always had the ‘startup itch’ and knew he wanted to start his own business, the timing never seemed right, and he was caught up in the legal career pathway.

He says: “my ‘wake up moment’ came in 2019 when my Mum passed away from cancer, causing a change in my perspective. I'd already had a few conversations with Duncan and Jake, and both were equally convinced that there was a problem that needed solving and mirrored my passion and excitement to become 'do-ers' and launch a startup.”

The three friends worked on the idea during evenings and weekends before each leaving their jobs and going full time with Howbout.

They released a prototype during Summer 2019 before launching a closed “beta test” to 150 people.

Following several product iterations, they released the app to the public in December 2019.

COVID-19 presented a significant challenge for the Howbout team – there’s no need for a social planning app when you can’t make social plans! However they “recognised that groups of friends were finding it just as difficult to coordinate a group of 10 for a video call as it was for a night out.” They added one-tap integration with Zoom, Houseparty and others to Howbout, allowing friends to easily organise any virtual plan and instantly open their video call (without having to worry about sharing links & access codes).

This quick product change got them featured in publications such as Sifted and by Apple, who included them in an exclusive list of apps that help people “Get Stuff Done”, alongside Microsoft To-Do.

“We also recognised the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on students. Lockdown restrictions have significantly impacted the university social experience, so we were really keen to work with universities to shift the public narrative away from all the restrictions and limitations to instead focus on socialising in ways that are compliant with the rules.”

Howbout can help students get to know their house, flat and hall-mates better, easily organise virtual plans (and in-person plans when rules allow) and better coordinate their university, social and student calendars. All of these will help combat increasing student loneliness, mental health worries and wellbeing concerns.

“We were thrilled to partner with the University of Exeter Students’ Guild on their “Get Connected” campaign to help Exeter students get better connected with each other. We’re now in discussions with other UK universities about doing similar campaigns on their campuses in 2021.”

In terms of the future for Howbout, the three alumni have a simple mission – they want to fix the pain of social planning: “There are numerous tools in the business world to make finding a time instant, organising a meeting quick and keeping on top of everything effortless. But beyond a basic calendar or group chat, nothing exists for your social life. Everyone knows the pain of trying to get friends together.

"Whether it’s the manual chaos of trying to find a date everyone’s free, the frustration of endlessly scrolling group chats to remember the details or taking ages to agree what the plan is, the pain of planning often stops the plan from happening. We want to fix this.”

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for most businesses – whether it’s a hit to their customer numbers, changing consumer behaviours, or interrupted supply chains. Duncan, Neil and Jake’s main tip for struggling businesses is one they followed themselves: “see if there are any temporary or permanent pivot possibilities for your business. News is gloomy right now, but there are several positive news stories from companies making small or large pivots to try and counter COVID-19’s effects. For example, manufacturing businesses pivoting into masks and PHE, service-based companies offering customers a “do-it-yourself” approach or hospitality businesses launching their products online. Try to think outside the box and see if there’s an angle you can capitalise upon.”

Download the Howbout app or check out the website to find out more.

MGR Music is a network of professional musicians located throughout the UK and beyond, tutoring students of all ages and abilities across a wide range of different instruments. It was founded by Matthew Rusk (History, 2012) who was originally a guitar teacher based in Leicester and launched in 2013. Matthew caught up with us recently to let us know more about his business and the impact COVID-19 has had on it.

He says: “When I moved down to Exeter to attend the university I really wanted to continue teaching guitar, however, I didn’t know anyone when I got there, so I thought I would set-up a website to see if I could generate students for myself. By my second year of university I was teaching 25 hours per week and the guitar student enquiries continued to follow in, so I started passing these onto another guitar teacher based in Exeter to teach.

"I had always had a strong interest in website design so I had the idea of starting to make other websites for music teachers in the UK, and this is where the idea of the business was born.

“Since then I have been able to grow this student business into one of the larger music tuition companies in the UK, working with around 750 music teachers and teaching many thousands of music students each year.

Matthew Rusk (History, 2012), Founder of MGR Music Tuition

"Students can find local music teachers by searching the national teacher database on the platform, with the teachers we work with providing music lessons across almost every instrument that you can think of.”

The COVID-19 pandemic created a tremendous change in the delivery of MGR’s lesson content, due to the lessons switching from in-person to online from March.

Matthew says: “I saw the teacher community be incredibly resilient and determined to make that change happen, and it is something that I am extremely proud of! The major opportunity was seeing the enquiries for Skype Guitar Lessons, Skype Singing Lessons and Skype Piano Lessons go through the roof. Traditionally we had focused on the UK market, but the switch to online saw enquiries coming in from across the world, from North-America to Vietnam. This is an aspect of our business that we will really look to build on in 2021."

The most significant challenge that the pandemic caused for the business was recruiting the right teachers to keep up with the growth in demand.

Matthew says: “It’s important to carefully evaluate each teacher who applies and support those earlier stage teachers to enable them to rapidly develop into confident professional teachers.

"After all, since I was a university student when I started this business we are always keen to onboard current university students and develop them into excellent teachers.”

With the difficulties MGR Music Tuition has faced due to the pandemic we asked Matthew for his top tip for other business owners who may be struggling with the impact on their business.

He says: “I remember reading James Caan’s book, where the former Dragon’s Den dragon talked about how an economic recession really impacted his business at the time. His advice was baton down the hatches and just get through it, better times are ahead. So, with that in mind, all a business should do at a minimum is to try to survive this period.

"If your plans and actions look like you are ensuring the business’s survival then the next step is to think of the actions that you can take now to put yourself in the best position for success post-lockdown/COVID-19. This is a slightly different aspect than simple surviving, as surviving might not be investing, but preparing to thrive might mean looking to develop a new product, service or better the ones that you have during this period to prepare to be on the front foot in the future.”

Looking to the future Matthew’s hope is that the next musical superstar that will move the thoughts on a generation will have been taught by one of the teachers he works with.

He says: “Each generation have these creatives that have the power to push society into a new direction, whether musicians, product creators or thinkers - if we can somehow be involved in that then I would be tremendously proud of what the teaching community has achieved.

"A more concrete goal is to focus on the growth and development the Guitar Lessons London music hub, which is one of the largest and most active teacher and student communities that we work with. Hiring more teachers, welcoming more students and ultimately duplicating that out across the smaller Singing Lessons London and Piano Lessons London music hubs that currently are much smaller in comparison. By driving growth here, the team is confident that we can fund and develop more music hubs nationally.”

MGR Music Tuition still have a lot of opportunities for new teachers to join, so if you are a university student with an interest in teaching music don’t hesitate to apply to join their music teacher community via the website.

One of the means that will help University of Exeter alumni entrepreneurs stay connected and share ideas as we continue to spend more of our time online is the Elumni platform founded by two entrepreneurs and Exeter alumni: Pierre Keyzar (Engineering & Mechanics, 2014) who works as the founder of DIY Kitchen Designer and Tom Wye (Exercise & Sports Science, 2008), founder of JustWye which is a web design agency.

Elumni is a dedicated network for like-minded alumni to help and get help with all aspects of owning, operating and growing a business, and is currently in its pilot phase with a phased roll out planned for across 2021. It gives alumni the opportunity to connect with each other, to both get and give help with queries, mentor others, and also secure investment through the site’s investment portal which offers support to those who need it.

Elumni is open to any alumni who own or have founded their own business.

Pierre and Tom were inspired to set up the platform by examples at American Universities that support businesses. They wanted to provide the same for Exeter as they were aware that of the talent located at the University and didn’t want this to become lost after people graduate.

They say: “The idea for the platform came in 2017, we saw a similar one, but were both heavily involved in running businesses at the time, so we didn’t have the opportunity to pursue it straightway. We thought it would be great if a similar system existed for Exeter graduates and wanted to provide answers to questions, real connection, and make it relevant for users.”

As such they fully developed their ideas and plans for the platform in October 2019, and then the website being designed by Tom in February 2020 with a pilot to a small group of alumni. They reached out to alumni using LinkedIn inviting them to join the platform and had a 90% success rate. During the first lockdown in the UK the numbers of members of the site went from 30 to 150 people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely been a catalyst for the progression of the Elumni platform.

Pierre says: “It made us spring ahead and push ahead with the project as lots more people were spending time online and starting businesses and we wanted to provide a space for them to do that. It’s also made us feel very lucky that we’ve had skills and expertise that we could use during lockdown to help us and also find opportunities for freelancing whilst events were off for our events company. I’ve definitely felt that the 3D design practice I had whilst studying at the University of Exeter has been particularly useful for my current kitchen design work as well which has kept me going this year.

“As for the future we aim to have more than 650 members using the platform by the end of 2021 and really be able to give back to the community. We have also recently completely rebuilt the platform using a different app to make it more dynamic and ensure members are being put in touch with the right people to have conversations with.

"We have a separate login for students and those interested in starting their own business with different access to open up the community connections. We’d also love to do more events when we can as our background and how we met was through our events companies (Original Sin and The Enchanted Group), and our overall goal is through the platform to contribute to making Exeter the place to students and buddings entrepreneurs to come to because it will be sought after and known for the support and opportunities it offers to those who want to start their own business.”

University alumni can access the system here.