Entrepreneurs: A lifeline for the community in a time of crisis

Ford Millinery started producing face masks at the start of the pandemic and donate 5 per cent of each mask to a charity. Picture: Millicent Spencer
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Throughout the pandemic Australians have praised essential workers such as retail attendants, nurses, doctors and pharmacists. But we’ve forgotten to praise one other group who are equally important – entrepreneurs. Millicent Spencer reports

It may have been the unsexiest release ever, but it was what the community needed. As the pandemic spread across Australia, Victorian gin distillery Four Pillars launched a range of hand sanitisers.

For company co-founder Cameron Mackenzie, the important thing was providing protection for frontline workers and the public, while also providing job security for his team. 

“We did two hand sanitisers. One for frontline healthcare workers that was straight down the line, so pretty unsexy stuff, and had no aroma to it. That went slightly crazy,” he says.

“We then did a more public release which was using one of the by-products of our gin distillation which was much more aromatic and smelt much better.

“I don’t think we anticipated quite the response that we got. All of a sudden we had about 16,000 orders on our website in a very short space of time.

“I went from one day talking to all the casuals saying, ‘we’ll keep you informed, and we’ll do everything we can. We’re going to pay you this week’s hours that you were rostered even though you’re not going to work because we’ve closed hospitality’.

“And then they were all back within a week. It kept the lights on and kept everyone working for many weeks.” 

Mr Mackenzie is among many Australian entrepreneurs who found a way to beat the challenge of the lockdowns. New business registrations are up Australia-wide right through this crisis-affected year. In September 2019 there were 18,861 new company registrations, ASIC figures show. This has increased to 21,856 this September.

When COVID-19 hit, Mr Mackenzie’s biggest concern was what the pandemic would mean for his workers.  

We’re a business that sits in a small community out in Healesville. We’re quite a large employer and we just wanted to make sure our team were all safe and secure.

“That was probably the biggest thing I lost sleep over,” he says.

“I always felt we had their back and we didn’t make commercial decisions to just cut hours or shut doors. We could have stood people down who weren’t able to do their job but that loyalty [within the team] also bred flexibility.

“All of those guys suddenly were flexible enough to come in and say, ‘I can work. I can pack boxes [or] work on the bottling line. I might not be making drinks now but there’s something I can do’.”

Creating jobs during the lockdowns 

Ford Millinery founder Chantelle Ford also used her entrepreneurial skills to benefit the community by employing staff who lost their jobs to produce PPE.

Ms Ford launched Masks 4 Mates, a community initiative that donates 5 per cent of every mask sold to charity.

“When COVID hit we pivoted really quickly to help alleviate the global shortage of PPE, creating face masks and face shields,” she says.

“I look at the problem and then look at how to solve the problem, and then deliver it in a creative way or in a way that communicates my personal creative flair.

“We wanted to keep our staff employed [and] create work for other people, which is why we wanted to hand-make here. We wanted to locally source material if possible. And then that charity aspect, to help people who would be in a far worse position than us.

We hired 20 to 30 more staff which was amazing because all of those individuals are incredibly talented. A lot of them work in the fashion or costuming industry and they all had lost their jobs.

The pandemic hit Australia’s labour force hard. Currently there are 937,400 people unemployed and this rate continues to climb – now at 6.9 per cent.

Dr Hormoz Ahmadi, senior lecturer in innovation and entrepreneurship at ACU. Photo supplied.

Entrepreneurs are essential in a crisis

Dr Hormoz Ahmadi, senior lecturer in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Australian Catholic University, says entrepreneurs are the main contributors to the wellbeing of communities and are essential in a time of crisis. 

“It’s about the social role of an entrepreneur. Whether innovations are super radical, it’s not really important. Sometimes innovations could be incremental, but … they have a huge impact on the quality of people’s lives,” he says.

“So that is what has been happening during the COVID-19, not so many radical innovations but so many incremental innovations with a huge impact on people’s lives.”

Based on experience and research, entrepreneurs are problem solvers when crises hit society, Dr Ahmadi says. 

“The definition of entrepreneur has changed in the 21st century. We call them problem solvers. Those who identify the problem which is affecting a large group of the population and resolve it.

“COVID-19 affected many people [who] lost their jobs. It affected the purchasing power and it affected the level of incomes. Many businesses closed and people became unemployed.

“For entrepreneurs this is an opportunity, not a threat.”

Through innovation entrepreneurs filled the gap when health-related products like hand sanitiser and masks became unavailable by using their existing infrastructure, manufacturing, operations and networks to sell products that the market needed, Dr Ahmadi says. 

“You change the frame, you reposition something in a new context. That is what many entrepreneurs do and this is an art.

“Who says that every innovation should be from an invention directly? You search around and look at the available invention and you’re defining a new application for them and use them in a new context.”

Opportunity to learn 

For Ms Ford, launching PPE was a far different product to Ford Millinery’s usual designer hats and accessories, so she faced challenges along the way. 

“We were exposed to a far different client, a broader client [and] not as niche. They had different needs,” she says.

“At the start everybody was really supportive but then as things became a bit scarier –especially in Victoria – you could hear the panic in people’s voice and the tone of their contact.

“We had a lot of new learnings from a business perspective about customer service and even our technology. Our website crashed because of the sheer volume of users all flocking to it at the one time.”

The pandemic also taught Ms Ford about managing styles as she grew her company within the space of a week. 

“Getting them trained, managing everybody, keeping everybody motivated, inspired, quality control and getting things done quickly – it did teach me a lot about management styles,” she says.

There’s just a lot of learning I guess, if anything, it’s really important to act fast, move fast, be resilient and have the bravery to decide to do something and do it.

Mr Mackenzie has also learnt from the pandemic.

“I think now is the time to maybe zoom out, make sure that the goals and targets you’ve got are appropriate for what lies ahead and if not just realigned them again.”

Despite producing hand sanitiser for a period of time, the team at Four Pillars remembered their identity throughout the pandemic.

“Sanitiser was simply filling a gap and we never lost sight of the fact that we are gin distillery and that’s what we do.”

New entrepreneurs take the leap

COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for people to revive their entrepreneurial mindset, Dr Ahmadi says. 

“People were uncertain about the future of their workplace and many entrepreneurs have had a dream for so long, so COVID-19 allowed them to take their dreams further,” he says.

“So many of us are unsure about the future, so entrepreneurs are the ones who always have a scenario-based planning mindset. ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ll do this. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do something else’.”

Alice Bennett used to work full time in event production, but when the pandemic hit she was out of work. As a result, she turned her cake-making side hustle – Miss Trixie Drinks Tea – into her full-time job. 

“I lost my job, which was not fine, but I was in a very privileged position compared to my colleagues because Miss Trixie’s always been my side hustle and has always been the thing that I’ve done on the weekend.”

But things looked bleak as people started to cancel their wedding, birthday and anniversary cake bookings. 

“Everything from Miss Trixie was coming out of the diary and that for me was like, I’m going to go mad,” she says.

“Anyway, about a month prior to all of this happening my mum had been in hospital and she wanted to send a cake to the nurses on her ward. We did this ‘thanks a bunch’ cake which I had taken inspiration from a gift card.

“The hospital went mad for it and everyone on my Instagram went mad for it.  I was like, ‘that was fun, also that was really easy to decorate, and it was a really easy cake to execute’.” 

Ms Bennett thought more about the pun cake she made for the hospital and realised that people love puns. She also took into account the economic crisis, so coming up with an affordable cake was important. 

“One thing that I learned from London was that anything that’s nostalgic to someone sells. People love buying into things that they remember from their childhood,” she says.

“So I came up with this range of pun message cakes which were self-isolation themed. I posted them and I remember turning to my boyfriend and I was like, ‘I don’t mean to brag but I just have a really good feeling about these cakes, I feel like they’re going to take off.’  And they just did.

“So then it was like, right. We can come up with some more, we’ll keep the momentum going, we’ll keep that hype and fun about it. Truly I’ve had so much support and that’s how we’ve turned it around.”

The pandemic has given Ms Bennett the energy and motivation to do Miss Trixie full time. 

“I feel re-invigorated. I’m also now very driven to build a business that’s really well known in Melbourne and potentially Australia. I want to build a micro cake empire and change the way people buy cakes and how they spoil their friends on their birthdays,” she says.

“Previously I was very fixated on just wanting to do beautiful custom expensive cakes. And now I’m like that’s not what the masses want. If I want to be able to grow this business and reach far further then we need to change the way in which we do it.”

Although the pandemic has allowed Ms Bennett to reassess her own business goals, it has also allowed her business to make a positive mark on the wider community. 

“As a business I want to ensure that I am doing things that can bring joy to people’s lives.”

At the start of the pandemic Ms Bennett donated a range of her isolation-themed pun cakes to the nurses at the Royal Women’s Hospital. 

“I knew that a nurse could have been having a really horrible day and has come into their lunchroom and seen this ridiculously stupid cake and had a wedge, like that’s lovely. That’s a really nice thing.

“I feel like getting back to the community and making sure that you are involved in those different touch points is really important. And it also brings you super gratification.”

“I hope that I’m making a difference in someone’s life and making their day just that little bit brighter.”