How online businesses are serving their communities – from virtual meet-ups to mentoring

With day-to-day life tougher under lockdown, the latest Brave New World reveals the local and specialist groups offering respite

women with their children
Katie Massie-Taylor and Sarah Hesz, the co-founders of Mush, with their children

Now is the moment for communities to show their mettle. An army of volunteers has rallied to support the NHS and neighbours are joining up to deliver vital supplies to the most vulnerable. Britons have pulled together even as social distancing keeps us apart. 

However, some worries that have arisen from the crisis are particular to certain industries, life stages or regions. This is where dedicated online advice groups or platforms can step in. Here, we take a look at the behind-the-scenes efforts across the UK which are helping to alleviate the loneliness and fear that this pandemic can bring.

The new mums

Mush

When Katie Massie-Taylor and Sarah Hesz met in a Barnes playground in 2014 both were adapting to life with a newborn, and both were seeking easier ways to make friends with fellow mums. Fast-forward six years and Mush, their NHS-backed (via the NHS Innovation Accelerator) meet-up app for mothers, is more of a community lifeline than ever. “The whole reason Mush exists is to connect mums. It brings together mothers offline,” said Katie, who is running the business at home with three young children. “With everyone being in their houses, what’s the next best thing? For us, it’s having something for mums to base their day around [especially those] with a small baby.”

To help ease the concern, the business is running free, virtual meetings at 11am from Monday to Friday with each day bringing a different topic for discussion and an expert speaker. Any Mush user can join. Up to 500 people can participate, with room for another 500 to watch. So far, the themes or focus of the sessions have included loneliness (one of the most popular so far), entertaining young children and midwife-led advice on giving birth – especially pertinent given the situation in hospitals, and rules around social distancing. 

Katie added: “We’re hearing a lot from people yet to have babies. Many are so worried and have so many ifs and buts.” Mush is offering them a space to voice concerns, seek reassurance or advice and hear from experts. More informal virtual meet-ups, with different groups depending on the age of the baby, will be coming soon. 

A Mush meet-up before the lockdown Credit: Mush

The creatives

The Dots

The lockdown has struck many in the creative industries. In this time of need, The Dots, a professional network for individuals and teams working in technology, film, fashion design, advertising and publishing, among others, has stepped up. It’s a space to find jobs and projects, for people to work together and promote what they do. The Dots has nearly 500,000 members, 41 per cent of whom are freelancers.

From freelance artists who’ve had contracts cancelled to self-employed photographers whose work has dried up, this cohort is in particular need. Pip Jamieson, The Dots’ founder and chief executive, and her team of 21 have quickly adapted their resources to the lockdown. “It’s heart-wrenching to see people lose work at this time,” she said. In response, The Dots has launched a coronavirus support hub on its platform where members are crowdsourcing answers to their questions. Tips have covered remote working, staying healthy and where to find companies who are hiring. 

The Dots has also asked for senior members of the community to act as mentors on the site. Subsequently, it has put together a dedicated group of leaders who are supporting its members through this tough period. Pip said she has also noticed members working on solutions to assist the country in this crisis. “I’m excited by the volunteering aspect, people are rallying around, it’s really heartening to see.” Other organisations, such as Second Home (which runs workspaces in London), Frame (a chain of boutique gyms) and General Assembly (a coding school) also post on The Dots about virtual sessions that members might want to try.

Pip Jamieson, working from her narrowboat Credit: The Dots

The food suppliers

Foodchain

The closure of pubs, and most restaurants and cafés, has hit the hospitality industry hard, while also dealing a blow to companies that provide its food and drink. Foodchain, a marketplace for both chefs and suppliers that began trading in 2017, reworked its app within a week in mid-March to give consumers access to its food delivery network. Anastasia Emmanuel, the company’s chief commercial officer, explained: “One of our team was in isolation, she didn’t have the ability to get food. Our initial thought was, OK, we can give people who can't get food access to our suppliers through wholesale.

“Within a week we were able to open up and within two weeks we had 20,0000 members of the public sign up to the app. It means suppliers are able to go back to work – they’re able to keep their business going.” Foodchain is now delivering high quality meat boxes and fruit and veg packages across London, with plans to expand the service nationwide.

She added: “We’re running at a million miles an hour.” Anastasia explained that one of the real strengths of having a network of delivery partners (as opposed to supermarkets’ centralised approach), is being able to quickly adapt to new routes and bring on new suppliers. “We’re essentially able to serve communities better.”

The Foodchain team (before social distancing), who've been working hard to adapt their app for the lockdown Credit: Foodchain

The makers

Not on the High Street sellers

Many small, creative businesses source much of their customer online, including through online marketplaces such as Not on the High Street. In some ways, this has allowed them to weather this uncertain period more effectively than some, said Claire Davenport, chief executive of Not on the High Street. “Customers [are] wanting now, more than ever, to send thoughtful gifts or creative ideas to make their isolation period more bearable,” she explained.

Among Not on the High Street sellers, 66 per cent already run their business from home. However, a number also have studios and employees to manage through these difficult times. Meanwhile, a large proportion of these (55 per cent) are working parents or carers, so are now having to balance those responsibilities day-to-day alongside their work.

As such, since the coronavirus outbreak, the platform has been running free, daily clinics with legal and HR experts for its small business sellers. There’s plenty of grassroots support too – Not on the High Street’s local ambassadors are holding regular, virtual meet-ups while small businesses are staying in contact with one another to share information and advice. Bright spots for sellers at this time include an uptick in interest for certain gifts as well as social distancing leading to a nationwide interest in at-home hobbies. “Craft kit sales have skyrocketed, with sewing, creative play kits and make-your-own kits topping the most bought items,” said Claire. “Activities for children have also boomed, as have home products as people look to personalise their new home office and curate the perfect background for video calls.”

Modo Creative: one of the businesses that sells through Not on the High Street Credit: Not on the High Street

The independent traders

The Margate Mercury

Clare Freeman started the first of her independent magazines for communities in Kent, The Margate Mercury, in 2016. Since then, she’s added The Ramsgate Recorder and The Broadstairs Beacon to the mix. The business has grown to a core team of seven and the magazines cover interesting businesses, musicians and artists in the area. Since mid-March, these up-and-coming seaside communities - which were preparing for the busy summer season - have seen business grind to a stop. Locals, meanwhile, have had to rely on neighbours for support while adhering to the rules of social distancing. 

Clare, whose own enterprise is facing uncertainty, had an idea. “I thought it would be good to set up a page on our website to showcase the local businesses,” she explained. “A lot of them are helping the local community. A bakery in Margate is offering delivery of bread and milk saying ‘pay what you can’. A lawyer is offering free information for local businesses and a photographer offering free consultations There are lots of thoughtful and generous initiatives out there at the moment.”

Have you noticed your own local initiatives with small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected] with pictures.

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