By Katy Lewis
It's been two years since England's first Covid-19 lockdown and according to new analysis, St Albans has seen a large percentage growth in the number of new companies starting up. As this has also been a very challenging period for business, how have they thrived and why did they choose the cathedral city in Hertfordshire?
The St Albans district has a population of just over 147,000 and it has become known as an ideal commuter town due to its position just north of the M25, with fast – if rather crowded – rail links to central London.
Instant Offices, which specialises in finding office space, analysed Companies House data to work out which towns and cities had attracted most new businesses and found St Albans had one of the largest growth rates in the UK.
With 1,597 new companies in 2021 and 1,311 in 2020 – a 21.8% increase.
Other towns and cities with similar growth levels include Doncaster in South Yorkshire with 26.9% and Preston in Lancashire with 24.6%, according to the researchers.
Instant Offices cites a rise in remote working and online shopping as reasons for the start-ups across the UK.
Jennifer Clarke had been working in payroll for her husband's business since 2014, and had also started training to be a meditation teacher when the first lockdown hit in March 2020.
"I continued my training in the first lockdown and everything also moved online," she says.
"I thought I could still help people this way and – as you also get wisdom and intuition through meditation – I suddenly said I'm going to start up a business.
"So I started my website and [lockdown] also gave me the time and space to build a good base and set up my social media which I'd not really been on before."
After that, the business took off and she concentrated on it full time, setting up Meditation Courses Ltd in October 2020.
By the following January, during England's third lockdown, she was "rushed off my feet".
"Because of the pandemic, people are thinking how they can help themselves… thinking about their mental health more and looking for help, and companies want to look after their staff," she says.
"Online I'm able to reach people all over the country and around the world – I've been quite shocked at how much I've been able to help people."
Ms Clarke, who has lived in St Albans for about 20 years says the local business community has been "very helpful".
Anna Venetico from the St Albans Chamber of Commerce said lockdowns led to people looking at "that arduous commute" into the capital and taking that leap to set up on their own.
"We've had accountants and marketeers going solo and digital marketing is huge," she says.
"We're seeing more of the creative-type marketing industries opening.
"During lockdown people had time to experience things locally and realised they didn't have to go into London… they are looking at things differently.
"We've always had a thriving business community and have all the services people need, so it's the perfect place to be."
"My business grew very quickly", says Rachel Kepinska-Smith from Rachel KS Consulting, which specialises in branding.
She had left the corporate world in 2015 for better work/life balance and had already been working from home for a franchise.
She decided that on 1 March 2020 she would "flick the switch" and move to full-time marketing consultancy, and three weeks later the country was in lockdown.
"It was quite intense… I started the business having to home-school a nine-year-old and keep a three-year-old entertained," she says.
"Businesses had to refocus and diversify, but to be credible they had to focus on their niche – who are you and what difference can you make. I helped them find that."
Ms Kepinska-Smith, who has lived in the city since 2009, says: "You don't have to scratch the surface long before you find an ex-London person who has left to do their own thing and is well connected so people can make anything happen.
"It's scary going from PAYE to being on your own. It's tough for business owners and without the right support it's hard, so to have a community of people, who get it, around you is great."
Social media consultant Rebecca Youngs had just set up The Social Den after retraining as a social media manager, but when Covid hit, businesses were either unable to run or could not afford to pay her so she "lost all her client base over a week".
She teaches businesses how to use all the features of Instagram and helps them make a content strategy, so after transferring all her business online, she did regular Instagram posts and had a very successful year.
"I started online workshops and didn't charge very much," she says.
"It was cheap and accessible so it got a lot of interest and my online training has grown."
She says she feels like she "really benefitted from the situation in 2020" as many businesses had to really look at online strategies.
"Many barely had a website so it was a steep learning curve and I helped them," she says.
She adds that there are a lot of factors that make St Albans attractive.
"A lot of people have worked in London and then had families and don't want to commute, but they were in good jobs so are capable of running their own business," she says.
"Also it's an affluent area so there are people to buy from you; I've never struggled to find clients here whereas people I know in other areas have."
Rachel Brown and her husband Stuart started their young children's gift box website An-Edit a year ago, while still holding down retail jobs as employees.
With Rachel on furlough and pregnant, she says it was "probably the prime time to think about starting up" her own business to realise a long-held dream.
"Lockdown gave us that push… [we thought] if we don't give it a go now then when would be the right time? It gave us focus and clarity," she says.
"It was also the type of business – people couldn't go out and look round the shops and we were offering nice gift sets and a personalised card – it was an easy one-stop shop for a gift."
Promoting mainly on social media, lockdowns gave them a captive audience. People searched online for baby gifts which led customers to their website.
"[In the current situation] it's the companies that make things easier for customers that do well," Mr Brown says.
Buoyed by the business "going better than we thought", Mr Brown then set up a men's gifting company called Stand Accused in November.
"There are a lot of connections for advice and things," he says of St Albans.
"Even on the school run there are people who will know somebody. It's a place of ideas and people."
Ginny Cooper from the St Albans Enterprise Agency, which provides free one-to-one advice and training to prospective start-ups, says it is a "very collaborative place" to start a business with a large number of networking groups.
She said about 30% of people they had meetings with ended up starting their own businesses, and about two-thirds of them were women.
"Businesses that have done well in the last couple of years are ones that have helped people throughout the pandemic," she says.
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St Albans has big rise business start-ups in lockdown – BBC
By Katy Lewis