How to run a business in lockdown: Kiz, CEO of drama and creative learning company, Mortal Fools
How to run a business in lockdown is our series about how small business owners are leading their companies through the coronavirus crisis. To share your story, message us: firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or Twitter.
Nearly 2100 Tide members run education businesses and over 1000 are in performing arts, either self-employed or running a company. Many found their work paralysed in March 2020 when the Government ordered schools and theatres to close to slow down the spread of coronavirus.
Kiz Crosbie is the founder and CEO of Mortal Fools, a theatre, drama and creative learning company based in Prudhoe, Northumberland. We asked her how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting her company’s employees, participants and finances.
- How is your business affected by the lockdown?
- What coronavirus support will you get from the Government?
- What’s your #1 lockdown tip for small businesses?
- Can you continuity plan for a pandemic?
- What have you learned from working in lockdown?
- How has your business adapted to continue operating?
How is your business affected by the lockdown?
Mortal Fools produces professional theatre shows, runs four youth theatre groups, develops and delivers drama and creative projects in schools, and trains adults in businesses in leadership skills such as communication, presentation and resilience. (And in case you can’t place the name, it’s a reference from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when fairy Puck remarks on the silliness of the humans he encounters.)
The company employs five people in the core team (including Kiz) and a wider associate team of 16 creative practitioners with specialisms ranging from acting and directing to production management and even an evaluations expert. All staff are self-employed, including Kiz.
Having seen what was happening across Europe, Kiz was aware that closing theatres, schools and workplaces was likely. In the UK, the theatre industry’s membership bodies – the Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre – asked the industry to close their venues and projects before the Government announced the closure.
Before the order from the Government, Kiz took action, cancelling projects Mortal Fools was due to deliver in schools for local authorities.
The company has taken the biggest hit on training for businesses, losing around £20,000. Kiz believes they’ll lose future income for over a year as companies stop ‘non-essential’ spending. Despite cancelling projects, Kiz didn’t cancel contracts with her freelance staff:
“When we cancelled sessions, we committed to paying our freelancers for the full length of their contracts. Instead of developing and delivering sessions for young people, we asked them to create digital content.”
One of the biggest projects Mortal Fools had to cancel was Relentless, a show developed by the oldest members of the youth theatre and about to go on tour to nine professional theatres in the North.
Knowing this would be a great disappointment for everyone involved, Kiz created a solution:
“On 18 March, the day that would have been the last rehearsal, we had film-makers in to record the show. We didn’t invite an audience because of the safety guidelines, but we were able to capture the show, forming an end point for the participants. Collectively, we celebrated what we’d achieved and mourned what we’d lost.”
With no income, Mortal Fools will dip into their reserves. As a registered charity, the company has to have a reserve and state this annually in the report to the Charity Commission.
“We’ve been building up our reserves because we want to start offering contracts of employment instead of contracts of services. Currently the reserve is £40,000. We’ll be OK because our liabilities are limited: staff are self-employed, we have no outstanding loans, and we rent rather than own our property.”
It’s possible Mortal Fools could claim on their insurance for ‘business interruption’ but uncertain they’ll get a pay-out, Kiz hasn’t factored this into forecasting. However, as a gesture of goodwill during the lockdown, the insurer offered customers three months’ free cover which at least saves a little money.
What coronavirus support will you get from the Government?
Mortal Fools has an office in a share-used building in rural Northumberland, alongside a library, an estate agent and the Police. Because the company gets business rates relief, the local council should contact them about claiming a coronavirus Small Business Grant.
“It’s likely there’s a letter at the office about getting a grant – but we can’t get to it because the building closed to the public when schools closed and the Police asked us not to go in due to the infection risk. We’re well set up for remote-working but it’s frustrating to pay rent on a space we can’t use.”
Unable to get to the office, Kiz found the company’s rate relief number and submitted an application on the local council’s website.
“We had confirmation that we’d applied but not that we’re successful. We hope to get £10,000 but we’re being conservative and only forecasting with what we definitely have.”
Another source of coronavirus grant funding is the Arts Council which has paused their usual system and announced an emergency fund of £160 million. There’s £50 million available for organisations like Mortal Fools, in grants of up to £35,000. Mortal Fools is applying.
£20 million of the Arts Council emergency fund will go to support individual artists and practitioners in grants of up to £2,500. Using their experience of applying for grants, the Mortal Fools core team is helping the associate freelancers to complete their applications.
Like all her staff, Kiz is self-employed as a ‘sole trader’. Because there are no employees and no PAYE scheme, Mortal Fools can’t use the Government’s Job Retention Scheme.
What’s your #1 lockdown tip for small businesses?
Two factors in particular will mean Mortal Fools emerges successfully from lockdown: Kiz’s drive to communicate clearly and the company’s participant-centric approach, focusing on what people need.
As CEO, Kiz is applying principles she uses under normal circumstances to steer the company through coronavirus: open, clear communication and swift decision-making.
“From my previous work on business training, knowing how people behave under stress has been very useful. It’s important to manage myself – to stay clear-headed so I can support others.
“When people feel scared, their main instinct is to look after themselves. It’s completely natural but we need to do the opposite: to communicate and connect. It’s the antidote to anxiety and uncertainty.”
Kiz emailed everyone – staff, associates, collaborators and the board – to let them know she was planning the company’s response to the crisis. She called the first emergency meeting with her wider team on Friday 13 March.
“I told staff to come prepared for a strange conversation with one agenda item: covid. By giving them the topic in advance, they experienced and processed their emotional response before the meeting. People can’t think straight when they’re just reacting. At the meeting, everyone shifted out of panic mode into planning mode.”
Kiz was keen that her staff heard the information first-hand. She showed projections that the company would be fine for six months with no income and set out her intention to honour their contracts.
Many of her freelancers told her they felt ‘cut adrift’ by other companies, contracts terminated without personal communication. Kiz wanted to do the opposite. By informing staff that Mortal Fools would still be operating and how she proposed to do that, Kiz positioned the company as a reliable organisation her freelancers could anchor themselves to during the crisis.
Focus on what people need
As well as giving her staff the reassurance and stability they needed, Kiz has been able to give her business participants lockdown-specific training:
“Re-imagining our business training to deliver it digitally was always in our plans. We’d done the thinking, we just had to fast-track it.
“One of the workshops we deliver in person is about communicating confidently. We adapted this to be about communicating via digital platforms. We promoted it on social media and to our email group, and the bookings came in overnight.”
By going digital with the wing of the business that earns the most income, Mortal Fools have opened up a new income stream. To further inform their plan for this year, Kiz’s team are in touch with business contacts to find out if and how companies will be spending their training budgets. When they know what businesses need, they’ll be ready to deliver.
Can you continuity plan for a pandemic?
While a global health crisis didn’t crop up in discussions, Mortal Fools were well organised to cope because they plan continuously:
“It’s rare anything surprises me about our financial management. We do strong cash-flow and forward financial planning. I found it boring at the time but now I’m so grateful we did it because this won’t be catastrophic for us.”
Finding that the lack of clear guidance from the Government was feeding panic and upset, Kiz wanted to make quick and clear decisions.
“At the beginning of the outbreak, we did ‘what if…?’ scenario planning. Even if decisions were difficult, they needed to be made. I worked on the comms, so we were ready with answers.”
Kiz used the time on long solo walks to formulate her messages and the concept of promises arose. These promises – to participants, staff and the community – are published on the Mortal Fools website and form a strong manifesto for how Kiz is leading the company through the crisis.
“The world always moves on. The companies that survive are the ones that reimagine what they do.”
What have you learned from working in lockdown?
During the lockdown, Kiz works from home while she and her husband take it in turns to look after their 10 year-old daughter.
“I’ve rediscovered the importance of structure. When you don’t have a routine given to you, you have to create one for yourself. It took me back when I first went freelance – I had to manage my work around my husband and daughter’s schedules.”
Kiz also found herself having to over-ride her natural tendency to focus on the bigger picture:
“In crisis mode, we can’t assume people will behave and cope the way they usually do. They need certainty and reliable information. As leader, my role is always to help others work at their best. To sort out what I can control and then focus on that. It was better to make definite decisions and fill in the detail, even if later that decision might not have been the right one.”
How has your business adapted to keep operating?
Kiz and Mortal Fools have been astonished at the outpouring of support. Parents emailed their thanks and the young participants wanted to help.
“We trained some of our older teenagers to be ‘digital ambassadors’. Helping them reach out to support other young people during the coronavirus outbreak. Eddie, who’s 18, had his A-levels cancelled and he wanted to help. He’s doing a weekly video, ‘Eddie’s Address to the Nation‘!
“To start with, we’re offering free videos with a clear benefit. In ‘why we’re all tired, snappy and selfish, I wanted to show how to cope when we’re all under stress, not just one of us. And in ‘this thing we’re feeling is grief’ I explain the stages of grief and how to handle it. By understanding what’s going on and sharing some of the ways we react, we can help people understand.”
Participatory projects Mortal Fools had planned for summer 2020 will instead run as digital projects.
“We looked at how we could achieve similar outcomes but delivered in a different way. For younger children, we’ve developed What the world needs now. For older children, we’re taking part in a global project designed by Company Three, The Coronavirus Time Capsule. This gives a structure for participants to capture their experiences of the pandemic and share them with others around the world.”
Kiz also wants to use the time spent in lockdown to grow the company’s capabilities. She’s training more of her associates to lead business training sessions, creating a new digital portal with drama-based activities for families to support children’s mental health, and saying yes to some opportunities she not previously had time to take up, such as taking part in a podcast for Creative Collective.
As with any devised show the company’s participants create, Mortal Fools itself will always be a ‘work in progress’: innovative, agile and able to adapt. Under Kiz’s careful and strong leadership, the company has reinvented how they deliver their work and is ready to welcome back their participants with more energy and enthusiasm than ever before.