Coronavirus small business diary – Stitch & Story CEO Jennifer Lam

Stitch & Story, a digital knitting and crafts brand, saw its online sales jump by nearly 1,000% when lockdown was announced – only for its warehouse to announce it was shutting its doors

Jennifer Lam is co-founder (alongside Jen Hoang) and CEO of digital crafts brand Stitch & Story, which sells a range of knitting kits, equipment and yarns, accompanied by a range of online tutorial videos to teach viewers knitting techniques.

Its products are aimed at people of all ages and abilities, with a range of products aimed at anyone from beginner to expert.

Here is her coronavirus small business diary:

9th March

Canary Wharf announces they’ve evacuated several office buildings because someone tested positive for Covid-19. In the Stitch & Story shared office, we see people putting up government health advice posters on all the walls and toilet cubicles. Our office is only one stop away from Canary Wharf and there’s some nervousness among our team. No one is admitting to it, but we can tell on our faces that something strange is happening.

The site manager called us for an emergency meeting to reassure us there are no plans for the building to shut but that we should prepare for the scenario. We’ve advised our Stitch & Story team to take their laptops home every night. There’s also a new rule – no personal belongings on our desks just in case the building will be required to carry out a deep clean.

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I look at our desks; yarns sprawled everywhere, colour swatches look like large confetti, numerous knitting kits opened and none of the components match the product. We have enough coloured pens, post-it notes, teas and snacks to satisfy a whole department. And we’re only a team of six. We hot desk and so everything gets shoved in a locker or a box, and it looks a bit like we’re all being let go.

13th March – 17th March

This weekend we decided to trial working from home with our Stitch & Story team. This doesn’t phase us because our team is already set up for working remotely. We use a score of apps – Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom. But nothing triumphs if you have poor internet.

On Tuesday morning we received an email from the site manager saying the whole building will be closed at the end of the day for safety measures. Time to fetch our stuff from our lockers. But more pressing things need sorting out first, particularly in the warehouse. We’ve seen a huge uplift in sales for our knitting kits and yarns as if it’s Black Friday, and the team is struggling with the orders dispatch. It’s closer to 4pm and I drop off my six-month-old daughter at my mum’s before heading into the office with two empty suitcases.

The security guard tells me the canteen is giving away all the unsold sandwiches, so I go and take a look. I see all the gluten-free sandwiches are unsold – I’ve hit the jackpot! I’m celiac so that’s my weeks’ worth of lunch and dinner sorted. It’s 4:45pm and I’m being chased, only a few people left in the building. I ram the rest of our office belongings into my sandwich-filled suitcases and head out. The place is eerily quiet, and I say goodbye to the security guard with the uncertainty of when we’ll be back. “Stay safe”is the normal salutation now.

>See also: Fewer than 10% of businesses can access government coronavirus funding

23rd March – 27th March

We start seeing the UK go into a panic buy across the nation. People are stockpiling yarns and sending kits to loved ones. Our online orders continue to soar by a massive 963 per cent but order processing is slow because we’ve implemented stricter health and safety rules in the warehouse. We’ve also decided to book Ubers for any warehouse staff who would usually take public transport into the warehouse, to keep them safe.

The government announces a lockdown. We see a surge of first class and priority mail – it seems everyone wants to start their knitting project now. The warehouse building sends an email out to inform us that they’ve reduced the opening hours to close at 2pm. Our Stitch & Story team regroups to think about what we can do with the new way of working. We’re concerned that the warehouse will be shut completely, and we have heaps of orders coming in. So we’ve made a decision to temporarily close our online shop. The first time in seven years. There’s something sad about clicking that ‘off’ button.

I’ve not slept for three days straight – juggling a six-month-old baby at home with work life is tricky to say the least. My husband takes over and I’m starting to think she’s forgotten who I am – she reaches out for Daddy more than me when she fusses. My heart breaks a little. I’ll make it up to her once this is over.

Meanwhile, I call up several third-party warehousing services to ask for help. I hit a dead-end with some saying they’re at full capacity, some closed, and some hiking up their service charges. The future is uncertain.

30th March – 3rd April

We finally catch up on fulfilment and we can open the UK website again. There’s great trepidation on clicking the “‘on” button with the fear of another wave of orders larger than we can handle. We can always turn it back off if it gets too much, the emotional tug is real.

The team falls into a rhythm with the work from home lifestyle. We add fun Slack statuses and we respectfully don’t interrupt anyone who is on a lunch walk. Everyone is attempting their mid-week grocery shop and dread the queue that’s waiting for them.

Tomorrow is our seventh birthday and we’re planning a social-not-so-social party on Instagram. Have you ever tried to tell a knitter how to make use of extra time on their hands? As part of our birthday surprises, we’ve decided to offer free downloadable PDF patterns for our fans as well as hosting a KAL (knit-a-long) on social media. We get everyone to tune in next week to start a knitting project together, the Lana Patchwork Throw. We’re finding new ways to reconnect with everyone by using #stitchtogether and the best part of it all is knowing that we’re all in it together.

4th April

Our investors have set up a #covidoperations business support group on Slack and it’s encouraging to see other founders sharing tips and advice. Some companies are having a real hard time, particularly those in retail or hold physical premises and there’s a running commentary on how long it takes to call the bank, HMRC, landlords. So far, HMRC takes the lead, at five hours call waiting.

There’s a sense of giving back. Like Pasta Evangelists, who are creating care packages and donating to Age UK, we’re offering free knitting kits daily by asking our fans to nominate an NHS hero. It seems like a small gesture compared to the real heroes out there fighting the virus, but I hope it makes a big difference to someone in need.

Jennifer Lam is co-founder and CEO of Stitch & Story

Further reading

Two out of five small businesses will run out of cash within six weeks


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