Overnight, the PopUp Business School saw its business model wrecked and hundreds of thousands of pounds of business down the drain. Yet it's still in business and its CEO, Simon Paine, says there's never been a better time to start up
“March wasn't a great month,” laughs Simon Paine. “We lost six figures’ worth of business, a headline event with Google in New York was postponed and my business partner was locked down in the United States. Our entire business model revolved around holding events where we helped people to start up their own enterprises. With all public gatherings banned, we had no way to make money.”
But, three months later, the PopUp Business School is still in business. It was eventually forced to furlough three members of staff but an online pivot means it's making money again.
“We are fighting hard and, honestly, I’ve never felt more positive for the future – it’s been a rollercoaster.”
PopUp Business School events are funded by sponsors, making them entirely free for attendees. They are, says Paine, “The best business school money can’t buy”. Prior to lockdown, it had a lot of success. Since founding in 2011, it had reached over 7500 people in six different countries. In 2019, 967 people actually started trading within two months of attending a PopUp event. Its credibility was on the rise and it is backed by organisations including Henley Business School, Westminster City Council and the Department for Work and Pensions.
The question was: could it be done online? Paine says they've proven it can. “Overall, taking the events online has been very successful, though there are challenges,” he notes. At their first fully online event, sponsored by Westminster Council, they had 265 attendees, making it the biggest course they'd ever run. A later course funded by Oxfordshire Council also gained an audience of over 100 attendees, more than double what they would have expected for an ‘in-person’ event.
“You can get a greater geographic reach, which really helps in more rural locations. We would typically run most of our events in cities and towns before,” notes Paine.
“It’s a different experience, not being in the room with people; you have to mute them during most of the training sessions so you don't get that natural back-and-forth you'd get at an in-person event.”
Everyone has been learning the art of the video call or conference, and Paine says engagement is the key.
“Generating a strong sense of engagement has become a priority for the online events. Myself and the other trainers manage this in a few ways.
“One is by creating breakout sessions on Zoom or Teams. During the course, we still want people networking and communicating with each other; it’s part of what makes PopUp Business School special, and these breakout sessions make a big difference.
“We also run live polls during the course. Often, this helps us to decide how to go forward with that day based on energy levels, at other times we'll gather information about participants to help us decide what kind of material they will benefit from the most. But we've noticed that the polls, themselves, help to build engagement.”
Getting ‘the tech' right is also key. This doesn't involve any in-depth tech skills, but rather there's a focus on light, sound and building a sense of intimacy.
“We set up our equipment in a way that builds a sense of human interaction,” Paine explains. “We are careful to plan the practical things, like making sure a laptop is level with your face and that you have good natural light or a diffused lamp.
“Also, at times we will invite participants to switch their camera on, to wave, thumbs up, smile, put their hands up and communicate, so that it's not a one-way street.”
So is the future of the business online?
“There's a lot of power in delivering in-person events,” Paine acknowledges. “However, doing the events online has enabled us greater reach, we've brought people to our online events who we think wouldn't have been able to come to an in-person event.
“So, we think ‘hybrid events' will be the future. We want to do in-person events, but also live-stream some parts of the course for those that can't make the event.
“There’s never been a more important time to teach debt-free entrepreneurship and it’s our duty to grow our audience size in the UK, develop our international partners and get practical help, information and inspiration to help people get started.”
About PopUp Business School
PopUp Business School's mission is to change the way entrepreneurship is taught across the world. It has educated over 7500 people in seven different countries through free events and helped launch 967 businesses in 2019 alone.
In response to the Covid-19 lockdown, PopUp Business School pivoted to free, live, online events, as well as launching the PopUp Business Survival Guide and running twice-weekly webinars that are accessed by thousands of entrepreneurs for free. PopUp Business School is backed by organisations including Google, Henley Business School and Westminster City Council.