As we return to ‘business as normal’ after several instances of pandemic lockdown, many people are looking forward to getting their organisations back on track. We spoke to Epic Tales CEO Chip Colquhoun – who found he couldn’t have managed without the help and input of the CPCA Growth Hub’s Start and Grow Programme for Fenland, Peterborough and Huntingdonshire, funded by the Community Renewal Fund and in partnership with Peterborough City Council, Fenland and Huntingdon District Councils.
What has been your experience of working with the Growth Hub, and accessing the support from the Start and Grow Programme?
Like a lot of businesses out there at the moment, we need to recover from the impact of the pandemic – in fact, probably more than most, because the pandemic entirely wiped out our revenue for just over a year. So it was exactly the kind of thing that we needed, at the right time. And from the beginning, the support was brilliant – they had a workshop to let us know exactly what the grant application looked like, and the sort of things that needed to go in it.
For us, it then became a question of: what’s going to be the most sensible way to use the resource? And once we’ve identified that and found some suppliers – who would be able to really make best use of this opportunity – we put in the grant application.
Over the course of the pandemic, our company’s capacity has been reduced to pretty much just me, we had to let all of our staff go. So, I’m pretty much doing everything myself: the development, the delivery and the marketing.
And it means that doing something like an application form on top of that is quite a huge ask, especially when it’s going to involve things like cash flows and business plans, and all of the other stuff that’s so extensive.
But when we submitted our application, and the Business Advisors came back requiring tweaks here and there – they were actually offering to make some of those tweaks for us. They were so keen to make sure we benefited from the support, they really put that effort in.
Tell us a bit about your business.
We are Epic Tales, and we help enhance children’s education through storytelling. What we found over a decade of me doing this myself is that by sharing stories with children, you boost their confidence, you boost their attainment, and you improve their well-being. And that is like the holy trinity of getting them to be the best, most successful human beings they can be, certainly through their school years, and probably well beyond. I incorporated the business in 2019 because I wanted to train others and expand the team, so that we could get more children benefiting from some of the discoveries that I had made during my work with organisations like the EU Lifelong Learning Programme, Cambridgeshire County Council and other local authorities around the country (and several overseas as well). But when the pandemic came along it took out my main client base, which was schools and festivals – they just weren’t doing anything anymore.
In the early days of the first lockdown I got my company producing some free resources to support parents and teachers who were having to help children learn from home. And for the first time ever, we found ourselves competing with the likes of the BBC, Disney, the National Theatre, and all of these massive names who we would never have been in competition with before. Our stuff is specialist so has been developed over several years of finding ways to really engage children and help them to improve their learning; but with Disney, the BBC, stuff could be produced way quicker and with huge budgets, reach and everything – and they were the names people recognised. So we didn’t get quite as far with our resources as we may have otherwise done.
However, the few parents who did start using our resources had amazing results with them. There was one boy in particular who was about six years old; he had been non-verbal at school pretty much entirely, and he had severe behavioural issues. His parents started using some of our story resources with him at home – and within a month he was reading out aloud in class. His mum found herself going into school and being called to the head teacher’s office because he had written a two-page story in his break time, which absolutely blew their minds! They’d seen this massive transformation in their kid’s learning, literally, in the space of a month. And the only difference within that time had been the use of our resources. So that family led the charge with some others to become patrons for us – they made a massive donation to keep our business afloat when we weren’t getting revenue from anywhere else. This meant I was able to develop a new bunch of resources with a website – and with a friend of mine, Corky Paul, who just happens to be a world famous illustrator – as well. It was a little bit of a double-edged sword because obviously we now have this fantastic and rather expensive product that we haven’t really had to pay for, but we had a lot of people investing in it out of sheer love and to share gratitude for the impact it had had on their children.
What happened then?
We needed to promote our resources to an audience that we had never considered before – and that’s why the Community Recovery Fund and the Growth Hub’s Start and Grow Programme came at the perfect time. We were thinking, how can we reach this new audience in an era where social media is absolutely clogged up?
And the grant is going to really hugely help with that, because it’s allowing us to get some expert marketing professionals in to design a campaign, to put the message out there; it’s helping us to identify platforms that are going to be the most targeted for this particular product.
Hopefully, the outcome of all of this is going to be more people getting the product, more people experiencing the same kind of impacts that those families have already had. We are a social enterprise, you know, growing the education of more kids around the country – maybe even beyond. Now, we can extend the reach around the world!
How did you find ongoing support, day-to-day?
They were absolutely brilliant. They were so keen to make sure we benefited from all the support available, they really put that effort in to help me and my business.
It sounds like the whole experience has been the difference between success and failure for your business – through no fault of your own, due to the last couple of years.
Because of the pandemic coming when it did, and us being so young an organisation when it first hit, we haven’t got much of a turnover history. I think in our first year, we had something like £50k, but even with the bounce-back loan, that’s only going to get you a maximum of something like £12k. In the COVID years themselves, we were making turnover of less than £16k, and even then it was only thanks to those parents stepping forward with their donations. With a history like that, it’s really, really difficult to get funding of any kind – to be eligible for the COVID Relief Loan your business is expected to have a minimum turnover of something like £100k, so it’s just not set up for small businesses like us. We had got to the point – without this fund being available – we probably wouldn’t be able to keep the business running, so all of those parents would have made that wonderful donation for almost nothing.
Visit cpcagrowthhub.co.uk/community-renewal-fund-crf for more information on the Community Renewal Fund.