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A Year of Working Together: Starting a Business During a Pandemic

This time last year I was feeling apprehensive, but excited.

It was just a week until Phil would be finishing up his digital marketing agency job and throwing himself full time into working with me. We planned to expand this website and start lots of new projects that we dreamed would become our full time, high earning, self-employed business.

Little did we know what was to come…

Starting a Business in 2020 - Feet and Passion Led Us Here Sign

We’d spoken many times of “giving it a year” and February 2020 was the beginning of that.

While most people looked back at the year of 2020 and reflected (or mentally ran away from it) for me, the year that really mattered was the one from February 6th, the first full day we’d have together as a self-employed couple.

So here’s my reflection of that first year of being in business together. The ups, alongside the (many) downs. The successes and failures, and how we managed to make it through starting a new business in the height of a global pandemic.

I’ve never actually shared how we can to the decision to do this before, so let’s start at the beginning. It’s a long ride, so get ready!

Starting a business in 2020 - Lying on hotel bed with phone and laptop working

Digital nomad dreams…

The beginning

In 2018 we were on one our of our many mini getaways in Scotland. I was two months pregnant and let’s say not exactly feeling my best. We’d paused for a break in Inveraray in Argyll, en route to a little bothy on an estate in woodland, where we planned to spend our first wedding anniversary.

Migrating Miss was doing well. It’d been just over a year since I’d gone self-employed, sort of by accident, but I had managed to scrape together an income through a freelance writing job, income from the blog and campaigns, and a couple of temp jobs.

With a baby on the way and rising income from the website, it seemed the right time to throw myself full-time into blogging and set up as much passive income as possible before he got arrived. Because who doesn’t like earning while they sleep? Or not, as the case goes with a new baby…

Starting a Business in 2020 - Looking out over the sea at Argyll, Scotland

This is what we were discussing as we wandered down the street in Inveraray, and I casually mentioned to Phil that I hoped eventually I would earn enough that he could quit his job and join the “business” too. He paused, in a bit of shock. It had never occurred to him that it would be a possibility.

Well in my mind, it was a no-brainer. He worked in digital marketing and social media. Blogging is essentially an aspect of that, and it made sense to me that we would be able to work on something together, not least because then we could work from anywhere we wanted.

I’d had a taste of the “digital nomad” life and I wasn’t too keen on giving it up, but the fact that Phil was expected to be at an office full-time had already led to him missing out on travel with me or us having to scramble around his job to make a campaign work.

But there was no concrete plan for how it would work and it seemed a bit of a dream at that point…

Starting a Business in 2020 - Standing on a rock by the sea at Argyll, Scotland

Full-time blogging life

By a year later, in May 2019, I’d managed to earn a full-time income mostly from this website, despite not working anywhere near full time as it became harder due to pregnancy and then with a baby to care for.

The dream seemed a little more possible, and it came up in conversation every now and then, but we weren’t there yet.

Then, despite not finding much time to work on Migrating Miss throughout 2019, by the end of the year it was doing even better.

We started to see how we might be able to develop it further, and the seed of excitement started to take hold that this might really be able to happen.

Plus over all our “future dream business chats” we’d come up with a few ideas for other ways to start some more projects that would round out what we did into more of a full online business, not just one website.

I’ve spoken before about how I sort of fell into being a full-time blogger, which definitely makes it feel like less of a business and more a bit of lucky hobby that earns me money.

I knew if we were going to make a go of working together we needed a proper business plan and solid ideas for development, and by the end of 2019, I felt like we actually had that.

Loch Tay - Autumn tree next to loch with person under it

Deciding to go into business together

It seemed like almost every spare moment we were discussing how it might work, and whether it was something we could do while Phil was still in full-time employment. The more we spoke about it the more it became clear that we needed to throw everything into this.

Despite enjoying his agency job, Phil knew it would be hard to maintain that, plus time spent as a family and working on starting a business too. Something had to give.

Finally, over Christmas 2019, we made the decision that we’d talked enough and it was time for action. You never know if you don’t try, right? It’s a rule I’ve often lived by, and this was no different.

Starting a Business in 2020 -  Couples shoes and view of Salisbury Cargs and Edinburgh city from above

Financially, the projected income from Migrating Miss was good, and we had some savings if we needed it.

And so we developed the “one year plan”. We would give ourselves one year from Phil quitting his job to make it work.

A year to build a digital business that would be sustainable, that could take us forward and help us achieve our dreams of working for ourselves from wherever we chose and being able to spend flexible time together as a family.

If it failed, we would have had a year of spending more time together as a family, which was invaluable in itself with a young child seemed to be changing by the day.

And we’d just get jobs, right?

Laptop with coffee and flowers - How to write a blog post

January 2020 – What virus?

So there I was in January 2020, at home looking after a recently turned one-year-old. I worked as much as I could around B in that year, but there’s no denying I was ready to sink my teeth into a bit more and “get back into it” so to speak.

As much as I loved being a full-time Mum, I missed working. After all, I had literally turned something I loved doing into my job!

Despite the excitement, Phil quitting his job was also nerve-racking. We were literally halving our household income, by choice, and it was going to take time to build that up again.

What if the plans we had didn’t pan out? But we had to keep thinking, what if they did!

I can’t remember now if I’d heard about COVID by then, but even if I had it played zero part in our plans and the decision we’d made.

My experience of this sort of thing was limited to SARS, Bird Flu, and Swine Flu, all of which happened while I was living in New Zealand and meant we were particularly sheltered as an island far from everywhere.

Even Ebola and Zika, which were more recent and occurred while I was living in Australia and Spain didn’t really affect me past knowing they existed and keeping an eye on the news.

Despite dire media predictions around all of these and warnings of possible world pandemics whatever it was always seemed to be brought under control and be dealt with. This wouldn’t be any different…right?

February 2020 – Starting work together and a pandemic on the horizon

And so we woke up on the 6th of February and began our foray into working together. It was a weird feeling. We had lots of plans and had to start somewhere, so we began work on a second website we’d had in mind for a while, with everything geared towards launching it around late March.

I had managed to convince Phil that we should book a winter getaway not long after he finished up, and take advantage of the fact we could go whenever we wanted with no worries about work, other than our own.

It would be a good goal to get us through the first few weeks and get stuff done, or so I said! We had 2 weeks until the trip we’d booked to Prague, and then a month after to bring the new project together.

As our trip crept closer coronavirus was dominating more of the news, but it still seemed to be far away from us, and it never crossed my mind to consider cancelling our trip.

Starting a Business in 2020 - In the main sqaure in Prage

We had an amazing time in Prague. I’d visited years before and loved being able to show Phil around, and B was still little enough we could take him wherever.

However, in the week we were away things started to change.

COVID clusters were detected in Europe. By the end of the week, I became more aware of crowds and tour groups around the city and started to wonder if this was something we should be worried about. I frequently checked the news to see if there were cases in the Czech Republic.

It was the day after we flew home that the first case was detected both there and in Scotland.

Starting a Business in 2020 - Mum and baby overlooking Charles Bridge in Prague

That first week back we kept working and taking B to local children’s events like playgroup and singing at the library. But within two weeks it was obvious that this wasn’t going to just go away. Obvious to us anyway, if not the government…

COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on the 11th of March, meaning it had spread worldwide. A major conference we had planned to use to launch our new site was cancelled. And we decided that it no longer felt safe to take B to public spaces.

We essentially locked ourselves down about a week before the first official UK lockdown, which began on the 23rd of March.

The painful downfall of travel blogging

Travel blogging is seasonal, and the beginning of the year usually sees a sharp rise in traffic and therefore income, as people plan upcoming trips.

Things in 2020 were looking cautious. The rise hadn’t been as sharp as normal, and by mid-February, global traffic was steadily lower than the year before. But then it began to rapidly go downhill.

This was another sign to me that things weren’t right and bigger things were happening around the world. The few days after the 10th of March saw the sharpest drops yet and there was no sign of recovery.

Google Analytics Screenshot of February to April 2020

By the 20th of March income was 90% down, and our financial cushion had burst, just six weeks after Phil quit his job. Instead of our household income being halved it was pretty much nothing.

I distinctly remember an early morning phone call to my parents where all I could say through the tears was that “my business was gone”. Five years of hard work and building higher and higher had all crashed down in the space of a few weeks.

I’ll never forget what my Dad said, that has bolstered me ever since. He was a successful real estate agent when the recession happened in 2008, and he told me how it was like overnight, the phone just stopped ringing. But there was no giving up. He had to find a way through.

I never really thought about any of this at the time, caught up in my own university bubble. And make it through he did. Things change, they move on, and it’s possible to recover.

Luckily for our sake, the majority of our income is paid in a three-month delay, so we knew we had a little time to try and figure this all out. As we went into lockdown, we were discussing what exactly we were going to do to keep ourselves afloat without decimating the savings that were meant to last a year at least.

At first, I wrote topical posts for the time. Family and friends around the world were in lockdown too, and it felt like we were all in it together. I wrote about books to read, working from home, and Scottish films for those missing travel. While all of this gave us a little boost, it was a tiny blip on what was otherwise a flatlined business.

Laptop with cup of tea and tablet - Starting a Business in 2020 -

Pivoting ideas in a pandemic

The idea we’d been working on since Phil had quit his job was also travel-related, and therefore basically dead in the water, failing before we even managed to get it off the ground, so we needed something else.

It’s funny how we see things differently when we look back at them. It feels like it was a long time before we pivoted and completely changed the business plan we’d put hours of work into but in reality, it was just a few weeks.

I have to say, thinking about this now, I’m actually so proud of how we managed to think on our feet and quickly pivot.

We looked at what was happening around the world and in trends and bought forward plans we’d had for a further website we planned to work on later in 2020 that would (fingers crossed) not be so affected by COVID.

There were many long walks along new trails we found by our house that were effectively our “business meetings” as we actually had the chance to discuss important things without toddler interruptions!

It was painful at the time, as I didn’t want to let go of the first idea we’d be throwing our hearts into and really believed in, and I was dealing with the crippling feeling of having already failed, and that this whole thing had been my idea.

It seemed insane that we’d given up Phil’s salary. If only we’d held out just a few weeks longer he probably would have been on furlough or working from home fully paid. Could we have known?

These are questions and doubts I still grapple with, but at the same time I know we couldn’t have made a different decision based on what we knew in December 2019 and January 2020, and in any case, we wouldn’t be where we are now if we didn’t.

But more on that later…

Introducing our new business – Scottish Scran

And began our new venture, Scottish Scran, a website dedicated entirely to celebrating Scottish food and drink. Starting off with recipes, and hopefully expanding out to other avenues too.

By the last week in March, we dropped everything else we were doing and threw ourselves into food blogging, which we really knew little about!

We shared it nervously with the world on the 12th of April.

Screenshot of our Scottish Scran website

The thing is, new websites take a while to get going and to earn money. But we had a few things on our side. This wasn’t our first rodeo. I’d been in the blogging business for five years and learnt at least a thing or two since I started.

We were starting off many more steps up the ladder. And we had Phil’s social media experience on our side. Having strong social media is key to get things off the ground quickly before other avenues like Google search hopefully take over later on.

But this is all quite technical and something we might write more about if there’s enough interest!

By the end of May, we’d reached 10,000 sessions in a 30 day period and by the beginning of June, we had our new website on Mediavine, which helps bring in display ad income.

Welcome to Mediavine Screenshot

It was definitely a moment to celebrate, but we still had a long way to go to recover any sort of substantial income.

Although I have many quibbles with the UK government self-employment support, it has undeniably helped us, since I had evidence to show of past self-employment income that we could then claim under. Between that and the little income we were still getting, we managed to muddle through the next few months.

Growing a business through 2020

By September we were going from strength to strength as our traffic and income continued to improve and also picking up some local travel work for Migrating Miss too, which was exciting!

Scott's View - Countryside in the Scottish Borders

Things were looking up, and even though we kept hearing about a second wave and figured it would probably come, we were trying to stay positive about the business side of things.

By the end of the year, our food site had overtaken Migrating Miss. It was both sad and exciting for me.

We’d managed to launch and grow a successful site in a short time, but my first “baby” was still precious to me and it was hard to see it suffering. I had high hopes that the announcement of successful vaccines and approvals would help, but they came amidst the news of the second wave and a new strain of the virus.

The personal toll

On a personal level, the year had already been a super tough one. We’d missed several visits from family and friends both overseas and in the UK and the restrictions on visiting friends nearby meant we felt like we’d missed out on a lot of opportunities. However, it was all worth it to stay safe of course.

Working from home without any childcare or family support is also hard. We would either be looking after B or working, even when he was sleeping. There wasn’t a lot of personal time. And by that, I mean basically none.

It had always been our plan to do it this way to start with. Although we also thought we’d be taking advantage of being able to up and travel whenever we liked, so paying for childcare we might not use was part of that decision too. Plus we figured B would be getting social interaction with other kids through playgroups and local events.

Since neither the travel nor playdates with friends were happening we began to seriously consider childcare to allow him to socialise more and us to get more work done that we desperately needed to do to improve our income. But the thought was a bit scary, both financially, and emotionally, so we shelved it for a later date.

December 2020 and some success

And business-wise?

December was a crazy month for us, in a good way. MM did better than it had in months. And Scran was on fire. We had our highest traffic days ever in the leadup to Christmas as people cooked up a storm, and then again in the leadup to New Year, which is a big holiday in Scotland.

Alongside the websites, we’ve continued to do freelance writing and some other ad hoc projects like creating websites and advising on social media for others.

To say I was glad to see the back of 2020 on New Year’s Eve is an understatement. Although I knew nothing would magically change, it felt like there might be some hope that by the end of the next year we would be in a much better position.

Of course, 2021 has started off with its own dramas and we’ve been in strict lockdown since Christmas, but I’m holding on to that hope.

A new year and unbelievable traffic

Then January had another surprise in store for us.

Burns Night on the 25th of January is a big deal in Scotland, as people usually gather to celebrate Scotland’s best-loved poet with a big Scottish-themed meal.

We figured we’d get a nice little boost, like Christmas and New Year. Instead, we found ourselves frantically on the phone to our website hosting as our traffic grew higher and higher and the whole site threatened to collapse under the strain of it!

We topped almost 40,000 sessions in ONE DAY. Not to mention the leadup to it. Impressions of our website for the month were 1.75million.

That sort of traffic is just insane, as we’ve generally sat around 3000-4000 on normal days. It was definitely happy dance territory and helped us feel like we had made something positive out of this whole mess.

Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties Stack

One year of working together

So here we are, almost one year on from when Phil finished his job. The year where we said that we would give it a go and see what happened, hoping we’d have increased our income to make up for letting his salary go.

Little did we imagine that instead, we would lose almost all the income we had and have to start around from pretty much ground zero.

Starting a Business in 2020 - Laptop, plant, salt lamp, candle and cup of tea

But we did.

And we’ve done it.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re well on our way and we still have big plans. We’re not the only ones who found new ways to pivot and make things work in 2020, and we’ll all keep going in 2021.

We’ve survived, and in some ways thrived, and although there are been some hugely heartbreaking moments for us personally and business-wise, we’ve also had some amazing moments too.

And that’s what we’ll be holding onto, as we go into year two. Because yes, there will be a year two!

Here’s hoping we make it work even BETTER than the last…

Sonja x

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7 thoughts on “A Year of Working Together: Starting a Business During a Pandemic

  1. Wendy Guard says:

    Great story. Didn’t realise all what you went through.
    Proud Aunty.
    May travel 🧳 come back and we can reunite together

  2. Evie says:

    What a hell of a roller coaster year you have had, but you have survived and come out the other end stronger and still healthy. You have both worked so hard and haven’t given up and kept on fighting to succeed. Congratulations on the success of your Scottish Scran website, because of your hard work. I hope with the lock downs and immunisations being done now it will be a huge improvement on 2020 and without more lives lost to Covid19. Best wishes moving forward this year with more success to come. Will look forward to reading more on Migrating Miss and Scottish Scran and any new websites you develop.

  3. Kate says:

    Wow!! What a story! Thank you so much for sharing this in your beautiful authentic way. I am sure it is comforting and inspiring for so many out there who are struggling with turning plan A into Plan B. Thanks!!

  4. Barbara Barrie says:

    Sonja, I am so happy to be part of your Scottish Scran community and now I will be searching to imagine adventures in places I may never visit. Your story is inspiring and heartwarming. I wish you and Phil every success in the world. You deserve it. Stay strong, stay safe and celebrate.

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