Starting a business in Covid: Young Cardiff entrepreneurs share their stories

Opening a store is difficult at the best of times. But optimistic indie businesses say ‘there has never been a more affordable time to start’

Boris Johnson announces the first national lockdown.
Image: 10 Downing Street under open government licence.

IT is March 2020. Boris Johnson has declared a national lockdown, with clear guidance: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”

For the first time, many of us had the chance to pause. The lockdown meant many had time to take a step back and to get in touch with their creativity.

Those of us lucky enough to be safe at home took time to think of others less fortunate than us. As we clapped for the NHS and baked banana bread, we connected with our neighbours. By shopping at local, independent stores we fostered a sense of community in our increasingly disconnected world.

The turn to supporting small businesses was one of the best things to come out of the lockdowns. But has the sentiment to shop independent stuck around?


Aoife Doherty outside her shop, Floris. Image: British Business Bank

Aoife Doherty, 22, started her stationery brand Floris in August 2020. As part of the class of 2020, her time at university ended abruptly and she returned to her parents’ home in Rhiwbina.

The lockdown gave her time and space to work on creating a brand. Aoife wanted sustainability to be at the heart of Floris, but she also did not want to compromise on style. She spent time in lockdown creating her first few products, and her sister suggested going to markets.

We spoke about the evolution of her business, from market stalls last year to the opening of her first store this October in St David’s, Cardiff’s biggest shopping centre.

“A week or so after launching Floris I had a stall at the Indie Superstore in Corporation Yard, Canton,” said Aoife.

“I was at markets almost every weekend from August to Christmas. The Indie Superstore moved outside with a new site at Clearwater Parade in Lakeside in November 2020. As winter arrived, more Covid restrictions came in but we could still run markets as they were outside.

“In a way, lockdown benefitted us as people were more comfortable shopping at outdoor markets, so there were more customers than before.”

British Business Bank supported Aoife with a loan, helping her to afford the prime spot in St David’s Centre.

The Queer Emporium

The Queer Emporium’s outdoor space. Image: The Queer Emporium

Yan White, 28, also started out at the Indie Superstore, selling candles there in 2019.

At markets, he met other LGBTQ+ sellers and realised the potential to do something as a collective.

Royal Arcade is a quaint street between St Mary’s and The Hayes. Dotted with vintage clothing stores, gift shops and eateries, the arcade is a favourite among tourists and locals alike. The Queer Emporium sits in a prime spot on the corner where the arcade meets St Mary Street.

Yan opened The Queer Emporium, a queer makers’ collaborative, in June. They stock goods from 15 local LGBTQ+ businesses, from wine, to clothing and accessories.

The Queer Emporium store is on Royal Arcade.
Some of the vendors at The Queer Emporium. Yan is front right.
Image: The Queer Emporium

It has since become a hub in Cardiff and is a registered member of social enterprise UK.

“My original idea was to do a one-off queer market but it quickly built out of that into a bigger and more sustainable business model,” said Yan.

“I describe us as a queer department store and as far as we know we are the first one in the world.

We started as a pop up because we didn’t know if it would work. There was nothing to base it on and we’ve changed the model over time. We are in a good place now.

A time for optimism?

After the 2020 turn to small businesses, optimistic creators put effort into establishing their ideas.

I asked Aoife and Yan about how they have found opening a store this year and whether they feel positive about how this year has gone.

“It is a difficult thing to say, but in a way lockdown has benefitted small businesses. It has opened people’s eyes to the importance of shopping independent and local. We rely on our customers so much more.”

Aoife Doherty, Floris

“I think the pandemic has caused a cultural shift and with that there is an awareness of supporting small, local businesses.”

Yan White, The Queer Emporium

Yan said: “The pandemic has given us a good opportunity to have a go. Landlords who own the arcades and the St David’s Centre have tried to encourage small businesses. The rates holidays from the council means there has never been a more affordable time to start a business.

“Simultaneously, there’s never been a worse time because footfall is down and people have less disposable income.”

Cardiff Indie Collective is a catalogue of businesses, providing a community for independents in the city. It aims to make shopping small easier, described as a kind of “local Etsy”.

While CIC businesses have largely seen an increase in sales in December, November was a difficult month for many. Two businesses cited November 2021 as their worst month ever for sales.

Rhian Pitt, founder of CIC, said: “We think this may be down to shoppers waiting for Black Friday deals at big chain stores. Sadly, there seems to have been less focus on shopping local, and people have been returning to the comfort of shopping centres.”

“There have been some positives this year. More face-to-face markets have given our makers the opportunity to chat to customers and give out business cards.”

Cardiff Council has supported small businesses during the pandemic. The economic development team said: “We operate a range of business property spaces across Cardiff including retail units. These properties are provided on flexible terms to assist small businesses.”

They have also granted companies a one-year business rates holiday during the pandemic.

The Federation of Small Businesses is a not-for-profit organisation which offers advice and support for small businesses. They lobbied for rates holidays, and are asking the Welsh Government to maintain current reliefs and to look at expanding them.

Rob Basini, development manager at FSB South Wales, said: “Of course, there is two sides to it. Some businesses have managed to be flexible and carry on working as normal, some even increasing their sales by adapting their online capabilities.  But in central Cardiff many businesses rely on lunchtime trade from office workers. Many offices still haven’t returned to full capacity and the recent government guidance to work from home where possible is concerning.”

There has never been a more difficult time for small businesses.”

Rob Basini, FSB

He added: “There has never been a more difficult time got small businesses. There’s been the obvious impacts we all feel with restrictions but also the things most people don’t see like supply chain and transport issues. We are doing all we can, but we urge people to support small businesses in Cardiff. Not just cafés and gift shops, but tradespeople too.”

This year, while we have largely adapted to the pandemic, there is the cumulative impact of nearly two years of difficulties on businesses.

As CIC put it: “Amazon aren’t going to miss two or three sales. But if you buy just one thing locally you will be making a huge difference to that business.”

What does the future hold?

With speculations about the new Covid variant, Cardiff’s small business owners will have to be prepared for potential new restrictions.

Aoife has hopes of becoming an established name for sustainable stationery. After the success of her first store, she is interested in opening more stores in different places.

Her online shop is working well, and the click and collect service is proving useful for customers.

Yan said: “I think largely we will be ok – I’m not too worried about more restrictions

“We are yet to launch our online shop but if we were to go into lockdown we would accelerate that process.

“I think Cardiff is a great place to be a small business. We’ve received so much support and we have been able to collaborate with so many different local independent businesses.”

As the new year rolls in, this is just the beginning for Aoife and Yan. Here’s to an even better 2022.