When Anna Varone-Johnson woke up on Tuesday, 17 March 2020, she felt miserable and demoralised. Stringent COVID-19 regulations were about to kick in. As a small business owner, Anna wasn’t sure whether they’d be able to ride out the looming lockdown.
Anna is the owner of Ragdolly Annas, a music and rhyme group that offers sessions for babies and children up to five years old, in Milton Keynes and south Bedfordshire. They usually entertain between 25 and 35 children through daily drop-in activities.
“Before the pandemic, we had a straightforward cash-based, pay-as-you-go model. Our customers didn’t have to book in advance, and we managed our finances off a simple Excel spreadsheet. So, when the pandemic hit, we were almost immediately in deep waters,” explains Anna.
But Anna and her team weren’t going to let the tunes die down. We sat down with Anna to hear her experience.
Adapting to the pandemic
Ragdolly Annas had to refund all customers who had paid in advance for live sessions. Afterwards, Anna consulted with the group’s regular customers and decided to broadcast online sessions.
“The first 30-minute video, even though free of charge, was an unexpected success, with families from Norway, Canada, Italy and around the UK tuning in,” Anna says. “Suddenly, we had a whole new business avenue!”
She adds, “To our knowledge, we were the first children’s music group to offer this type of fun music and rhyme sing-along sessions. It was such a novelty at the time that we received national recognition by being featured on BBC News, as well as in The Guardian and The Telegraph. However, these were still uncertain times for us. We could only plan week by week, while sourcing appropriate venues for in-person attendance.”
When Ragdolly Annas finally returned to some semblance of normality, COVID-19 regulations required the team to manage bookings electronically to allow for track-and-trace and managing numbers per session.
Anna elaborates: “We couldn’t let people just turn up, which was unfortunate since the demand was at an all-time high. We also had to quickly find a way to manage our finances properly due to the sudden flood of weekly electronic payments.
Xero proved to be the perfect solution with its easy, user-friendly interface and it was a great aid when we changed our business model. It integrated effortlessly with our bespoke booking system and bank accounts with no added stress. We can now track all our customers, raise invoices, send refunds, and always be in the loop in terms of cash flow.”
A way forward
Ragdolly Annas has tripled in size since the pandemic. “We’ve gone from running 12 weekly sessions to 36, and we have employed four more people. It’s been a swift growth trajectory, and we’ve had to develop with our audiences as well as how to work to offer a safe environment for our customers.
We’ve extended our services via Age UK and now work with the elderly living with dementia. We get requests for training staff members to present similar sessions, which opens up a whole new revenue stream for us.”
The team is confident that – should they ever have to rapidly pivot again, or head into another lockdown – Xero’s records of the families that have paid in advance will make the refund process far simpler.
“Before using Xero, it was extremely laborious and time-consuming to search for customers and manually refund them individually,” admits Anna.
“It was time we could ill afford at a stage where we had to stay ahead of our planning and market our business to new audiences. The pandemic forced us to streamline our processes, develop a plan for every eventuality, and rethink how we manage our finances.
“Thankfully, we now have a guaranteed income through our booking system and can easily determine a true account of profit and loss to manage our cash flow. This gives us the confidence to plan new things, such as hiring office, storage and studio space.”
Advice for small business owners
According to Anna, a top piece of advice for all small business owners is to never be afraid to try, especially if you have the buy-in of your customers.
With this in mind, she recommends launching the new service or product you may be thinking about trialling.
Anna concludes: “With the support of Xero, we’ve grown our business at a staggering yet controlled rate, which may not have been possible otherwise.”