At the start of 2020, Zara McLaughlin (22) from Ballymoney was a ceramics student at Ulster University, searching for work for after graduation.
Since then, she has launched her own business, Zara Ceramics (zaraceramics.com), from her grandparents’ Ballymoney garage, become an Instagram sensation and is now trying to decide whether to employ somebody to help.
For most, 2020 has been a memorable year in the worst way, delivering a pandemic that has wreaked a horrific toll on families worldwide along with a devastating economic crisis.
But as Northern Ireland came to a standstill in the spring, some of our homegrown businesses reaped the benefits of the new normal, with customers turning to home decor, online shopping, exercise and pets to while away the time at home. Some even took up new hobbies that proved so popular that they were able to transform them into burgeoning businesses in a matter of months.
“I only started up officially in April and, with more people spending a lot more time online, my e-commerce exploded and so did my social media presence,” Zara says.
“I grew from 3,000 followers in March to 14,000 currently — it’s been absolutely crazy to the point where I can’t keep up with demand and I’m working on so many collaborations.
“In January I was organising picking up a second job for after I graduated in March and now I’m at the point where I could potentially employ someone in the next few months.”
While studying, Zara had been selling pieces at craft fairs, and was considering starting a small business.
“When the pandemic hit, I’d finished my degree and was back into the little garage studio at home,” she says.
“I thought I’d lost access to the massive kilns at university but on Facebook Marketplace I found this tiny little kiln that was older than me and only took seven pots at a time. But that tiny kiln was pushing through 50 mugs a month at the beginning.
“Then my Instagram started to take off more and I reached out to kids’ clothes shops and local bakers and florists for advice and they put my pictures on their platform and that opened up a brand new audience of potential customers for me.”
The mugs are the biggest seller, but Zara is also making burners and vases.
“The mugs started as a way to make an income with what I could fit in my tiny kiln at home, and having to adapt when I went home during lockdown,” she says.
Zara signposts a monthly Instagram drop a few weeks in advance, building a buzz around the forthcoming products.
“Last month I put up 100 mugs and they sold in two minutes and it was the same the month before that,” she says.
“There were 1,000 unique visitors on the site on the last drop.
“At the start I was selling 50 mugs a month, but now it’s 200 or 300 a month. I recently did a collaboration with Oliva’s Haven selling wax burners and melts in a kit and 50 sold in two minutes.
“Now things are getting crazy and the next step is to employ someone else or find a bigger property to run workshops from.”
Zara admits she did struggle with her work-life balance while everything was taking off.
“When you’re trying to start anything new, you give it your all. At the start I was burned out all the time,” she says.
“Now I am definitely making more time for myself. I’m taking Sundays off now — I used to work seven days a week — so I would call that a win.
“I finished my degree during the pandemic and it was the loneliest time for me to be shut back at home, and then this whole Instagram community opened up.
“It feels like a group of cheerleaders who only want you to do well.”
For luxury online pet lovers’ emporium Murphy & Bailey, the pandemic seemed disastrous. Co-owner Karen Breene (47) had just left BT in January after 33 years to concentrate on the venture that she had set up with neighbour Judith Scott (47) 18 months ago. The pair had become friends while walking their dogs Murphy and Bailey in Belfast’s Belmont Park and had decided to set up a one-stop shop (murphyandbailey.co.uk) where pet owners could buy animal-themed gifts for humans as well as luxury pet products such as sheepskin beds.
“It was going well and we were getting lots of requests to set up stalls in markets because nobody was selling those types of wares, but Covid hit and all the markets were cancelled,” Karen says. “I’d just left BT thinking I was going to be doing more with the business.
“We thought business would literally die a death, but it increased and increased, and we got more website traffic month on month as it went on.
“There was a massive increase in people getting pets. With people working from home, they had more time to train a puppy or train a kitten. Lots of people had new puppies and kittens, and needed everything from poo bags to mats, and lots of people were getting presents for their friends.
“People were shopping more online and we noticed increased traffic and an increase in our social media following.”
Karen estimated that Murphy & Bailey is now selling three times as back in January and with business doing so well, the pair have just launched a shop at 65 Belmont Road.
Big sellers are the sheepskin beds, recycled wool blanket coats and the neon puffer coats: “People really love them — they’re something which is a bit fun, but easy to wash and not too expensive.”
It’s early days for the shop but trade has been brisk with customers queuing outside every Saturday.
“People like to treat their dogs and I think because people were working from home, more were taking the opportunity to rescue a dog or get a new puppy or kitten,” Karen says.
“It’s very demanding being a dog or cat owner in the early days and you need to be there to do the toilet training, the socialisation and so on. That was the advantage when people were working from home — they could let the dog out every two hours, and take the dog to the park to meet people.”
The pair say they are lucky to live five minutes from their new shop.
“The days get a bit long when you have to walk the dogs before and after work, but occasionally the dogs come down and hang out in the shop. It’s a very welcoming place for dogs,” Karen says.
Little Art Co was launched by Emma Ashenhurst (21), from Newtownards, after she took up a new hobby during lockdown while furloughed from her job at boarding kennels in Craigantlet.
“All of a sudden I was going from being busy to long hours doing nothing and it was a bit of a struggle,” Emma says.
“I went through the same phases as everybody else — I did the baking, the crazy exercise and walking my dogs as many times a day as I could. Then I found some paints I had stashed away in the cupboard and some paper that was lying around, and I just started doodling. That is how it started — doing paintings for friends and family to keep me occupied.”
During lockdown, Emma had to ration the art materials she had — which is how she came to start painting miniatures.
“Due to limited resources I was painting on tiny pieces of card — roughly 4cm x 5cm. I use my one paintbrush, a pen and a few cocktail sticks for the really fiddly bits!” she says.
“Initially the paintings were for friends and family but I soon had commissions from local businesses for artwork for use on business cards and products.”
After that, business began to take off quickly: “I was a bit overwhelmed. I panicked a bit and when I went back to work in July, for two months I didn’t paint at all, but I realised I was enjoying it and really wanted to do it so I decided to go back to it.
“Now I’m taking on commissions and organising prints. I would say I have between 20 and 25 commissions that I have accepted payment for.
“Just recently I had an order for 400 prints for a shop in Belfast and that has been the biggest thing so far. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with requests for Christmas — I’ve closed my commission orders for Christmas until I can catch up on what I have.”
Once back at her day job, it became a bit of a balancing act, but Emma enjoys the new routine. “I go to work in the morning, come home at lunch time and paint for an hour, go back to work and paint for a couple of hours in the evenings,” she explains. “It was stressful in the beginning when I was trying to figure it out, but now I find it a nice way to unwind.
“My friends at the moment are accepting that if I’ve a few commissions they might not see as much of me.”
Emma paints mostly landscapes, especially coastal scenes.
“I love going to the Mournes when I can, so that would be another favourite spot,” she says. “If lockdown hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be painting at all. It’s a kind of silver lining to come out of a horrible situation.”
Bunk Campers (bunkcampers.com) has become one of the largest motorhome rental companies across the UK and Ireland since it was established in Carryduff 10 years ago.
Now with five depots across the UK and Ireland, the company has been growing by 30% year on year and was preparing for a strong 2020 season when the pandemic hit.
“We were set for a really strong season. Primarily our customer base would be overseas visitors who come into the UK and Ireland for their summer holiday,” marketing manager Leanne Cromie says.
“They fly into Belfast, London, Dublin or Edinburgh, collect a camper van and spend two or three weeks touring the Causeway coast or the Wild Atlantic Way.
“But obviously when the pandemic hit and lockdown started, global international travel stopped and we were in a position where people couldn’t come from Germany or France on holiday.
“The pandemic hit right at the start of the season, around St Patrick’s Day when everything kicks in. We were faced with a lot of uncertainty and cancellations because people couldn’t travel.”
The company remained closed until the governments across the UK and Ireland began to open up the tourism industry at the end of June.
“At that time, there was so much uncertainty brought on by Covid that we were not sure if there was even going to be a season. Nobody knew what was happening at that stage and we had to adapt,” Leanne says.
“But we were really overwhelmed at the response from local people. Camper van hire gave people the opportunity for that sense of freedom that they craved, to get connected to the outdoors and have an adventure, whether it was a family adventure up the north coast or a relaxing week in a campsite going for walks, or whether it was a retired couple who wanted to tour the whole Wild Atlantic Way from Donegal the whole way down the west coast of Ireland.
“Where our bookings would have typically been 80% guests from overseas, all of a sudden we were in a position where almost all our customers were local.”
The company has seen a massive surge in demand from the local market with the booking intake for the Belfast depot in Carryduff growing by over 175% compared to the same period last year.
This year 87% of all booking intake has come from local guests, and motorhome sales have been exceptionally busy as well.
“With the uncertainty around international travel, many people have decided now is the time to make the jump to purchasing their very own camper, and we are also experiencing an unprecedented increase in vehicle sales and enquiries,” Leanne says.
“Phone and website enquiries for vehicle sales grew 268% versus 2019 as people rushed to purchase their dream vehicle.
“With stock selling out extremely quickly over the summer months, to help facilitate the extra demand, models soon to come off the Bunk Campers rental fleet later are available to pre-order through our sister company, the Camperco Showroom which is based in Carryduff.”
The company completely reworked all operations and procedures to minimise contact, keep booking procedures flexible in case of new restrictions and maximise Covid hygiene.
“We are extremely thankful to our dedicated team who have worked around the clock throughout this exceptionally busy season,” Leanne says.
“From rebooking all of our existing guests who were impacted by travel restrictions, implementing our Covid-secure procedures at our depots, preparing our fleet for re-opening and turning the vans around between each rental in line with the enhanced Covid safe procedures, each member of our
team played a vital role in ensuring our guests had a memorable road trip with Bunk Campers.”
Lynsey Bleakley (44), from Ballyholme in Bangor, had only launched her new baking business, Bumble & Goose (bumbleandgoose.co.uk), a few months before lockdown happened.
After 18 years in the NHS, first as a nurse and then as a health visitor, she felt unable to remain in the role following a traumatic series of miscarriages.
“A CBT therapist said I needed some way to channel my thoughts and memories, so I started baking. It was something I did with my mum when I was small and I started to bake just as something to put the day in,” says Lynsey, who lives with husband James and has a daughter, Yazmin.
At first she thought she would bake a few cakes for children’s birthdays, but demand began to take off and the family built a bakehouse in the back garden after she decided to launch the business in earnest at the end of last year.
“We started off as a proper business at the end of last year. From the start we were selling brownies, biscuits, macarons, fudge, and it’s been evolving — we’ve started making pistachio and hazelnut biscotti,” Lynsey says.
“We were only going properly for a few months when lockdown happened, and I thought it was all going to go wrong. But it proved to be completely the opposite — we found there was huge demand.
The online company ships its treats throughout the UK, she says.
“At the minute people are quite conscious of being able to buy things from their home but they still want these lovely things that you go to the coffee shop to get,” she says.
“Ninety percent of what we make are gifts that people are sending to other people. So people were sending gifts to relatives that they couldn’t see, employers were sending gifts to employees furloughed and working from home, companies were sending them to their customers to say ‘Hello, we’re still here, don’t forget about us’.
“Turnover is up by 300%. What a journey for us — we now have three employees as well.”
Lynsey admits it can be tricky to get the work-life balance right.
“That is probably the most challenging thing, if you love your business and you feel that constant need to be on top of everything. I find it hard to switch off,” she says.
“We talk about it a lot — sometimes when we’re out walking the dogs at night, we have to say ‘right, there’s no bakehouse talk tonight’.
“If you’d said last year that I would have a business with three employees I would have fallen over. It’s so nice because I feel that what we make puts a smile on people’s faces.”