The Pink Spaghetti franchise not only managed to weather Covid, but found itself perfectly placed to advise its clients due to its expertise in remote working.
Pink Spaghetti, the virtual assistant franchise, has bucked the Covid trend and managed to grow its turnover – with 80% of franchisees reporting that profits are up while 70% now employ one or more people. Head office has also expanded its head count. Things didn’t look so promising last March though.
After the initial shock of the lockdown announcement last year, lots of the businesses Pink Spaghetti franchisees were working with put them on instant pause. However, Caroline Gowing, the franchise’s co-founder [with Vicky Matthews], says that within weeks businesses realised that they had to carry on and work out how to be more visible online. “That was transformational. Since then we have been very busy,” she says.
One advantage Covid has brought is that, after months of people working from home, the franchise no longer has to do a big sell on their business as virtual assistants.
Another is that Pink Spaghetti has been working virtually for years and was very well placed to help out their clients. “We realised we were experts in virtual working,” says Caroline, adding that the franchise had been using Zoom for some time and were able to offer free advice on areas such as digital marketing, online shops, scheduling online meetings, communications and technology which has helped to retain clients. Each client has had their own challenges and Pink Spaghetti has been able to work with them one on one to find solutions because they already know their business.
Franchisees were also trying to manage homeschooling or childcare with work. “We stepped up a gear with our support,” says Caroline. That meant creating lots of videos to reassure franchisees and making them aware that the franchise was in a good place due to its understanding of virtual working. “The message was don’t panic.”
For the first four to eight weeks, head office posted a daily update on the Covid page on their hub. Sometimes it was hourly. That might include which businesses they could target for work because they were busier as a result of the pandemic. The aim was to pool ideas, summarise government advice and information, for instance, on furlough pay and other guidance, and save franchisees’ time. They could then cascade some of that information to the SMEs they were working with.
On their Facebook group, they posted network-wide zoom calls which all the franchisees could join and where they could share their experiences, for example, of homeschooling. “It was a safe space,” says Caroline. “It showed the value of our network.” People could join the call at any point and with kids on their laps.
That kind of human support has been invaluable. Caroline says franchisees have been battling with all kinds of personal issues, from bereavement to divorce. She adds that flexible working has been a vital part of helping people to keep going and she hopes that things won’t go backwards now that people have seen that it works. “It would be sad to lose that,” she says, although she adds that flexible businesses like hers could benefit if employees don’t want to go ‘back to normal’ and look for other options.
Pink Spaghetti also had to move their training and induction online. Two weeks after lockdown they were due to have five franchisees starting in-person training. They had to shift everything online very quickly. Normally they do face to face training over three days and they converted this into a three-week online course on zoom, with one to two hours work a day, figuring that people would not be able to manage whole days on zoom while doing homeschooling and the like. It worked so well that they will continue to offer it and then bring people in for just two days face to face in a Covid-safe way from later this month.
“It was a total team effort,” says Caroline, looking back at how the franchise adapted, “and it was really intense. We got to the summer last year and realised we hadn’t had a day off. We were working hour by hour, trying to make things smoother and less stressful for our franchisees and for the businesses they work with.”
Pink Spaghetti has also invested in more e-learning for franchisees. Like everyone, the franchise is still adjusting to all the Covid-related changes. For instance, there will be a return to some element of face to face networking from this month, including a socially distanced afternoon tea. Caroline says that the thinking has changed on face to face interactions over the course of the pandemic, even if not meeting up has saved the franchise a lot of money. Some people need that social interaction, she says. It’s about knowing what works for different individuals and listening to them. “A few months ago we thought everything could be done virtually, but now we realise that face to face has some benefits when it comes to getting to know people and being sociable,” she says. “Everything else, though, can be done more time efficiently online.”
Caroline says that she anticipates an increase in inquiries about franchising in the next months as the furlough scheme ends, saying that every time there is a round of redundancies, the number of applicants goes up. During the pandemic, she has seen a different type of franchisee, however. Usually they have had a job more recently than previous franchisees who have often had a career break or are on maternity leave and have very young children.
Now it is people who have found that they like working from home. It is not just people who have been made redundant, but people who have resigned from their jobs because they want a greater work life balance and have chosen franchising because it offers the freedom of self employment with less of the risk. “People are taking back control,” she says.