Starting a business in a pandemic

09 Sep 2022 | Research & Business Knowledge

In this article ICG member Alexander Tan talks us through his decision to set up his own business in a particularly challenging time.  He reviews some key decisions he had to make and gives us an insight into what it was like to start his business in a pandemic and first year successes.

“Previously I never expected to try to start my own business. Lack of knowledge played a part, but so did confidence in my own skills, as well as fear of it all going wrong…I imagine this is common to many new businesses and indeed continues to be so, despite many examples of success along the way.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave me a chance to think more carefully about where my career was heading. The extra time and space without the daily commute meant I had more energy to try and put some ideas about working as a sole trader into practice.

In this piece I wanted to share how I started my journey and the successes I’ve had in the first year too.

Terms of business

Whilst I knew what I wanted work to be through the business, I have experience working doing community research and wanted to combine this with commercial and academic experience, there were many other things I now needed to decide on.

Firstly what to call this new business? I wanted to keep some sense of myself but using my full name also did not appeal. Because I wanted the purpose of what I do to be front and center I thought keeping the title simple and straightforward would be a good idea. Therefore I chose to use the word ‘research’ in the title. After some thought about whether to use a more abstract concept conveying a sensibility like ‘brilliant’ or ‘reliable’, using my own initials came to me as a way to give the name an identity that was both clearly me plus demonstrating the function of the business.

I also wanted the business to have an online presence so I could easily show what I do and over time build some evidence of the work being done. As the purpose of the business is to connect with local community groups and inform what they do through research, I was happy to use ‘’ for my website. I thought this would show more clearly the local aspect of what I am doing.

Loneliness of the long distance runner

Not wanting to be alone on my journey I sought out some ways to get advice about running a business. I reached out to freelancers I had found online or through friends to bat ideas and one thing suggested was joining a community of businesses. I found the Independent Consultants Group (ICG) to be the best after looking around for some time. I had also considered the Association for Qualitative Researchers (AQA), and the Social Research Association (SRA).

I wanted to find practical advice and an existing community. What drew me to the ICG is their very active mailing list where questions emerge on a daily basis. The consultants also run a buddy scheme every quarter and I have met several researchers at different stages of their career. Now starting my second year with the ICG I have acknowledged that many of those on the list are much more experienced than I am and also have many more regular clients. However, I have gained a lot by proximity to the group, as well as some very useful insights courtesy of tips about adjacent groups, such as the Archive of Market and Social Research (AMSR). In addition to the mailing list the ICG gives the opportunity to have a profile on their searchable directory.

I also had business support advice from the local growth company. Of all places I found out about the support when visiting my local library on their business floor. Sometimes the physical leaflet can yet yield results…This led to a months long series of meetings with an advisor to get my thoughts together about what I might do. I was able to access some one-to-one sessions on using LinkedIn and also general data protection requirements (GDPR) related to my website.

First year projects

During the first year plus I have set up a self-employed business as detailed so far. I also undertook some paid work, which was data analysis and report writing. This work allowed me to learn a lot about whether what I had set up during my first year functioned.

I explored networking in order to make contacts and seek out possible work. It is difficult as a self-employed researcher, because what we do is often seen as a luxury and companies and organisations are likely already working with a trusted researcher already. Therefore just having a website or social media presence is not enough and making connections is important.

I have also been part of the organising committee for an event with community researchers in my local area. I have attended several meetings with the group and been involved with planning and delivery. This means considering the logistics of the event on the day, the subject, flow and activities, who will be the speaker and how I might otherwise contribute on the day itself. Due to previous experience I offered to handle photography for the day. I am also a panel member talking about my research experiences.

Through my time at the ICG I also heard about the AMSR. I have been assisting with various enquiries into what the archive holds. It is essentially a repository for past market research papers and survey work. Much of this work is seen as specific to the day or issue related to a company or product. Nevertheless, I have found there can be useful insights for today and this is what we are working on.

Final thoughts

This concludes my round up of the first year of activity. I found out it is simpler to start a self-employed business than I thought and also liberating to be able to work on new projects and with new people.

On the other hand making money from the endeavor is challenging, you need to consider this before going down this path. Personally I think the journey is very much worth it.”

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Alexander Tan