DIY: pandemic inspires passionate small business pursuits

As COVID-19 leaves millions of Australians without a job, the number of new small businesses is on the rise.



One of Monique Stout’s biggest passions is making ethical, delicious food for people.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Caitlin Oakley lost her job working for a music theatre producer in Sydney.

Worried she might never get another job, she moved back in with her parents in Melbourne. Work is a “defining” part of the 23-year-old’s identity. Without a purpose she struggled with confidence and self-worth.

But instead of accepting her jobless fate or depending on others for work that might never eventuate, Caitlin decided to set up her own business.

In April, the month she was made redundant, she bought the equipment she needed to make earrings. Siello Designs was online in June, only four months after COVID-19 began to have a major impact on Australia.

Young Australians embrace self-employment

According to Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) figures, Siello Designs is just one of the 48,128 new businesses that were registered in Australia in July 2020, a 34 per cent jump on July 2019.

The surge in business registrations comes as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports that almost one million Australians had lost their job because of COVID-19 by May. In August, Roy Morgan estimated unemployment had risen to a peak of almost two million.

For those who choose self-employment, 56 per cent of new small businesses fail within the first four years, according to the Australian Small Business Ombudsman.

Small Business Australia executive director Bill Lang says surviving during the pandemic will be even harder for small companies.

“The customers of a business are their oxygen and a number of them have been forced to have no customers. Without oxygen the body dies. Cash flow in a business is the blood. So if the cash is not flowing, the blood stops flowing, the body dies,” he says.

When profit joins passion

But Lang says there are ways to ensure longevity. The first step to making a successful business, he says, is to identify a gap in the market and see if there is “a market in the gap”.

Passion projects are hyped up on social media, and are fantastic, but he says people need to prioritise profits in order to be successful in the long term. “You’ve got to have the passion to make a profit,” he says.

Lang believes young people are more optimistic, quick to adopt new technology and see gaps in the market, particularly during this time.

“A lot of young people’s dreams and expectations of where they were going and where it would lead them are being totally questioned,” he says.

Caitlin Oakley sacrificed a lot to get her dream job working for a musical theatre producer. (Supplied)

“Interestingly, the research indicates that young people are more scared and more anxious about the whole COVID-19 thing than older people are. We’ve had 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth so [young people] haven’t experienced a recession.”

The last time Australia was in recession was more than a generation ago, starting in September 1990 – then treasurer Paul Keating dubbed it as “the recession we had to have”. Though the recession formally ended in September 1991, unemployment was a problem for years afterwards.

During this pandemic, the ABS estimates that 2.3 million people, one in five workers, have had their hours cut or lost their jobs. However, when taking into account initiatives such as JobKeeper, the real figure is predicted to be much higher.

Younger generations have grown up in an ever expanding economy where jobs were always available. Youth Affairs Council of SA CEO Anne Bainbridge says young people are being “disproportionately impacted by job losses due to COVID-19 and they will feel the effects for years”.

Younger people’s new small businesses act to help themselves, financially and mentally, as well as others who are disadvantaged.

Sustainable, reusable, supportive

Supporting the planet and underprivileged is a philosophy of 30-year-old Monique Stout’s new passion driven business: Wasteless Vegan Kitchen. The vegan, sustainable food delivery service uses reusable packaging, a carpool system to reduce petrol emissions, cooks with as much produce as possible (composting what cannot be eaten) and donates 50c from every jar of food sold to the Wurundjeri Tribe Council.

The businesses social media following has also helped her collect face masks for the homeless and raise money for initiatives such as the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency.

Monique previously worked as a chef/kitchen manager at a wholefoods store and cafe in Seddon, Melbourne. The business shut its kitchen and let go of some staff to stay afloat, as expected by Monique who considers it “a smart business decision”.

She had played with the idea of starting a business for a while. It was seeing the amount of packaging that comes with other delivery services that inspired her to take control over the food she produces and the impact it has.

“I feel like [sustainable vegan food has] just been a part of my lifestyle for so long and being able to share that with other people is really cool,” she says.

“I take a lot of pride in it and I feel like I’m sharing a piece of myself every time I make people food.”

Monique’s sole focus is now on Wasteless Vegan Kitchen, which she dreams will eventually become a physical place where people can come together to eat, drink, learn and interact.

“People are just so excited that something like this exists … my values are slowly becoming mainstream. All these people want this. I’m doing something that I’m passionate about and all these people are passionate about. It makes me really excited.”

Helping people is the key

Ethics are also important to Caitlin in her venture. She wants her earrings to help all types of people feel confident, to be an extension of their personality and complete their outfit. Caitlin feels successful, selling about 75 per cent of the 100+ pairs she makes each month. However, making her statement earrings accessible by keeping prices low has led to lower profits.

“I kind of always have an internal dilemma of ‘I know I should charge more’ but I really want people of all demographics to be able to buy them so that is something I sacrifice,” she says.

While Caitlin yearns to eventually return to the arts as her main passion and source of income once the pandemic is under control and the performing arts industry has resumed normal operations, she aims to keep Siello Designs as a side business. She is eager to sell her earrings at markets and potentially branch out into other types of jewellery.

“It continues to be something that makes me happy and makes other people happy,” she says.

“The fact that I started this and turned a really shitty situation into a positive is something I’m really proud of. I’ve executed it really well and I’ve started to build a pretty decent following and that’s something that I want to keep building on.”