March 17th was already a date of note in my calendar as my wife is Irish and it was the date my father’s mother passed away. Other circumstances that intertwined with these happy / sad events probably secured the fledgling application that became Kobas. That is a story for another time, but the date now has another annual reminder set for me, it just reads “The Hardest Day”. The details of what happened that day are as fresh in my mind now, some 5+ months (which feel like years) later, as they were while I was living them, and they still seem just as surreal.
This was the culmination of the growing crisis around Covid-19 and actually marked the low point for me personally, Kobas as a company and probably a lot of the sector. More bad news was certainly still to follow with clients shutting for good, friends being laid off and Liverpool being potentially robbed of a Premier League title they richly deserved, but at no point had I felt as low as I did around 12:30pm on that fateful Tuesday. Everyone knew something was about to break, you could feel the sense of uncertainty in the people you spoke to and places you went, as though the country was braced, but didn’t know what for.
At Kobas we knew things were headed to a crunch. We monitor the sales going through our EPoS and knew they weren’t good. Every morning I received an email from our Direct Debit company telling me which and how many mandates had been cancelled in the previous 24 hours. By the end of Monday 16th we were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to pay all our staff and other commitments at the end of the month, as we rely on the Direct Debit run for over 80% of our income and run a tight ship. We knew we needed to get out ahead of this but what do you say in the face of such a large, unknown, threat? The day ended with Boris Johnson saying people shouldn’t go out, but not for pubs and restaurants to close. This was a pretty clear indication of what was going to follow.
To make matters worse, the Northern Restaurant & Bar Show had decided to postpone the 2020 show just 23 hours before doors were meant to open, costing us thousands in labour, travel and accommodation that was too late to cancel. As an aside, despite their comments to the contrary, the view of the team on the ground in the hall was that they only postponed the show because many suppliers had chosen to simply not turn up and that the show would be a complete waste of time for those that did. Either way, the upshot was that we were further out of pocket at a time we could least afford it.
As I wasn’t at a show, Neil, our COO, and I were able to speak first around 6am on Tuesday 17th to discuss how we wanted to respond as a business, and what the likely state of the finances would be at the end of the month. After an hour of conversation and some back and forth we had an email ready to go to staff. The tone was much in my typical style, like this story, getting the facts across but in an upbeat tone to play down any fears. Then I watched the news and it was clear we were being too optimistic in our announcement, so we reconvened and re-wrote it with a starker judgement about what lay ahead, ready to go out at 10am. Just before then I got the morning DD email and it was more bad news: thousands of pounds of income couldn’t be relied upon, which meant our planning, even for the worst-case scenario, wasn’t bad enough.
It was now gone midday and I knew that our team would have questions, so we needed to get something out. In a sign of how life would be in the coming months, I chose to record a video message rather than send an email as I hoped it would come across more personal and our team would be able to see how much of a toll this situation was having on me. Getting something out was vital, clarification could come later, and probably the landscape would have changed anyway. We told our team that we were unsure if we would be able to pay them for any work they did from Wednesday 18th onwards- there just wasn’t a good enough chance of their being enough money to go round.
This was the moment when you tell the team that have cashed every one of the feature cheques you’ve written, who have chosen to spend critical years of their careers working for you, that it might all be for nothing; I truly felt at my lowest. It’s fair to say that as a boot-strapped company there have been times when we’ve sailed close to the wind before, but never in a way that I wasn’t personally able to take up the slack, but this was just too much. The only solace was that many other businesses, of considerably greater scale and resources, were in the same boat but that is scant consolation when you have to tell the people who bet on you as a leader that they might have been wrong.
I’m a fairly resilient guy, even compared with peer-level entrepreneurs, but at this moment, for probably the first time in the life of Kobas, I questioned if I’d made the right calls. Should I have kept more money in the bank in case something bad happened? Could we have taken investment to protect against this? Was our product really as far ahead of the competition as I believed? Thankfully this period passed quickly with the chatter about a press conference led by Rishi Sunak later in the day and the likelihood of central government help. So that is where I ended The Hardest Day, leading a company in its darkest hour, as the sector we all service lies in tatters, but with a glimmer of hope that we might make it through… we just need a little help.