‘How we turned the challenge of COVID-19 into the opportunity of a lifetime’

The story you are about to read contains a particularly pure and intoxicating brand of entrepreneurial spirit. High-proof and triple-distilled, it warms the soul, inducing feelings of optimism and inspiration. If you were to ask – Siri, what is entrepreneurial spirit? – Apple’s virtual assistant could do worse than read you this… 

Everything had been going beautifully for 24-year-old Hugo Tilmouth and his team. The Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneur co-launched ChargedUp in 2017. The business was growing fast. Its shareable phone-charging power banks were available at 3,500 pick-up stations. Hundreds of thousands of customers a year were renting the banks for £1 an hour, before dropping them back into the network. 

“It was going super-well,” says Hugo. “We were scaling up across the UK and had launched in Germany and the Netherlands. We’d raised £3.5m from some top London investors including JamJar [Innocent Smoothie founders], The Garage Soho [Tom Teichman and Sir John Hegarty], and Jagermeister’s venture fund.”

So far, so brilliant. And with more ChargedUp power bank stations planned for busy airports, shopping centres and other hotspots – it felt as if nothing could stop Hugo and his young team. 

Except, as we all now know, it could… at least temporarily.

“We’d planned a big travel-sector launch for March 2020,” says Hugo. “But by mid-March, thanks to coronavirus, we’d completely cancelled it and vacated our offices.”

Like so many businesses around the world, the ChargedUp crew went into survival mode. They held virtual emergency meetings where the twin spectres of revenue loss and redundancy very soon raised their ugly heads. 

“The first question we had to answer was: how do we keep our staff? We’d built a killer team and we didn’t want to set ourselves back years by having to rehire them further down the line. So our first instinct was to protect them.”

So, they focused on cutting costs, reducing salaries, renegotiating with suppliers and making sure that they weren’t leaking cash. Next, they figured out a plan that would allow the company to retain every member of staff and survive – no matter what happened – well into 2021. The new strategy was OK’d quickly by both the board and the team. With their short-term future secure, they quickly got creative.

“We began to brainstorm Covid-proof ideas,” says Hugo. “We welcomed anything – random thoughts, observations on coronavirus-related problems, inspiration from abroad – literally anything. At the same time, we looked at the expertise of our team. We knew our tech crew could build pretty much anything, and our ops team could roll out robust global processes very quickly indeed. So we were in a good place.” 

One idea stood out above all others: hand-sanitiser stations. The pandemic meant customers were now less interested in charging their phones on the go but obsessed instead with keeping their hands clean. Furthermore, businesses had to install hand-cleaning stations if they were to follow government advice. Also, Hugo had 150 temporarily useless ChargedUp stations lying around. It made perfect sense to convert them into CleanedUp stations to test their idea.

Hugo says: “We went from Charlie’s [Charlie Baron, co-founder] sanitiser-station idea to prototype within three days. CleanedUp seemed like the perfect name for this new business! Four days later, we’d sold all 150 converted stations.”

Sensing this could be big, Hugo and the team quickly ramped up their CleanedUp production capacity. They simplified their sanitiser station’s design and found other manufacturing efficiencies. 

“Our transport-hub stations must meet Ministry of Defence regulations,” says Hugo. “But shops and most other businesses don’t need a bomb-proof piece of kit, so we created a simpler, more affordable unit for them. These have become our most popular CleanedUp product by far. However, they are far from basic. Thanks to our existing ChargedUp technology, the station will send a message when it’s running low on sanitiser so it can automatically order refills.”

By the end of May 2020, CleanedUp had sold 4,000 hand-sanitiser units, including 1,800 to Transport for London. And by early August the company was producing 10,000 units a week. As Hugo says: “Literally every business in the UK – whether it’s an optician, dentist, hairdresser, factory or office – needs hand-sanitiser stations in key areas. We’re trying to meet that massive demand. And we now see CleanedUp as a long-term venture, not something that will fade away fast. We think businesses will need our sanitiser stations for at least the next five years. This is a new world – this is the new normal. So we’re looking forward to growing CleanedUp and ChargedUp together.” 

In the opening paragraph, we said that this uplifting story contains a particularly pure form of entrepreneurial spirit. Hopefully, you can now see what we mean. Hugo and the team took an existential threat, looked it in the eye, tamed it and transformed it into a new opportunity – almost overnight. Their feat shows that no matter what the world throws at you, no matter how terrible it seems, the chances are that you can and will find a way through. Moreover, if you show agility, speed, creativity and positive thinking – four ingredients that form the essence of entrepreneurialism – it’s possible to distil a life-saving liquor from stagnant, poisonous water…