To use Radha Vyas’s own words, “We were flying high.”
In 2019, just five years after starting a side hustle with her husband Lee Thompson, Flash Pack, the holiday provider for solo travellers, was turning over £20m, had 55 staff and helped 9,000 global travellers annually.
“VCs were inundating us with offers, and we had big plans for Series A funding that would see us break into America. We were hot property," she says.
But then came the great crash. What began as a small rockslide, ended in an earthquake. It started in January 2020, when the team noticed that bookings on the site were dropping. Initially, they just assumed it was a fault with the website. Then sales dropped by 67% in Asia, its most popular destination.
"At this point we were still talking to VCs, and had offers from four in February – really generous offers of £40 million plus," she says. But then came a day she still remembers "vividly" - the 13 March when President Donald Trump closed the US borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sales plunged 95% overnight.
What started that day, was the start of a slow death for her business. “Strange as it may seem, I still thought we’d be back again booking holidays by summer; but by August it was clear this wouldn’t be over by Christmas. In September, when the last VC pulled out, that’s when we knew we had to do the inevitable; put the business into administration," she says.
"I refuse to feel shame"
And yet for all the pain Vyas says this caused her, there’s one sensation she says she refuses to feel – shame.
“I certainly felt shame ‘prodding’ at me, especially when we had to lose some really good people. But I’ve refused to let it be something I feel. So many entreprenuers have let shame become a millstone around their necks, it literally drowns them. But it’s such an unproductive emotion.”
Maybe, she says, it’s because she knew she behaved the best she could in the circumstances she faced, refusing to let her morale compass falter. “We did everything we could to keep staff, customers and suppliers in the loop – being open with them about being in trouble from the very beginning. By the time we did have to close, it was no real surprise and many had already found new jobs," she says.
As a female entrepreneur Vyas concedes that shame can be an emotion other women are prone to feel more than men. “While it’s true men and women feel shame, there’s definitely social conditioning around how women are supposed to deal with it. Men take the bravado approach, women internalise it,” she says.
It's also not helpful from a mental health perspective. “As entreprenuers, you tend to walk around thinking everything’s your fault. It’s even your fault when someone else makes a bad decision, because it was you that hired them in the first place,” she says. “But with Covid-19, I honestly thought – finally – this was something that was even bigger than me, I couldn’t be held responsible for it.”
She does have regrets, including waiting so long to take VC funding: "We were quite gung-ho and thought we didn’t need it. Now I realise we should have just taken the money, even if we didn’t need it right then. Had we got it earlier I’m sure the business would have got through the pandemic.”
Vyas counsels other business leaders facing difficult times to be decisive and cut anything that isn't essential to survival. Also find good, independent, sources of advice. “Saving a business takes huge mental strength, and when you’re in a crisis it can be hard to know who to trust. In these situations you must only take advice from people that have no vested interest in your or your business. It’s the only way you’ll hear the truth," she says.
She reminds herself daily of this advice. Why? Because she’s not quite finished with her baby.
Last year, Vyas, together with her husband, decided Flash Pack was not yet dead in the water. She embarked on a plan to buy it back and revive it. “We remortgaged our house, got some additional funding, and launched a bid to buy our assets back,” she says. The couple were the top bidders and officially re-launched last year. Ten of the original staff members have re-joined the business, and it has customers again.
But while things are looking brighter, Vyas won't forget what she went through: "Entrepreneurs have to protect themselves more – and not just be blind optimists. Most successful businesses will nearly fail at least three times before they’re out of the woods. We all need to be more honest about the entrepreneur journey.”