'There’s no doubt I felt a sense of panic. I barely slept in those early days.'
It's a fraught 48 hours that Toby Harper will never forget in his business career. After a weekend which had seen him complete a major new deal for his fast-growing legal firm, he turned on the news on the evening of 23 March and listened to what was being said in disbelief. In a sobering national address, Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown in a move that signalled the start of an extraordinary chain of events for businesses across the country.
'It was obviously a watershed moment for the country,' Toby recalls. 'But I don’t think anybody, initially, realised the impact of what the prime minister was saying was going to have on businesses. It wasn’t until the following day, and the days after, that it started to become clear. Email after email started to land in my inbox from clients asking to put work on hold. Others, who we had hoped to start new business with, were saying they needed to press pause. New business leads and enquiries basically stopped coming in. There’s no doubt I felt a sense of panic. I barely slept in those early days.'
For Toby, who formed Harper James Solicitors in 2014, it was undoubtedly the sounding gun for the biggest challenge he’d ever faced. Harper James, the law firm designed for entrepreneurs, had advised more than 1,500 clients by that point. In those early days, the focus was on making sure all of the good work of the previous six years wasn’t destroyed. At one point, he had to redirect mail from the firm’s Sheffield HQ to his home. From there he opened letters from a newly-created office in his spare room. His postman was rewarded with a good Christmas tip.
'I felt two main emotions in the early days,' Toby reflects. 'Fear and an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness that all the hard work and all the success we’d had was at risk. And sadness for all the other businesses, particularly those we were working with, who were suddenly facing such a tough time.'
Toby says the initial shock lasted for a couple of weeks. But this soon transformed into resilience. Already set up as a remotely-operating business, we were well-placed to ensure our team of experts could support clients while working from home.
As time passed, new clients came forward and business picked up. We have now supported a total of 2,000 clients and played a part in one of the biggest start-up successes of 2020. We are legal provider to Hopin, an online events platform that's changed the way people meet up and do business online. Hopin's 2020 fundraise saw them secure $125m in investment as well as double-unicorn status, thanks to a $2bn valuation. Hopin's has most recently been valued at a cool $5.65bn.
'In many ways the pandemic has created opportunities in many different areas. Hopin is probably the most high-profile example of that,' Toby says. 'And we’ve been able to benefit by providing the legal support many other companies have needed to grow in unprecedented times. But I feel so much sympathy for businesses who have had to spend much of the past year shut down and unable to trade.'
Toby says the past year has had an impact on his mental health: 'It’s been really tough. I’ve always seen myself as a very resilient person, but there have been one or two moments that stand out as particularly hard. In my case I tend to keep a lot of my worries and stresses to myself and try to ensure I don’t pass any of it on to my family. But the pandemic has made it harder to separate family life from work life. And running a business, particularly as a sole founder, can be a very lonely place.
He sees community - whether of colleagues or peers - as a lifeline for entrepreneurs under strain: 'That’s why I think it is important to have people around you who you can share any concerns you might have with. When you do, you often see you are not the only one going through it. The government obviously has a massive job in rebuilding the economy and supporting businesses who have faced such a challenging year will be very important. But it’s vital too that those in charge of government policy show awareness of the impact the last 12 months has had on the mental health of those running businesses. For many it will be a long road back.'