Episode 12

February 07, 2023


Entrepreneurship during Covid-19 w/ Mark Williams

Hosted by

Anica Zeyen
Entrepreneurship during Covid-19 w/ Mark Williams
Accessibility & Me
Entrepreneurship during Covid-19 w/ Mark Williams

Feb 07 2023 | 00:10:59


Show Notes

Our guest is Mark Williams, former paralympic swimmer and founder lof Limb Arts. Mark talks to us about his journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur and how the pandemic impacted his company. This episode was recorded in JUne 2022.

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:05 Hello and welcome to today's episode of Accessibility and Me. I'm Anica Zeyen from Royal Holloway University of London, and I co-host this podcast with Oana Branzeifrom Ivey Business School in Canada, and Luke Coughlin, also from Royal Holloway. Speaker 2 00:00:21 Our guest today is Mark Williams, an entrepreneur, Paralympian and founder of Limb-Art, a design and manufacturing company producing cool prosthetic leg covers. Speaker 3 00:00:32 Mark, thanks very much for joining us today. Could you talk first about Limb-Art and what inspired you to set it up? Speaker 4 00:00:38 Okay, well, um, strange enough, actually, I didn't think of the business. The business found me. Um, so I'd lost my leg when I was 10 years old, lived what I thought was quite happily for 30 odd years, um, as an amputee. But the one issue I had, I, I had a big corporate job flying all over the world and, uh, and when you have a, uh, prosthetic leg from the nhs, it's kind of a, it looks like that. Um, and if you've gotta wear a suit, like I had to wear a suit for my work, your trousers flat ground it like a flag, ground a flagpole. So I made myself a cover just to overcome my own body image issue. And then, uh, it worked perfectly well. It gave me that shape under trousers. Um, and then, uh, we rebuilt an old 1964 Land Rover. Speaker 4 00:01:26 Um, I had half a liter of paint, uh, spray paint left. So I decided to spray my leg cover the same color as the Land Rover, uh, to get the first world's first themed leg cover. Um, my wife took a picture of me sitting on the bonnet of the Land Rover, um, up at the lakes here in Snowdonia. And, uh, it went on social media and within about half an hour, I had a message from an amputee in Birmingham to say, where'd you get your leg giver from? It's really cool. So I said, oh, I made it myself. Do you think you could make me one? And then I made one for him and one for another. And this was, it was just a little bit of fun, um, in the background really. Uh, and then in November, 2017, I was in the local supermarket to hear, um, I'd made myself a Christmas leg cover that had flashing lights and stuff inside it. Speaker 4 00:02:10 I was walking through, uh, the supermarket, uh, with my shorts on, as you do in November. And, um, this little lad, uh, escaped from his mum and came up to me and said, Hey, Mr. Your legs really cool. So I gave him the remote control that could ch let you change the, um, the, the lights on it. And uh, and he said to his mom, can I have one of these for Christmas? And uh, his mom said, you can't because the gentleman's only got one leg. That's why he is got a, a magic leg. Um, you've got two legs so you can't have one. And he was dead disappointed. And then driving home from, um, the supermarket, I had a bit of a flashback of when I'd woken up in hospital age 10, lost my leg and thinking, oh my God, my life's over. What am I gonna be able to do now? Not knowing anyone that was an amputee. And I thought, God forbid if anything ever happened to that little four-year-old lad and he went through the similar thing to me and lost his leg, he might just wake up and go, does this mean I can have alen flashy legs now? So by the time I got home, the light bulb had gone off and um, and the business had found me and we, we, we started li So that's how it all came about. Speaker 3 00:03:12 Why is it so important to focus on how prosthesis look aesthetically? Speaker 4 00:03:17 It's a great question. Like, to be honest, I thought initially the, as long as the leg works, then, then that's fine. That's 99% of the, uh, of the job done. But it's only when you look back and it, you realize it isn't. It's, it's at best 50% of the job done. Um, because if you walk into a room with a, with a stem leg on, everyone looks at you, nobody knows what to say cuz they don't know how you are coping with it. You can see people looking at you so you feel awkward, uh, and it just becomes an awkward situation until someone might eventually just say, oh, I hope you don't want me asking, how did you lose your leg? Which is a really negative, terrible way to start a discussion as when you wear these covers that like a flame one or a carbon fiber one, or a Welch flag one like, like I'm wearing now, you walk into a room and people go, that's a cool leg. So it flips the conversation right in its head and it starts about a real positive thing. And then the disability comes in later, or sometimes it doesn't even, um, so it, it really just changes the attitude of able-bodied people to amputees and also gives you that huge boost of confidence when you're walking down the street. People will still look because they're always interesting in, in something that's different, but you can see they look and and they smile and go. That's cool. Speaker 3 00:04:37 So could you describe the first few months of running your business? What were the challenges in setting up and what support was out there and available? Speaker 4 00:04:48 So probably the biggest challenge we had was getting to the end user. We realized that it had to be social media. Um, and up until starting my experience on social media was I had a Facebook account that had about six friends on it, and that was it. Locked account, no one could find me. Uh, and then, uh, when we started social media with Instagram and uh, Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, um, you really had to learn how this whole thing works and how you drive them from social media to your website to get people to buy. And it was a really slow stage by stage learning process, uh, of going on various online courses and, and stuff like that. And, and steadily and slowly, um, we got the word out there and, uh, and, and started building the business. Speaker 3 00:05:37 So thinking back to March, 2020, where were you at the start of the pandemic and how did life change? Speaker 4 00:05:44 Okay, so, uh, in March, 2020, we'd been going about two years then and, uh, business was building, well, um, we had about six months before that. So in sort of October, um, 2019 started, um, supplying to a number of n h s centers, um, who were fitting them to their patients. Um, and they were becoming quite a big chunk of our business. Um, well, of course as soon as lockdown happened, all the limb centers closed, they couldn't accept amputees coming through the door, so our business halved overnight. So it was one of them, okay, back into the trenches and just battle again and just try and rebuild in a, in a, in a slightly different way. And, and like everyone was doing, looking up at the skies, realizing there's no planes, no one's moving, no one's doing anything, thinking how long's this gonna last and when are we gonna get out of it? Speaker 3 00:06:36 Thanks. And and you've touched on, um, a little few of the challenges there in terms of supply. Were there any like sort of opportunities as well as challenges that the pandemic brought in terms of your business Speaker 4 00:06:47 A Absolutely, absolutely. Um, I think, uh, uh, the one thing it makes you look, look internally in the business is what can we do? How can we improve things? How can we make things more efficient? But also you get ones that are quite random. So although we went through a tough time, sort of march through till June, July when the Limb center started opening back up again. So when they started opening back up very quickly, we were back to above where we were just before lockdown and then it was accelerating even more and I couldn't quite understand in my head why it was Excel accelerating so quick. And then with speaking to the limb centers, they said, oh well we can't do the, the foam covers anymore because you can't sanitize them, uh, as we can sanitize your leg covers cuz you literally just spray them with a disinfectant, give 'em a wipe, clip 'em off, and and there we go. So we suddenly had a, a new u sb on our leg that it's easily salable. Speaker 3 00:07:40 I guess it's like a little bit of a different question because obviously we've come out of the pandemic and we're sort of coming into this ongoing supply chain crisis as I affected you at all in terms of just getting, you know, the raw materials for your prosthesis. Speaker 4 00:07:55 Um, yeah, well we, we, we could kind of see some of the, um, uh, struggles happening with supply chain. So what we decided to do here was we just ended up starting to keep a lot, a lot more days on hand of, of stock. So then we are not pushed off, we've gotta have it next week. Um, so whenever we get down to three or four months with of stock, we always fill up again. So we've, we've got plenty of stock that way. So that's one bit that we've, we've, we've kind of changed, but yeah, looking at the nylon that we make, the, uh, the leg covers off that's pretty much doubled in the last, um, 12 months right down to cardboard boxes and address labels and there's nothing, nothing that's gone down. Um, and we're, uh, even just electric to heat the, uh, the offices and the workshops. So, um, they're all those, those challenges that everyone's having to cope with at the moment. Um, but you've just gotta be able to, um, to pivot and keep an eye on the business and make sure the, uh, the bottom line is doing okay. Speaker 3 00:08:56 Look into the future. What more can be done to support disabled entrepreneurs? Speaker 4 00:09:01 That's a good question because, uh, I, I'm very fortunate I go around doing, um, speeches about entrepreneurship and things like that, and I noticed that there is, and, and the data is available in the uk there is more disabled entrepreneurs than able-bodied. Um, mainly because a lot of times they don't get the opportunity of getting a job, so they end up having to make a job themselves. Um, or like myself, you, the business comes from solving a problem for yourself and you realize you can solve it for, for everyone else. In our personal case, it's those first few months, the sort of first six months where you don't know what you don't know. Um, so you're banging around in the dark a little bit on some bits and until you thought, oh, we're supposed to be doing that and supposed to be doing that, and, and no one's really there to help you, they're, you, you get more the case of, oh, once you're a bit more established and stuff, come and speak to us. Speaker 4 00:09:53 Um, well, once you're established, um, doing well, you don't need them anymore. Um, so it's, there's almost a need for like a, a starter pack and a starter bit of funding where normally when you need any kind of funding you've gotta produce full business plans and all details and you don't have it in those early days. So, so there needs to be some kind of a pack, um, that'll guide you through the basics, um, uh, that includes potentially some funding. Um, and just gets you on that right track. Cause I'm sure there's many people out there have got some great ideas, they just can't get off the starting blocks. Speaker 3 00:10:34 Absolutely. Um, mark, it's been really fascinating to talk to you. Thanks very much for coming Speaker 4 00:10:38 Up. No problem. Thank you. Speaker 1 00:10:44 Thank you very much for listening to today's episode of Accessibility in Me. We hope you enjoyed it and we'll tune in to our next episode. We would like to thank the British Academy for funding today's episode.

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