Merlie Calvert is the Founder and CEO of Farillio, an online platform that provides business and legal solutions for SMBs. During lockdown Farillio created a huge amount of free video and template content that gave guidance on important business topics to help small businesses through the pandemic. They launched the #3hrpledge, an appeal for experts to donate three hours of their time to help struggling SMEs with their business questions.
Farillio has been nominated as one of the Most Adaptive Small Businesses of 2020 by QuickBooks UK.
Hi Merlie, thanks for chatting with us! Can you tell us a little more about your business?
Of course! Our mission at Farillio is to smash the barriers to the knowledge and materials that are needed to start and run a successful business. When people first set up a business they are often worried that there are lots of seemingly insurmountable obstacles; a helping hand can put people at ease, as none of us know what we don’t know.
I’m aware that I am the ‘Founder’ of Farillio but initially I fought the title ‘CEO’ because it evokes a sense of a gravitas and command that I didn’t feel entitled to take on. Now I have made it my mission to break down those barriers so that no one feels that they don’t have the skills or the knowledge or the right to be in control of their business and make it a success.
Our team of experts produce lots of checklists, diagrams and how-to videos to aid SMBs. We are very active on social media and live chat - it’s our favourite way of speaking with our community. I love the realisation when one of our customers who revisits something that they thought was really complicated the first time round says “now I can do it in three minutes” - I always encourage them to share their experiences so that others can see that it really can be that easy.
Tell us a bit about your journey into entrepreneurship.
It took me 20 years to get to Farillio - although I would like other people to get there a lot faster! Back when I first had the idea the tech didn’t exist, the means didn’t exist and I didn’t have the knowledge to do it the way I wanted.
My background is in law, and the direction I went in was accidental - I didn’t want to create a product that substitutes lawyers, but I always knew that I wanted to help SMBs to do a lot more of the work themselves. Initially I wanted to offer the service in-house at a law firm but it just didn’t work out the way I wanted it to - most law firms don’t prioritise small businesses and the firms were not interested in the kind of innovation needed to make it work.
Around 2013-2014, about the time that law was starting to go properly digital, I made the first steps towards Farillio by starting to talk to big accountancy firms who were interested in adding a digital legal solution to their own services. There was a lot of enthusiasm, but also a lot of doubt about whether it could be done and mixed views about whether they wanted SMBs to benefit. In 2015, I got headhunted by an insurance business who heard what I wanted to do and offered me a deal - they wanted a digital legal solution and gave me the budget to design and build a system for their small business customers, which worked really well.
By the end of 2016, the insurance firm decided that they were happy with what had been built, but wanted to keep it to themselves rather than allow other businesses to benefit from the service, and they weren’t planning to invest any more in developing it. I wanted to make it available to everyone and to evolve it significantly, which resulted in an amicable split. I left the framework behind, but I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to make. Most entrepreneurs don’t get the kind of support and space to innovate that I did in the insurance industry, so I am very grateful for the start that I had.
“I always saw myself as a ‘good employee’ - I didn’t have an overwhelming drive to own and run my own business. But it became clear to me that you can’t fix problems from a distance.”
You have to understand what it feels like to stand in your customers’ shoes, and being a business owner myself gives me the empathy, community and trust I need - as well as the freedom to build fast and flexibly in response to what you learn.
2020 has been quite the year. How have you adapted your product offering to this year’s changing circumstances?
We adapted extremely quickly. We have always been mission-driven (smashing down barriers in business) and we communicate with our customer base every day, so the moment the lockdown hit people were seeking us out for advice. Their queries were not necessarily about law - often the questions were business-related about money, people and property.
Our team, our wide community of experts and our partners sat glued to the government’s 5pm announcements everyday during lockdown so that we could react as soon as possible, and then literally overnight we produced the content. Everyone felt an overwhelming sense of ‘we have to do something’, even when they were coping with their own personal challenges: caring for kids, shielding vulnerable family members and running their own businesses.
Farillio’s own ambitious plans to expand, hire more people and grow our tech were put on hold in spring and everyone in the company went on COVID response. Our remote video service went into overdrive; we produced over 300 videos in just a few months on COVID-related topics for SMBs. We have never produced so much content in such a short space of time and still with our usual rigour, taking a very protectionist stance.
“We made it all free and put it in front of the firewall so that everyone could get it – no strings attached, no cost involved.”
There are loads of different themes covered in our content, from sales and marketing to financial planning, landlord and tenant advice, furlough and redundancies and insolvency. Basically whatever our customers asked for, we created. And we went as deep into the solutions, knowledge and materials - on screen and off it - as our experts and time would permit!About two weeks in, the reach out over social got more profound and desperate, which is when we launched the #3hrPledge.
We publicly asked our experts if they could give up three hours of their time so that Farillio could match them up with business owners seeking help. I was overwhelmed by the response; whole firms - some of whom we’d never worked with before - donated pro bono work to help small businesses out. The team would matchmake frantically behind the scenes. When they had helped, often experts felt like they made a difference and wanted to volunteer more of their time.
While we ran the #3hrPledge, some of our competition ‘got ahead’ and did the things that we had planned to do at the start of the year, but I don’t regret our pivot at all. I am confident that it was the right thing to do and the whole team agrees we made a difference at a time when we were truly needed by our customers.
The pledge was accompanied by the hashtag #LeaveNoSMEBehind, which got a life of its own as a rallying cry for small businesses. We consciously debranded all our collateral relating to it so that anyone could take that message and spread it on and bring more vital help. Usually Farillio is quite heavily branded, so it was a noticeable change in our social activities, but this was not a time to be self-centred about brand.
I did have to make some hard business decisions, such as furloughing due to pausing other activity, but the team was more fired up than I’ve seen in a long time. The business went completely remote, stopping the lease on our office because we saw the writing on the wall for office-based working very early on; I wanted everyone to be safe and not feel any pressure to travel or to work normal office hours when home-schooling and other commitments prevented it.
I had to explain myself to the board, and balance the Founder side of me that wanted to further our brand mission and to help wherever we could, with the CEO side of me that has to do what is right for the board and the business. It paid off. I was surprised and grateful that businesses we had never dreamt of partnering with before - huge enterprises - reached out as a result of the #3hrPledge and our campaigning activity and have now joined the Farillio community.
Fundamentally, the platform is still the same platform and the team is still the same team, but everyone in the business has been on a huge emotional journey. I am adamant that I have built a brand first and foremost, not a business, but a movement. Farillio is hugely values-driven, a consideration that comes into all decisions we make. Our strongest value is ‘empowerment’ - the empowerment of anyone we touch as a brand: customers, stakeholders, expert partners and team. It makes tough decisions much easier. People feel this mission, it’s like a DNA-thing. Nobody’s just going through the motions.
What are your top tips for managing your business finances in 2020?
My top tip for managing your business finances in 2020 is to keep a ruthless focus on what’s going out and what’s coming in.
People will baffle you with so much science, but in times like these you’ve got to keep the fundamentals front and centre. Because it’s shifting so quickly you need to keep coming back to your cashflow and your business plan, so that if you see something going off kilter you can right it before it goes wrong.
I also recommend applying for all the support that the government offers. If you can shore yourself up and keep afloat - as long as it’s a sensible thing to do and the company is not insolvent - you need to do what it takes to keep your business alive. Survive first. Rebuild, reinvent (if you need to) later, as soon as you can.
The UK economy needs us - small businesses contributed £2.3 trillion to the economy last year. 99% of all businesses are small and 3/5ths of all private sector employment comes from small businesses. We need to survive and thrive to pave the road to recovery and keep jobs existing.
“Individually, we may be small businesses, but together, we are mighty: creating careers, protecting livelihoods, inspiring more business-owners to start and to support each other - and I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Who are the people, products and practices that have helped you cope with the uncertainty this year?
QuickBooks’ Ask the Expert series has been phenomenal, giving me access to another wonderful network of business professionals. I was grateful that QuickBooks has a community brand that was so willing to find answers and share information, so that they could disseminate their knowledge.
Lockdown and its challenges were a big ask for the Farillio team. All of our KPIs and targets had to change - for example, the sales team wouldn’t hit their commissions - but nobody complained or said no; everyone said it was the right thing to do. We also managed to connect with a range of inspiring brand partners including the British Business Bank, the National Enterprise Network and Simply Business.
What inspiring or encouraging words would you send to your fellow entrepreneurs?
Ok, I have a few pieces of advice:
1. Keep going and do whatever it takes to carry on because times will change.
2. Take a long hard look at your business and ask: is whatever I’m selling urgent or vital to customers? (And you need to know your customers well to answer this - have their habits changed since you last looked at your business plan?) If what you’re selling is not urgent or vital, you need to take stock and consider whether your offering can be refined. If yes, go for it and see if you can maximise every opportunity, giving yourself the space to be creative.
3. Don’t neglect marketing and sales but make what you do and say meaningful. Give your customers a vision of their world with you in it, be unselfish about it and do your sales pitch from their perspective, not yours. You should be helping them and making their world better.
Sometimes my customers ask whether it is appropriate to approach someone during these challenging times, but as one of our own Farillio experts reminds us all constantly, sales is simply about having something that helps someone else, and marketing is all about showing them the thing that will help them. If you can do this, there’s no reason not to talk about it.
Something I have noticed is that the businesses that are thriving are the ones that have become more helpful, human, personal and deep. Marketing in 2020 is less about product and brand and more about people and purpose. Small business brands are doing it naturally and intuitively - I have seen it work well for many this year, and I have confidence that small businesses can thrive in the near future!
Like Merlie, we believe in the power of small businesses in the UK. We are proud to support 4.5 million SMBs by helping them to manage payroll, keep on top of time tracking and file their self-assessment tax return - all through one simple, easy-to-use platform. For more inspiring stories from small business owners like Merlie, discover the Quickbooks blog.
This interview has been edited for clarity.