Lockdown Economy UK in People and Culture Development with Neil Bestford

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Sriyansh Hetamsaria

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet with Neil Bestford, the Founder of Authentic, a people and culture development agency located in Newcastle, UK. He speaks about the advantages of maintaining a flexible and agile business model such as that utilised by Authentic, the shift to online-only in terms of projects delivered amidst periods of lockdown, the importance of building brand awareness coupled to the challenges of a continued pandemic.

Watch the video version of the interview.

What do you do as a business?

Neil: Authentic was born in 2018 in January. The company has kind of had different approaches over the last three years but certainly, for the last 18 months or two years, we’ve been solely focused on people and culture development. We’re based upon the North-East of England in a small coastal village called ‘Tynemouth’, right next to the sea.

We use a quite flexible business model. We use a team of partners and associates. We’ve got a team of around six or seven associates who we use regularly and then some delivery partners who are organizations that we partner with to deliver certain aspects of the business. So it’s a really flexible model, quite agile and perfect for this scenario when obviously work is currently kind of adding and flowing as we go through 2020 and 2021, so yeah that’s us.

So looking at the pandemic, how would you say the pandemic affected you as a business and the lockdown as well?

Neil: I think lockdown-1, initially we were fairly stable. It was quick and pretty good because a lot of the projects you’re working on were in full flow. So there was no real shift apart from the move from being face-to-face to then shifting quite quickly online. I’m pretty fortunate in the sense that all of my clients are technology-based so they’re all tech- they all sit within the tech sector- so they were really agile and quick to move all work online and they were really receptive to continue work online and so for them, it was business as usual.

Then towards probably July-August-September time, work started to tail off because I think the real impact of this wasn’t really going anywhere and it was something that we weren’t in it for the short-haul. It was going to be a longer haul issue for businesses that they started to kind of regroup and a lot of work got put on pause. So around that middle to back end of last year became quite a challenge for us. So it was quite tricky to manoeuvre around that but then, as we tailed up towards the year, people started to plan for 2021.

So we’ve seen work picked back up which has been great but it was inevitable. I think that kind of work was going to be postponed but what it did allow us to do was, for me particularly, to focus on my business and focus on where I needed to move and shift and look at where Authentic positioned itself in the future. So it did give me that time to reflect on the business and work out for myself actually what is the longer-term impact of the pandemic and what does that mean for Authentic and how do we deliver. I think that’s been a really valuable exercise to give us that space and that time to look at the future.

Okay. So looking at the future as well, do you know how your customers and competition are doing with regards to the impacts of lockdown and pandemic upon them?

Neil: I think because of the nature of the business, a lot of it can be easily transferred online. So we’ve moved all our face-to-face coaching has now gone to Zoom coaching. Strategy sessions- I have done when we were allowed back in the office, so to speak, I’ve done one in the last 10 months face-to-face otherwise they’ve been done via zoom and it’s worked really well. There’s tons of technology out there like Miro and Trello and all the different kinds of technologies that we can use to facilitate online sessions. So it’s been tricky but it’s certainly fine. I think clients have adapted really well. I know pretty much all of my clients are flourishing which is really positive because of the nature of their business. They work in sectors that are currently flourishing which is super.

In terms of competition, I think it’s just been moving that model online. I’m currently studying towards my level five coaching-mentoring qualification- and the whole course which would typically be face-to-face has now just moved online and it’s working really well. I think people are adapting and that’s kind of the word ‘du jour’ at the moment. So I think both my customers and competition are pretty good at doing that at the moment.

Yeah, I think that’s from the interviews I’ve had so far. I think adaptation and agility have definitely been the two standoff points. Looking at your business like now specifically, what would you envision your plan being for the next 2–3 months?

Neil: I think, again January 2021 has afforded us some time, it’s been a fairly slow start to the year. Everyone has come back and the nature of my clients and having the realism that they’re having homeschool, a lot of them do have children that they’re having to spend a lot of time homeschooling and really bringing their working day down to the minimum viable proposition that they can just manage to get through the day. So anything that has focused on the external i.e. external consultancy or contractors has been kind of sidelined for January. So again, it’s given us that chance to kind of regroup and look at what the next 2–3 months and beyond look like.

So a lot of planning- getting the website up and running and shifting the narrative on the website, so it’s more of an online and digital experience as opposed to the typical face-to-face that we would do. Looking at a lot more productization, so looking at taking our service offer and creating products that could potentially land more easily in the marketplace so that people can kind of pick it up and run with it and really easily know what it is. So consultancy, as you well know, can go in many different directions and I think it’s kind of looking at how we digitize and productize that. That’s going to be the focus certainly for the first quarter of 2021.

And again just promotion like spending a lot of time in that living digital space, particularly things like Linkedin and spending time raising the brand awareness of Authentic and what we do and showcasing our partners and our clients and the kind of testimonials and great feedback that we’ve got which I’m really pleased to say and then we can use that as a platform to build the brand and again starting to look a business development really for the first couple of quarters of 2021.

What would you say the three things that you would kind of look to seek help with if there were potentially three that come to mind, obviously there’s a wide variety of entrepreneurs that interlinked within the lockdown economy. So from your perspective, what would be the three things that you would look towards gaining help for?

Neil: I think raising awareness broader the network to promote the services and promote people and culture generally across the board. I’ve been doing a lot of thought pieces recently on Linkedin talking about the flexibility of working and you and I have spoken about the shift away from the kind of mandating that colleagues are working nine so far to much more flexible approach to looking at how works delivered versus the times that individuals work and trying to flex around lives as opposed to the typical 9 to 5 and what are we learning from this online and virtual environment with which the hybrid workplace that we’re all living in. So looking at what that might be but yeah promoting the service offer and support with anyone who could collaborate on digitalization or looking at moving to a more digital approach and also with any support like privatization and models that might be effective and really kind of probably doing a lot of trial and error and focusing on looking at what might work and putting it out in the market is a kind of a beta test and then saying does it actually work and then getting some feedback from that. So I think that’s definitely going to be the focus for the first couple of months of the year.

About the Guest

After a decade working his way through the hierarchical ranks of the region’s top creative agencies, in 2014 Neil left the creative industry and lecturing for one of the UK’s top FE colleges, to enter his first foray into ‘management’ at a Sunday Times Top 100 Company. Although he didn’t know it then, it was the catalyst for following in his father’s footsteps in 2018 when he set-up Authentic.

Having been ‘that employee’, ‘that manager’, ‘that strategic lead’, Neil understands the pain points and challenges organisations face when it comes to people and creating an authentic culture. To apply robust, proven standards and share advice from personal experience to help people thrive and organisations to flourish.


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