Small business success stories of 2021: It’s been a tough year, but these start-ups are thriving

The pandemic has spelled a year and a half of turbulence for almost all businesses, but it has been particularly hard on the startups trying to pave the way and disrupt their industries. 

Still, plenty of entrepreneurs have pushed ahead to launch new businesses and build their existing ones.  

This is Money has picked out some of the most successful small businesses who have managed to defy the pandemic, and some who launched despite the circumstances.

We asked them what their business has achieved in 2021, and what their goals are for the year ahead.  

Former footballer Rio Ferdinand has backed new global money transfer company Sokin

Sokin is aiming for growth 

The global money transfer start-up backed by Rio Ferdinand has been gaining traction since its launch in the summer.

We spoke to the former footballer, as well as Sokin founder and chief executive Vroon Modgill, about its plans to take on the likes of Wise.

Sokin, which means money transfer in Japanese, now boasts more than 60,000 customers with another 100,000 on its waiting list, despite only launching in August.

Its global currency account charges £9.99 a month for unlimited overseas transfers in 38 currencies to over 200 countries, as well as use of a debit card. This service will shortly launch in North America.

Its basic account comes with a free IBAN account and payment card and allows users to receive money for free.

By comparison, money transfer giant Wise, which recently listed in London, charges £3.69 per transfer. Its ‘fast and easy’ transfer costs £6.67.

For Modgill, Sokin is personal. He came up with the idea after baulking at the repetitive costs and paperwork his own father had to deal with when he sent money back to India.

The issue resonated with Ferdinand, who met Modgill through a mutual friend and has committed a six-figure sum to Sokin.

‘I’m from a background where you always saw and heard people transferring money and you heard the difficulties and stress around that, not only from their end but the people receiving the money as well… it’s not something you forget,’ he told This is Money.

So what does 2022 hold for Sokin? This Is Money caught up with Modgill, who says he is keen to focus on growth.

‘As a young start-up, growth is very important to us. Not only is our geographical expansion and speed very competitive, but we also want to build and nurture our partner portfolio and continue to work with world leading football and sporting brands,’ he says. 

‘By doing so, we hope consumers continue seeing the Sokin name in stadiums, in the community and on their screens putting us at the forefront of their minds. 

‘Ultimately, we want to become the provider of choice for global transfers and currency exchange.’

Lightyear is ready for lift-off 

With the likes of Freetrade and eToro, retail investors are not short of options when it comes to comission-free share trading. 

However the founders of Lightyear, another app which launched this year, think they can make the experience even better. 

Former Wise colleagues Martin Sokk and Mihkel Aamer grew frustrated with the other apps on the market. 

The new generation of investors is increasingly attracted to big name US shares like Amazon and Tesla, but the currency conversion fees levied by share trading apps means they are faced with hefty charges on already pricey stocks.

Lightyear wants to remove this barrier by offering its users multi-currency accounts and ‘free’ access to global markets.

Users will not pay account or trading fees and, unlike on the majority of rival trading apps, they will also not pay foreign exchange charges. 

After investing £3,000 per month, users will have to pay 0.35 per cent in FX fees.

Former Wise employees Martin Sokk and Mihkel Aamer launched Lightyear over the summer

Former Wise employees Martin Sokk and Mihkel Aamer launched Lightyear over the summer

Lightyear has already attracted some big-name backers including Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus and early Monzo backer Eileen Burbidge.

We caught up with Sokk to talk about the difficulties of launching a business in 2021 and what’s next for Lightyear.

‘This time last year, Lightyear was just an idea. So to have founded the company, raised two funding rounds, built the app and launched it to the UK market all in under a year is amazing,’ he said.

‘Of course, that’s not to say the last 12 months have been without challenges. 

‘The pandemic has meant that our team, which is split between London and Tallinn, has had to adapt to spending a lot less time together in person than we’d have liked at this early stage. 

‘[But] being scattered around Europe is helping us to better understand various cultural differences in local markets, and to build a better investment product that works well in each country.’

Cheeky Panda is succeeding despite shipping stress 

This year, This is Money started a new series looking at sustainable British businesses which have received B Corp certification. 

Non-profit B Lab, which created the the B Corp certification, built up a strong profile in the US and subsequently launched its UK arm in 2015.

Since then, it has quietly certified over 500 British businesses, including the Queen’s bank Coutts earlier in the year. 

We spoke to B Corp UK boss Chris Turner about whether the rapid rise in B Corps risk diluting the integrity of the certification.   

One of its certified companies is The Cheeky Panda, founded in 2016 by husband and wife team Chris Forbes and Julie Chen.

The firm, which produces eco-friendly bamboo toilet paper, kitchen roll and nappies, beefed up its credentials with a B Corp certification in 2019 and is FSC approved.

‘We do something very similar to what Fairtrade Coffee always does: we use the packaging space in the back to explain the story. These environmental messages resonate with customers,’ Forbes told This Is Money.

The Cheeky Panda, led by husband and wife team Chris Forbes and Julie Chen, is eyeing an IPO

The Cheeky Panda, led by husband and wife team Chris Forbes and Julie Chen, is eyeing an IPO

With customers panicking about a lack of toilet roll on supermarket shelves back in 2020, the pandemic no doubt helped The Cheeky Panda with its sales. 

It started last year with an average of £300,000 sales a month and peaked at around £1.3million by May.

It has now sold more than 12million products in 25 markets across Europe, the US, China and the Middle East.

Sales have grown exponentially in the past three years, from £100,000 in 2017 to £5.7millon in 2020.

‘It wasn’t just a one off spike for us, it just brought on more adoption quicker because it put our product in the hands of millions of customers and thankfully a large number of them have stayed with us and we’ve continued to grow from that point, Forbes said’

We caught up with Forbes after what has been a testing second half of the year.

‘The company has seen some supply chain challenges with record high shipping prices and port congestion, which would be hard to manage at the best of times, Forbes said. 

‘But considering we are also going through a sharp increase in demand, it’s been amazing how well the team responded to these pressures to continue to ensure customers get their products.’

‘We’ve also started to expand across EU and the USA,’ he continued. 

‘We have found it doesn’t matter if a consumer is in London, Edinburgh, New York, Dubai or even Barnsley, people are looking for high quality eco friendly alternatives.

‘The company now sells in over 30 countries which is a great achievement for a company that is only 5 years old. 

‘The company is looking to IPO in the mid-term, with the long term-vision of helping make the tissue, baby and beauty categories mainstream. Watch this space….’

Small Business Essentials