30 July 2020

Jen's business vouches for others during COVID-19

| Edwina Mason
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Jen Hollingsworth sitting at laptop in cafe.

Jen Hollingsworth was born and bred in Young and has just launched an online voucher platform designed to help small businesses survive COVID-19. Photo: Supplied.

A former South West Slopes woman and her husband have come up with an innovative concept to help inject much-needed cash flow to businesses struggling through COVID-19.

And it seems to be a hit, judging by the 1500 businesses which signed up within an hour of watching a Today show segment on the concept.

Jen Hollingsworth (nee McCloy) was born and bred in Young. Her formative years were spent on the sheep, wheat and cattle property her family owned west of the town.

Her passion for natural fibres – specifically leather and furs – translated into a fashion label called Jennifer Kate, which was launched when she was 24. It was a catwalk hit in Australia and made tremendous headway into the US market. It has even been feted by the Kardashians.

She also recently co-launched the Beauty Bags for Bushfire Victims initiative and is a mentor for small businesses across Australia.

But as COVID-19 crept in, Jen’s own experiences of running a small business underpinned her concerns about the ability of other entities to survive the worldwide pandemic. So she and her husband, Ewen, a former lawyer and management consultant, put their heads together to come up with a solution.

“The health impact of COVID-19 has been the paramount concern across society, however both Ewen and I have watched the announcements during the past few months and felt so awful for small businesses everywhere,” says Jen.

“Growing up in Young, I know how hard it is for small businesses in rural and regional areas, particularly those that rely on farming families for a significant amount of their income. One of the first costs that gets cut is marketing, which is totally understandable, but it also means many small businesses struggle to find new customers.”

Jen says when COVID-19 restrictions first came in she called a few of the businesses she regularly uses and offered to prepay for services for a few months to help them out.

Such was the gratitude, she felt there had to be a way to help on a larger scale.

That night, she and Ewen built a landing page for an online platform called Vouch for You, a free online voucher marketplace for a range of goods and services including homewares, health and beauty services, fashion, gardening and travel.

The pair describes it as an “Airbnb for business”, but one that encourages the use of prepaid vouchers to connect businesses with customers during a time when doors have either shut or business has slowed.

“In the same way as a hotel in Canberra might already have their own online presence but post themselves on Airbnb for additional exposure, we provide that same exposure and marketing to small businesses of all types,” explains Jen.

Vouchers can be purchased as gifts or as a way of paying ahead for a service that will become available when restrictions ease. And there is a Pay it Forward option at checkout that allows customers to buy a second voucher for the selected business to give out at their discretion to another loyal customer who may be feeling the pressure.

Jen says the not-for-profit Vouch for You platform is not a charity but offers access to future cash flow for small businesses during a time when they need it most.

“Small businesses of all types and sizes across Australia need cash for ongoing bills and expenses,” she explains. “Some businesses could not offer their full product or service during the lockdown, but they can offer vouchers now in return for cash upfront.”

It’s a platform that has appeal for both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar businesses with a huge line-up already signed on.

Since its official launch in late June, Jen and Ewen have been working towards a fully automated platform.

“I think this will be needed to cater to the scale we know we’re going to see in September when JobKeeper and other initiatives such as mortgage relief finish here in Australia,” says Jen.

For more information, visit Vouch for You.

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