Dragons' Den's entrepreneur quit job amid Covid to run art business
Art entrepreneur who created ‘the HelloFresh of painting kits’ and wowed Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden reveals how she bravely quit her job during the pandemic to run her new business
- Zena El Farra, 28, from London, secured £50,000 from Dragon Deborah Meaden
- The former banker said she was faced with a tough choice when Covid hit
- Her business was only six months old at the time and relied on her studio space
- When her art school MasterPeace shut, she instead handmade home art kits
- MasterPeace was only six months old and it became a make-or-break moment
An entrepreneur who secured a £50,000 investment from Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden has revealed how she bravely quit her full-time job during the pandemic to run her brand-new business.
Zena El Farra, 28, from East London, took a sabbatical from her full time job at a bank to found MasterPeace, a mindful art studio, in 2019, and was left devastated when the Covid-19 crisis hit six months after she launched the business.
But instead of giving up, Zena, who studied economics at University, left her career to transform the business into a subscription service for painting which she describes as the ‘HelloFresh of art’.
Speaking to FEMAIL, she revealed: ‘The pandemic started just as I was meant to make a decision on the business, like am I doing this for real or not?…I made the decision to actually resign during the pandemic, which was doubly scary.’
Zena El Farra, 28, (above) from London, launched her art school MasterPeace in September 2019, and appeared on Dragon’s Den with her art kits and secured a £50,000 investment
Zena said she ‘relied’ on painting to manage her stresses and anxieties while she was growing up.
The entrepreneur helped to run arts and literature magazines and dances during her school years, saying it had always been a ‘dream’ of hers to combine her love of art with starting her own business.
She explained: ‘I always knew that I wanted to run my own business, I just hadn’t worked out the when and the what, so I was just squirrelling away as much money as I could.’
While studying economics at University, Zena worked for a food delivery company, before beginning her first full-time job for a high street bank, which saw her design an app for them and travel to South Africa during her eight-year employment.
Zena (pictured on Dragon’s Den) accepted Deborah Meaden’s offer and has used the investment to redesign her home art kits and launch her art projector, the IlluminArty
She decided to launch MasterPeace, an art school with a team of 20 artists, in 2019, after feeling there there weren’t enough classes promoting painting as a way to manage stress and anxiety, whereas there are many options for other activities, such as yoga.
She funded the business with her ‘modest’ life-savings, as well as raising £16,000 through Natwest’s Back Her Business Scheme.
Despite her ambitious plans, she said her family found the prospect of her starting her own business ‘difficult to get on-board with’ because she was stepping away from the financial security that comes with full-time paid employment.
She explained: ‘It [starting up a business] was very, very new and very, very difficult for my family to get on-board with in lots of ways.’
Zena (above) admitted her family found her own business ‘difficult to get on-board with’ because she was stepping away from the financial security that comes with full-time paid employment
Zena was faced with a tough decision when the Covid-19 crisis hit just six months after she launched her art school, which was forced to close amid lockdown (pictured, her home art kit)
She added: ‘There’s definitely something really special about having paid employment from a big company, it provides so much reassurance for a family.
‘The idea of leaving that behind to run your own business is very unattractive to a mother, or somebody who wants to see you settled and safe.’
After the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to standstill in 2020, Zena was left terrified for the future of her business.
She continued: ‘We launched as very much an in-person experience, it was the space to get creative with the help of a professional artist, in a space that was designed to help people relax.
Zena (pictured) took a six-month sabbatical from her job in a bank to launch MasterPeace, but when this came to an end in March, she bravely resigned during the pandemic
‘When Covid happened, it could very easily have been the end of us, because our proposition was the space.
‘Without the space, what were we going to be? How would we stay connected with the huge community we’d built at that point?’
Just three days into lockdown, Zena came up with the idea of creating home art kits which her 20 MasterPeace artists could create the artwork for and record tutorials for.
The businessman explained: ‘I really kept my ear on the ground with some of the other art schools out there and I really do think that we were the first ones out of the track with that idea.
Three days into lockdown, Zena came up with the idea of creating art kits which her 20 artists, who did not qualify for furlough, could create (left and right: Artists’ sketches for the kits)
‘But yeah, I was sat on the sofa with my husband just saying, “I’ve had this idea for an at home service but I don’t think it’s very good”, and he was like, “No that’s a great idea”.’
Zena quickly began crafting the sets in the spare room of her home, explaining: ‘The team didn’t qualify for furlough so part of the rush for me was thinking “I need to pay these people, I can’t let them down, so how do I create work for them now?”‘
The painting kits, which are priced between £28 and £45, come with pre-sketched images ready to paint, the paints and paintbrushes needed, written instructions and pre-recorded video tutorials from artists on the MasterPeace app.
Zena explained: ‘The idea is that even if you are a complete and utter beginner, because it’s all pre-drawn, you can actually achieve a really beautiful, very professional looking finish with these kits.
The painting kits (pictured) provide people with pre-sketched images to paint over, paints and paintbrushes, written instructions and pre-recorded video tutorials on the MasterPeace app
‘It’s a bit like HelloFresh, but for art. You will come out with a really delicious meal you’ll feel proud of, and it’s because it’s been made really easy for you, anybody could do it.’
Zena said appearing on Dragon’s Den was a ‘genuinely really, really scary and very difficult experience.’
She said: ‘If I had been going on to the Den six months before when the studio was up and running, I think I would have felt really confident and clear about what we do and how we do it, but I went into the Den with the studio shut and just really at the beginning of our art kit journey.
‘We had a product but it was being handmade by me, in my spare room of my flat, with materials that I could just about get online, from Amazon, and piece it together. It was done purely as a response to Covid.
Zena said it was ‘really scary’ to enter Dragons’ Den after her studio space had closed and she had only just started selling the art kits, which she was making by hand in her spare room
‘So I’m on the Den with a product that’s selling super, super well, but looks very much like a handmade thing. I was relying on them seeing the potential of it, rather than them judging what it was at that moment in time, when it was just a couple of months old.
‘I think that is what made the Den so much of a challenge, just trying to land that point that this is by no means a finished product, in that we’ve done it to survive and the response from customers has been incredible.’
Luckily, her gamble luckily paid off when Deborah, 62, was won over by the handmade art kits and invested £50,000 for 25 per cent of the business.
Zena said Deborah’s investment has gone towards completely redesigning the range of art kits, which are now almost entirely recyclable, reusable and biodegradable.
Zena said Covid has taught her a huge lesson as she wouldn’t have created the art kits without the pandemic, which are now her most successful product (above, example artwork from kit)
The entrepreneur said the kits are a ‘big improvement’ from when she presented them on Dragons’ Den.
Another large focus for Deborah’s £50,000 investment has been creating the IlluminArty, a £249 projector that is specifically designed for artists, rather than repurposing large wall projectors.
The product enables beginner artists to project an image from their phones on to a canvas or piece of paper for them to trace before starting to create their artwork.
The multi-functional projector also boasts a lamp, so it can also be used as a stylish piece of furniture.
Another large focus for Deborah’s £50,000 investment has been creating the IlluminArty, a £249 projector that is specifically designed for artists
Zena’s projector (above) enables artists to project an image from their phones on to a canvas or piece of paper for them to trace before they start to create their masterpiece
Zena revealed she now views the Covid-19 crisis as a huge business opportunity, having been able to sell her product to customers across 17 countries.
She now plans to expand MasterPeace and turn it into a franchise, which would see her open more studios in other big cities across the UK.
Zena said: ‘There’s a reality check for sure that small businesses it does take time to get to a stage where you do get those luxuries again.
‘But big risk, big reward – hopefully one of these days! To get to do what you love every day is worth a lot more than all the rest.’
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