Client Story

Circus Strong

  • Location: Derby
  • Sector: Arts, Creative and Digital Services
  • Amount: £35k
  • Purpose: Working Capital
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Holly, 32, worked in the corporate world for a decade before she co-founded Circus Strong in January, 2021.

A CIC, it teaches circus and aerial fitness, offering an LGBTQ+ safe space and mental health support.

Growing up in Manchester, Holly studied engineering. “When I left university, I took an internship in project management in Derby. Ten years later, I was still there working in aerospace, rail, and automotive industries, doing a typical nine-til-five mundane job.”

“I hated it,” Holly said. “Every day, I didn’t want to get up. As an only child, my parents were cautious about me taking a risk and quitting a well-paid job. I was becoming a very angry person who was just constantly frustrated. I was in a good job, getting paid good money, I had friends, but just some things didn’t feel right or add up.”

Aged 26, Holly transitioned into a woman. “It was the right decision, but it was hard.”

Around the same time, Holly started learning circus skills. “I’ve always been interested in the circus from an early age. I’m an adrenalin junkie and I just Googled it on a whim, found a class, and never looked back.”

What started out just for fun, had a more profound impact.

“I wanted to do something for me, rather than what everyone else wanted me to do. It helped me overcome a lot of mental stuff I was going through, and be comfortable with myself.”

“I’ve been through depression and suicidal thoughts, and came out the other end. I was unsure of my identity and who I was. It’s only been in the past two or three years that I’ve been comfortable with who I am.”

Prior to Key Fund, Circus Strong relied on portable equipment and hiring school halls.

Key Fund provided a £27k loan and £8k grant as working capital to support their move to premises in Ashbourne, a rural market town.

“Without Key Fund we’d have never been able to expand the business to what it is now. Having this space has allowed us to diversify into lots of different things. Most importantly, it means people have this safe space.”

The enterprise is in its early stages, but turnover is up to £1.5k a month from £200 when they first began. Class sizes are kept small to around six to ensure quality, with a youth circus programme, beginner classes, and aerial skills. The age range is six to 62. The business works as a membership model, like a gym. 70% of users are locals and 30% travel to use the specialist facilities.

Holly is supported by co-director, Natalia Winnicka, who looks after the social media and marketing.

The move to a rural location was ‘another transition,’ Holly said. “As a trans person at first there was a lot of staring and confusion. It’s very old school here, and we came and disrupted things.

But now a lot more are getting on board. People have started to think this is part of the community now.”

Key Fund’s investment is partly being used to put up a bouldering wall to help expand the business.

“The Key Fund team are very friendly, they could see beyond the numbers, which I think is so important. If you go to a bank, you just won’t get that.”

Holly’s students are ‘100% supportive’: “A lot of them say we need something like this in Ashbourne. I think it’s just having a space that’s judgement free. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, a larger person, or struggle with mental health. A lot of people come to us because they find gyms intimidating and horrible. Gyms can be very hostile places for trans people, and because of that they’re being denied the chance to lead a healthier lifestyle. It all stems from not having an environment where they do their thing and not feel like they’re going to be harassed.”

Circus classes encourage confidence.

“In the countryside it can get very lonely quickly. People need to know they’re supported. If I had somewhere like this when I was growing up, I would have come out as a teenager.”
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