Here, with the help of seasoned business owners, we share their experiences of starting a business, and how they fared with the trials and tribulations along the way.
To learn about our panel's experiences, we asked them to the following:
For Paul Rowlett, founder and managing director of promotional products business Everything Branded, he found his previous roles stagnated and needed to push himself further. He says: “Because I need to be challenged, my ambition was always outstripping my 9 to 5 role – which inevitably led to frustrations on all sides. A period of unemployment made me stronger; it was arriving at this point in my life, whilst recognising my own strengths and weaknesses that provided me with the impetus to set up my own business.”
Likewise, Darren Hockley, co-founder and MD of eLearning specialist DeltaNet International, explained: “I wanted to test myself and see whether I could be successful in my own right.”
A natural opening provided him with the onus to set things in motion: “I’d been working at one firm for ten years and had worked my way up to director level and second in charge. The owner of the business reneged on a promise of making me a shareholder. When this happened, I decided it was time to make the leap. You could say it was a ‘now or never’ moment for me.”
Similarly, Sara Teiger, freelance PR consultant for SMEs and arts organisations, was driven by a natural inclination to lead, noting: “Early on in my working life, I realised I was a doer rather than a manager, and that career progression ultimately involved becoming less hands-on.
“Setting up as a freelance consultant offered me the opportunity to strike out on my own, and to continue with the work I enjoyed rather than falling into managing a team.”
Similarly, Lynn Beasley, MD at Washington Direct Mail, remembers the moment the penny dropped. She says: “The catalyst was a lunch meeting with the then managing director, who told me he was planning to sell to a third party. I had put so much effort in that I was simply not prepared to let it go to an outsider. I realised at that time how much it meant to me and raised the finance to make the purchase.”
For Andrew Dark, co-founder of professional workwear business Custom Planet, the self-employment instincts came from another source: “A lot of inspiration came from my dad, who took a leap and risked everything to start his own business in his 30s — I didn't have a mortgage or kids, so I had no excuse really.”
How do people fare when making the move? While the experiences of all business owners differ, it can certainly be useful to hear other people’s stories – helping you gain insights on how to navigate the tricky transition into self-employment.
For Richard Miller, co-founder and MD of powered access rental company Star Platforms, both a pragmatic approach and teaming up with like-minded individuals has served him well: “It’s been important that both times I’ve started new companies it’s been the right time in the market, and that I’ve worked with partners who have complemented my skill set.”
Careful planning is crucial to maintaining balance and order during the transition into self-employment, as Nick Harding discovered when building his peer-to-peer lending business, Lending Works. Nick said: “In all, I spent about 18 months planning and then building Lending Works. The amount of work that went into it was significant. However, I never had any doubts that Lending Works wouldn’t succeed, and that in itself made the transition much easier.”
In the world of self-employment, the difficulties of a regular 9 to 5 tend to magnify themselves. For Ewan Douglas, owner of furniture business Time & Tide, looking after a family undeniably made things tougher, as did the rigours of long-distance travel.
He says: “The transition was tricky as I had three children, limited capital, and a job in Sheffield that required travel every six weeks. However, risk was somewhat minimised in that I could have kept my job in Sheffield had the shop opening been unsuccessful. Also, my first shop was small – so risk was reduced in scale terms as a result.”
Likewise, Lynn Beasley found that, while juggling family matters was difficult alongside getting her business off the ground, it did give her the support and escape she needed for things to succeed: “It wasn’t easy – I had a very young family and a very demanding customer base that required attention. My rock throughout the whole period has been my husband, who has both shared my dreams and comforted me through the bad times; his support has been vital.”
How does success occur amidst the plethora of challenges that faced our business owners? For Darren Hockley, there was a degree of self-sacrifice that many may not be used to. “I’d taken a large reduction in personal income to pursue the business, given guarantees to the bank against my assets, and taken on hefty personal debts,” he says, “it was a day to remember when I finally told the bank to tear up those guarantees.”
Richard Miller finds that getting the right people has been the biggest challenge: “Sometimes it’s been difficult to recruit quickly enough, and this has often led to some short-term teething problems. But I honestly believe it’s about recruiting like-minded people who are passionate about what they do and they, like myself, have to be committed to the customer.”
How do you differentiate yourself amongst others? For Matt Stevens, owner and MD of The Mortgage Genie, every day proved a challenge from the outset. He said: “Trying to muscle into an already extremely competitive market was, and still is, very difficult. I think the most challenging element was to ensure that we could offer everything and do everything we said we could, which was only possible with the right staff and team.”
Achieving success at work is important, but does it have to be prioritised over free time?
Luckily, for Paul Rowlett, the two are intertwined. He says: “My wife and I run the company together, and she looks after both our admin and finance teams, so we live and breathe our business. I must say, though, that when you love what you do, the need for a ‘work/life balance’ does not seem as pressing, as we never feel the need to escape.”
As for Matt Stevens, he sought out a concrete way to find a balance, saying: “As involved as I was at home, I tried to devote as much time to the company and to the staff as well. I’ve managed to develop a routine schedule which works, and it’s helped me become extra effective with company matters and means that my family life doesn’t suffer.”
Carl Reader, director of D&T Chartered Accountants and small business commentator, thinks the balance shouldn’t be so clear-cut: “I’m not a big believer of the work-life balance. I think that when you get to the point where work is no longer work, it’s an amazing place to be, and everything kind of comes together.”
Most of the business owners we contacted stressed the importance of having a plan to guide you. “Before you take the leap,” Paul says, “I would advise having 2 or 3 months’ bill money behind you, if possible. At the very least, have a plan in place so you have access to funds.”
As for Henry Smith, CEO and property developer at Aitch Group, it’s all about the strength of your business plan. He says: “If you’re looking to change from being an employee to being self-employed, you need to test your business plan. It's best to plan a moderate start and allow for extra costs: don't be too ambitious when starting out. Also, who you employ is critical. Make sure they believe in the business as you do and understand the sacrifices that need to be made.”
Nick Harding agrees, and adds that having a firm plan can help cultivate confidence and self-belief in your business. He says: “Be persistent and relentless. It’s allowed me to be incredibly confident, and believe that what I was doing would ultimately lead to success - regardless of setbacks. I think that if any budding entrepreneur can master steely persistence, it engenders the sort of self-belief which is essential for what is ultimately, a very-rewarding journey.”
Lynn believes it's important not to be disheartened. She says: “It’s OK to make mistakes – even big mistakes – as long as you take appropriate action so as not to repeat them. By making mistakes, we learn and develop as people.”
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To this end, Andrew advises a pragmatic approach in order to lessen the impact of mistakes. He says: “Do your research and make sure your business will fulfil a need. Build up slowly to minimise risk, find a good financial advisor, and keep as much money as possible in the business — look after the business, and the business will look after you!”
So, whilst no two journeys to becoming the boss are the same, we hope these pearls of wisdom from those who have already travelled the path will make things clearer for you, and your ambitions.
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