Going it alone

Is your manager making unreasonable demands? Are you bored by unproductive meetings? Do you feel undervalued? Maybe it’s time to break the routine and become your own boss

One in five Britons would like to leave behind the drudgery of the nine to five to run their own business, according to a recent report published by National Savings and Investments.

Self-employment is an attractive option because it means no longer having to answer to an unreasonable boss, you’ll attend fewer or no meetings and have the chance to take a holiday when you want.

But this popular path is not an easy one to follow. In the US, the hotbed of entrepreneurship, 95% of small businesses fail within five years of starting up.

In the UK, 471 businesses go bust every week on average, according to a report by Industry Watch.

Poor planning, cash flow problems and expanding too rapidly are some of the reasons why businesses fail. But don’t let that put you off. Fear of failure could lead to regret. What’s more, you could be just the kind of person who is cut out for business success.

If you can answer “yes” to six or more of the following questions, then you probably have what it takes:

· Are you willing to take risks?
· Do you have one or more goals to achieve?
· Are you an optimist?
· Do you make the most of opportunities?
· Are you motivated and willing to work long hours?
· Do you believe in yourself?
· Can you bounce back after a setback?
· Can you stand by your actions in spite of criticism?
· Can you take your own decisions?
· Do you have the potential to lead people?

Passed the test? Well done. If you fall short of what’s required to run a business but really want to go it alone, then you’ll need to work on your weaknesses.

The first step on the road to a successful business is to have a good idea. Begin by looking at jobs you’ve had and the skills you have already acquired.

Ask yourself how you can use these skills to start a business. Think about your hobbies – can these be transformed into a viable business?

Also, look at the products and services you use. Can you improve them? Are there products and services you need that do not exist?

Inspiring stories abound of go-getting individuals who have improved exisiting services or products or created new ones.

Former TV presenter Anastasia Baker was desperate for uninterrupted sleep after her second baby was born but could not find an overnight nanny through the various agencies she contacted.

So she took the extraordinary step of setting up her own business, Night Nannies. That was three years ago and now the business has a six-figure annual turnover.

While dining in a New York restaurant with her brother, Bobby, Sahar Hashemi mentioned how much she missed New York’s fat-free muffins and skinny cappuccinos back home in London.

Bobby knew she was disillusioned with her job as a corporate lawyer and suggested she open a coffee shop. So she left her job and the popular chain Coffee Republic was born.

The only way to know for sure if you idea will “fly” is through research. Find out if people will buy your product and if they have other related needs you could meet.

If you want to provide a service that already exists, look at the competition. Consider your potential rivals’ strengths and weaknesses and ask yourself how you could provide a better service.

Consider the impact your product will have on the environment. What waste will it produce? What can be done with the waste? Is any of it recyclable?

The next step on your journey to setting up your own business is to write a business plan.

A business plan is more than just a tool to help you get funding – it is a roadmap to get you where you want to be.

Developing your plan requires a lot of time and energy but it is invaluable for one primary reason – it forces you to come to terms with your business idea.

Your written business plan should show how you will generate income, what your expenses will be and the purpose of your business.

It may seem obvious what your business does but you need to think about what sets your venture apart, what is unique about your service and what is going to put you ahead of the competition.

The good news is that you do not have to walk alone if you want to set up a business in the UK. There are many organisations just waiting to give you the support you need.

They can give you advice on how to conduct research, write a business plan, they can suggest an accountant for your business and connect you with a network of likeminded people. Some bodies will even give you a grant.

The best organisations are in the public sector, says Jim Green, the author of Starting Your Own Business (How To Books). He believes they offer softer loans and grants than banks.

“If you go to a bank you could be asked to put up your home as collateral. If you experience cash flow problems, as even the best-run businesses do, the bank could go after your house,” he warns.

These organisations, such as the New Entrepreneur Scholarships (NES), Business Link and The Prince’s Trust, also offer great guidance for start-up businesses.

NES is a free business development programme that lasts six months. Students attend classes one day a week for the duration and are entitled to funding of up to £3,500.

NES is managed by the National Federation of Enterprise Agencies and is located in nine regions, including the north-west, midlands, London and the south-west.

Fashion designer Susan Atkin, enrolled on the north-west programme at Manchester Metropolitan University.

She had always wanted to set up her own business and decided to take this bold step after being made redundant from her job as a PA.

After the course, NES gave Susan £3,500 to buy a sewing machine and office equipment.

“After the course I went straight into doing trade shows, something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do without it,” says Atkin.

The Prince’s Trust provides support and advice to aspiring entrepreneurs up to the age of 30.

Many of the businesses the trust helps to support have been refused funding elsewhere.

The organisation helped 4,359 people start their own business between 2002 and 2003. It also provided ongoing support to 8,210 people.

What’s more, 55% of the businesses helped by the trust are still trading in their third year.

Business Link describes itself as a “one-stop shop of objective information and support to help businesses succeed and deal with laws and regulations”.

It provides information to new and existing entrepreneurs, as well as access to a wide network of business support organisations.

Many Business Link advisers have run their own businesses so are in a position to offer practical advice on a variety of issues, such as marketing and training, choosing your business type and finding premises.

Books

· A Guide to Working for Yourself, by Godfrey Golzen and Jonathan Reuvid (Kogan Page)
A comprehensive guide to all the major factors to be taken into account before starting a business, including researching your market, raising finance, cash-flow management, marketing yourself, tax and legal matters. The book also features a resource directory, which includes useful contact addresses, websites and an A to Z of ideas for self-employment opportunities.

Small Business Websites That Work: Get Online to Grow Your Company, by Sean McManus (Prentice Hall)

Forming a Limited Company, by Patricia Clayton (Kogan Page)

Success stories

Business graduate Kirsty Watkinson, 30, is an IT trainer, online tutor, assessor and consultant. She launched her portfolio career three years ago after being made redundant from her job as an e-coach with business consultancy Academee.

While working for Thomas Rotherham College, first as an administrator and then as head of business training and development, Watkinson learned she could earn a living from home as an online tutor.

While employed she picked up the skills and qualifications that made self-employment a reality once she lost her job. Watkinson lives in Rotherham, Yorkshire. She is engaged to Darren Cousins, a medical student.

“When I started working for myself I thought that, if I don’t get enough work, I’ll have to get a part-time job. Luckily, I’ve been able to get enough work.

“My strength is that I have more than one key skill. I’m working on projects using all my key skills at the moment.

“I’m doing some consultancy work for Learn Direct, which involves researching and writing a guide for its assessment centres, teaching tutors how to teach online, doing IT training with staff at the Prince’s Trust and assessing a management qualification for Academee, my former employer. Academee became a client a year after I was made redundant.

“I enjoy the variety of work and the security of having a number of different clients instead of one employer. On a personal level, if I decide to have children, I can have a career and be a mum quite easily because I’m based at home.

“The drawbacks include not having a regular salary. In the early days this gave me a few sleepless nights but now I’ve learned to plan in advance before spending. Fortunately, I’ve increased my annual salary by £10,000 by working for myself.

“My future goals are to win lucrative contracts and hire some admin staff so I can free up my time to expand into other areas, such as career coaching

“My advice to employees looking to build a portfolio career is to improve their skills by going on courses while working.

“It is harder to do courses when you are working for yourself because you may not have enough time or money.”

Maria Grachvogel, 34, has made a name for herself as a fashion designer. She is famous for giving Victoria Beckham her first trip down the catwalk and for dressing Emma Thompson in eyecatching outfits at a clutch of recent award ceremonies.

Grachvogel dreamed of becoming a fashion designer when she was eight. Her inspiration was her aunt, Eileen, a tailor. Now she has a retail shop on London’s Sloane Street. She lives in central London with her partner, Mike Simcock, who works in finance.

“I went on several fashion courses before launching a clothes business with my best friend Pamela just after my 18th birthday.

“Running the business was difficult as we didn’t share the same passion, so after two years we folded it.

“I worked as an investment assistant for Schroders in the City for six months before launching the Maria Grachvogel label in 1991.

“My first big break came in March that year when a friend introduced me to Lucienne Phillips, who ran her own boutique in Knightsbridge. I was quite nervous when I met her because she was a real fashion doyenne and said on seeing me that she only had five minutes.

“But when she saw the clothes she loved them so much I was with her for two hours – she ordered the whole collection. I felt elated and went out and celebrated with the friend who introduced us.

“My next break came in 1994 when I set up my first exhibition stand at London Fashion Week.

“That year I also received my first order from Liberty and took my first export order. Around the same time I attracted my first celebrity clients – Yasmin Le Bon and Lisa B. They still love wearing my clothes.

“I divide my time between the business side and the creative side. However, I would love to hand over all the business management to someone else to enable me to concentrate fully on creativity. I feel there is so much more I would like to contribute in this way.

“What I love most about what I do is transforming women into goddesses – by that I mean making women feel really good and special when they wear my clothes.

“One of my proudest moments was when a client came in with a dress from an old collection and asked to have another made.

“She said she loved the dress so much that she always carries it in her hand luggage when travelling to avoid it getting damaged or lost.”

When James Turner, 32, worked as a bus driver for Stagecoach, he used his days off to earn extra money as a handyman.

Demand for his services grew when his wife printed some “James the handyman” business cards and he soon took the bold decision to leave his job.

He used the family’s life savings of £1,400 to set up Express Maintenance, which works for commercial and residential properties.

Two years on, he has won two business awards and enjoyed an annual turnover of £125,000 in his first year. Turner lives in Hull with his wife, Sarah, and daughters Kelsey, 8, and Molly, 9.

“I never dreamed of anything like this, especially within two years of starting the business. Just before leaving my job I printed 40 leaflets and had feedback from about three people.

“This led to some work, then, after a while, the workload became too much for me so I hired a handyman. I hired another after a few weeks because we became stretched to bursting point.

“Within a year of setting up the business I had 12 employees, including a plumber and a painter and decorator. We still do handyman jobs but also carry out property refurbishments.

“Some months after the business began we won the local heat of the Shell Livewire business competition after spotting an article about it in the local newspaper. The award came with £800. We then went on to win the regional award for the competition, plus £1,000.

“This meant we were up against 10 other people for the ultimate prize, which was the Shell Livewire Entrepreneur of the Year Award. We didn’t win but we were glad to have got so far.

“Our clients are mainly letting agents, estate agents, private landlords, pubs and hotels. We also do a lot of work for Hull Citizens Advice Bureau and the Probation Service.

“We have 54 regular clients and haven’t lost a single one yet because we keep to our word and guarantee what we do.

“Although the business is growing, I’m not better off financially because I’ve focused on investments. We’ve invested in vehicles, a shop and a damp-proofing machine that cost £1,200. That was a good investment as I made my money back in less than a week.

“I pay myself £220 a week after tax, the same amount of money I earned as a bus driver. It’s not a fantastic amount of money but Hull is a cheap place in which to live, so we can manage on it.

“Challenges of running the business include unexpected tax bills. The first VAT bill we received nearly put us out of business – we had to pay it within three days. I felt like folding the business and getting a job.

“But I know I won’t do that. I wasn’t suited to sitting behind the wheel of a bus all day. I’m more of a practical and physical person.

“And I wouldn’t want to go back to my first job as a mechanic. I left that after five years to become a bus driver because the job paid £30 a week more.

“My advice to anyone who wants to start a business is grab funding with both hands if it’s available and don’t think too big too quickly as you could become unstuck. Also get good advice – even if you have to pay for it.”

 

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