Today I celebrate 20 years of self-determination. On Monday 9th February 2004, I first opened the doors of my own business. That said, in fact I sat down at my desk in the back room of a large house that was enormously mortgaged, and wondered whether I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. By the afternoon of Tuesday 10th February, I had secured a brokerage contract that was the springboard for the considerable business that it was to grow into.
This is only a short post, so I’ll concentrate on the ‘why’s and then the ‘how’s, but I will preface the piece by saying that large amounts of luck were involved, and if you don’t believe in luck, then being in the right place at the right time was the fuel that drove the engine. Also, starting a business before the sub-prime disaster that led to global financial meltdown in 2008 was a very different proposition from today’s business climate, hindered as it is by the timid lenders the high street banks have become.
So, why? My personality type had flourished in small and family businesses, and floundered in the ‘nationals’, as we called them then, who bought the family businesses in the 80s and 90s. It was the last of those personally cataclysmic announcements that the lovely family firm I worked for had been sold to a multinational, that catalysed me into jumping into the unknown, determined never again to be the one hearing the news rather than deciding it.
It was a friend who made the scales fall from my eyes, as we sat in a restaurant while I bemoaned the takeover that would require me relocating. The takeover was largely taking consumer choice out of the market, so my friend said "don’t be glum, be the new competition!” I’ve no idea who coined that phrase, but the mantra I learned that day was that the opportunity of a lifetime only lasts for the lifetime of the opportunity. The chance to enter my industry as an independent proved very seductive, and I clearly remember not getting a wink of sleep that night, with ideas and angles constantly popping into my head.
My first jotting on the metaphorical blank piece of paper was the two columns of companies/individuals I could count on to support me or not. The biggest surprise in the first months was that it was the latter column, the least likely prospects, who were my champions. I posted 120 letters, first class, to my erstwhile customers and suppliers, on the last Friday morning of salaried employment, to land on office doormats at 9 am on Monday 9th February 2004, and it was only two of those letters that were critical to my early and sustained success.
My advice to anyone wishing to start their own business, then as now, is two-fold, but the given is that one should only stay in the sector one already knows inside out:
It is who you know, rather than what, and as large a network as possible is essential to have a chance of the (in my case) 2% hit rate mentioned above being converted into turnover.
Whilst you are amassing the network, stay as long as humanly possible in organisations large, medium and small, and study carefully the effect of management decisions, good and poor.
To finish, I must emphasise that whilst I have personally flourished, the entrepreneur’s life is not for all. Holidays are just a change of scenery for your office window, and sleep can be difficult, even when it’s possible. But I can still remember the thrill of signing those 120 letters ‘Managing Director’!