Today’s blog entry is a slight departure from my usual posts but I’m writing it for three reasons. First, by looking online, I’ve seen that becoming one’s own boss often appears on people’s bucket lists. They start to think about how brilliant it would be to have control over their own working week and the work they do. Perhaps they get to the point where they have so many years left before retirement and start to think about the quality of those years. Perhaps something has happened in their lives and they start to re-evaluate everything. Second, this post was inspired by one of my Facebook friends who messaged me the other day to say that she’d resigned from her job having seen that I’d just celebrated 10 years of running my own business. So, with her saying that I’d inspired her, I’m hoping that this post will inspire others too. Third, I don’t usually blog on a Monday but it’s bank holiday here in the U.K. where lots of people have an extra day off work and so, in non-work mode, there may be people reading this contemplating the questions ‘Can I run my own business? I’d love to but I don’t know if I can‘. ‘Would other people even pay money for my advice, goods or services?’
So, I’m going to share with you what my top 10 tips would be for anyone wishing to run their own business. This post is far more wordy than my usual ones with no shiny, colourful photos but I hope it helps! I thought I’d first very briefly condense my background to provide some context.
My work history in just a few sentences!
Basically, I’ve always worked in employment and education. On the employment side, I worked as a client advisor in a job centre and then moved to Westminster where my job entailed writing parliamentary speeches, ministerial briefings and lines-to-take for UK Prime Minister John Major during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. However, after becoming involved in education policy in London, I then became a qualified teacher and spent 11 years in further education and 5 years in adult education where I delivered teacher training and taught a wide range of subjects including English. I also became a dyslexia specialist around 15 years ago after studying to post-grad level and now run a special needs consultancy firm where I assess children and adults for specific learning difficulties including (depending on the client’s age) dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD and dyspraxia.
Tip no. 1. Know yourself well enough to do a job that makes you tick!
In many ways, this can be the hardest thing to do. I’ve seen on my Facebook feed where people in various groups say they want to work for themselves but don’t know what to do.
If you love your job and currently work for someone, is there scope for doing this whilst working for yourself? I hadn’t even contemplated offering private assessments until I overheard someone talk about doing this at a conference about 11 years ago. Do you have a hobby that you just do for fun on the side but people tell you that they would pay good money for what you make or do? Is there anything you wanted to do years ago but then found yourself going down a different career path, always aware that your plans have changed? Do you know anyone who does a job and think that you’d love to do it too?
If you’re not sure, getting careers advice can be a really good place to start like the National Careers Service here in the U.K. You may want to do a job that takes that requires professional qualifications. Don’t let that be a barrier. Just focus on the long term goal and imagine finally being qualified doing the job you’d love to do.
Tip no. 2. Take time to transition from working for someone else to running your own business
So, you’ve decided that you want to run your own business which makes you feel really excited and you dream about going into work tomorrow with a letter in hand and, in a loud voice, saying to your boss “I resign!” If you’re so unhappy in a job that’s making you ill and you don’t need to work, I absolutely agree with doing that! Otherwise, I’d encourage you to be more strategic in your planning. When I decided that I was going to leave the college, my hubby and I agreed that I should track how much private work I was getting over the next 12 months alongside working for my employer. By the way, do you check in your contract about whether you need to tell your employer about doing any other work so that you don’t get into trouble. Tracking demand over a period of time helps you to see which are the busy months and which on the quiet months where there’s little or no money coming into my bank account. Using my salary at the college, I worked out how many private assessments I would need to do each year to earn close to lecturer salary. After 12 months of realising that I could get enough work, it was a still scary thought but I truly haven’t looked back.
Tip no. 3. Learn the basic skills to run a business
Basic skills to run your own business are essential. I was lucky that I did an HNC in Business and Finance at night school for two years whilst in my first full-time job and this covered marketing, finance, human resources, company law and lots of other business-related subjects. Develop basic IT skills so that you can set up and maintain your own website. Learn basic bookkeeping skills and get financial advice if you need to. Learn the basics about marketing so that people start to know about you. Learn how to track where your business is coming from so that you can do targeted marketing campaigns. Learn about how to do a tax return. There are plenty of books out there for doing these things but also look out for workshops offered by your local college, advice from banks and reputable websites.
Tip no. 4. Be strategic
If the economy took a hit, how recession-proof is your job? Do you have a job where, with some extra training, you could add more strings to your bow? I started out assessing only people aged 16+ but, realising that my work could be affected if government funding for university students stopped, I widened my portfolio to assess children too. Although I can’t Skype in my job, embrace technology where possible so that you reach a wider audience. I know tutors who teach via Skype. Do you want to become a counsellor? Again, Skyping allows you to find people who need the flexibility this brings. Do you make things? Don’t rely on a stall in the local market each week. How about an online presence?
Sometimes, you can feel like you’re doing al the right things but not much work is coming in. Be patient! A business can snowball. It was only 3 years ago where my work completely took off and the usual 3 week wait for people to see me became at least 4-5 months! Keep your nerve!
Tip no. 5. Put the client at the centre of everything you do
Do you ever leave phone messages that don’t get returned? It’s irritating, isn’t it?! Basic communication and reliability are key. When answering the phone or dealing with emails, I work hard at striking the balance between being professional but also being friendly. I don’t do formality anyway but I keep phone calls really chilled, really listen to what people are telling me and often find people tell me it’s the first time that someone has truly listened to their concerns. I also really appreciate when I have a child or adult coming to an assessment that you may have taken an enormous amount of courage for them to even contact me in the first place, let alone for them open up about what they find hard at work or school. Keep the language on your website accessible so that they understand it. If you visit clients, be punctual! I can’t emphasise enough about how word of mouth is the cheapest way to spread the news about your business so if you give someone a good experience, they’re likely to tell others. In my case, it’s not just the school gate or colleagues talking but it’s on chatrooms, Facebook groups, etc.
Tip 6. Be organised….or employ someone to keep you organised!
Fortunately, I’m fairly organised (although never look in my garage which is always chockablock to make my house look reasonably tidy!). Managing paperwork, computer files and time is important. Develop a system that works for you and accept that this might be learnt through trial and error to find out what really works for your particular business. Try to keep your work things in the large cupboard so that you can shut it away and prevent it from seeping into every room in your home.
How many times do we see posters for events that have happened or websites that make reference to something that took place months or even years ago? I always show my current availability on my website and being able to do this myself is far better than contacting a website developer to do this for me.
I have an old-fashioned A5 Filofax but this works brilliantly for me. As I take notes when clients call, I can insert the sheet of lined paper into my Filofax diary rather than have scrappy pieces of paper everywhere. I keep a stock of extra ink cartridges, stamps and envelopes, and order assessment materials in plenty of time in case the supplier runs out.
Tip no. 7. Achieve work-life balance
Oh, this took me years to achieve! When I first started out, I was working many hours a day, seven days a week. Looking back, I don’t know how I did that whilst also being a mum and wife, studying and being a musical director but I clearly had a lot more energy back then!
I have a separate work email and I advertise my contact hours on my website and answerphone which are Tuesday to Saturday 10am-6pm. One of the best things I bought was a landline with a button to silence calls and I keep this on until 10am so that I’m not woken up by very early calls from people ringing just before they go to work. Yes, I don’t use a mobile phone for my work as I like the sense of getting away and not always being contactable straightaway if I’m out. Of course, anyone leaving a message on my home phone will soon here back from once I return.
The other important thing here is that if you work for yourself and you rarely see clients more than once, it can actually be very lonely! I spend an incredible amount of time on my own. However, having identified that I was missing being part of a team, I started volunteering for a charity 18 months ago that helps children and young people with disabilities and that really adds something special into my week. Oh and lunch dates with friends! Can’t beat that!
Tip no. 8. You can say ‘no’!
When I first started out, I found myself agreeing to almost anything people asked of me. ~Can you come down to the West Country to assess here? “Yes, of course, I will” despite it being a few hours drive! “Can you assess me on a Friday evening after work?” “Yes, of course I will” despite me secretly wanting to just chill in front of the tv! “Can you assess me next week because I really want to get this done as quickly as possible?” “Yes, of course I can” despite next by week already been ridiculously busy and me needing to shift something I do for fun.
However when your business is up and running, you can say ‘no’. My perception of an urgent need for an assessment is very different to a client’s perception in most cases and the reality is that I’m booked up until October and so I can’t fit people in sooner. I set myself a limit to how many assessments I do each week and it would have to be a truly exceptional case for me to someone to fit someone in, such as someone who is about to emigrate or someone who has a terminal illness and wants their child to be assessed (which I’ve done twice recently). I was asked recently by a solicitor if I’d like to do ‘expert witness’ work for education tribunals but I know that it’s not something I’d enjoy. Saying no isn’t easy but the more you do it, the easier it becomes!
Tip 9. Don’t get knocked back
We all have days where we can doubt ourselves. Should I really be doing this? Surely there are many people who do a far better job for clients. Do I really have the skills?
First, try to take on board the nice things that others say. I used to find this incredibly difficult and thought most people say nice things just because they felt they should. One of my directors whilst working full time said to me how she could envisage me running my own business one day and, having a lot of respect for her, those words did stick. I include testimonials on my website because many clients say to me that these have helped them decide whether to approach me in the first instance. I don’t usually read them myself but I do get the occasional day where I notice them and they remind me that I do love doing my job!
If you make a mistake, just acknowledge it, apologise and learn from it. If you get negative feedback, take it on board as constructive criticism that can help you find even better ways of doing things. If you don’t know the answer to a question you’re asked, it’s okay to say that you don’t know! Go away, research it and get back to them. You’ll then know the answer to the next person who asks that question!
Tip 10. Reward yourself!
If you work hard, play hard! Running a business takes a lot of mental effort and can be very time consuming. You have yourself to rely on with no-one taking up the slack. So, see if you can put things in your diary that are really special and give you something to look forward to, just like the things I’ve been doing over the past 21 months.
I hope this helps at least one person. Feel free to share