Have you ever thought of ditching your day job and working for yourself? No boss, no commute, no arguing over whose turn it is to make the tea. Running your own business is wonderful, hard work and, most of all, a huge learning curve.
I run my own business. SugarCat Publishing is an internet publisher, which means we make websites, then sell the advertising space on them.
My dad (who ran his own business) helps with the financial stuff, and my mum (who retrained at the age of 59) is our web developer. Our flagship website is The Career Break Site, which provides free, independent information about gap years for adults.
I collected lots of useful information as I established my business, which is presented for you here in an easy-to-digest ‘top ten tips’ list. I hope you find it useful.
Tip 1: Work out why you’re doing this
I set up my business for all the obvious reasons – wanting to be my own boss, more flexible working hours, a desk nearer the fridge, etc. What is it you want to get out of running your own company? If it’s to make lots of money, you might as well give up now. Money should be a result of having a well-run business, not a goal in itself. Greed leads to all sorts of bad decisions and I’ve known companies to go under because of it.
Tip 2: Figure out your product’s USP
I use the term ‘product’ broadly – meaning whatever you sell.
You have to have a unique selling point (USP), and it can’t just be something vague like ‘the leading web design company’ or ‘we listen to our customers’. It needs to be specific and tangible, like ‘we are the only web design company to offer our customers an online marketing pack – at no extra charge’.
We wanted The Career Break Site to be the only career break site in the UK, but there are a couple of others. So we’ve positioned ourselves as ‘The only independent career break site in the UK’. We can’t rely on always being the only one, but we can make sure we are always the biggest as well as the first.
Tip 3: Get as much free advice as you can
And then filter out what you don’t need. I was inundated with advice when I first set up SugarCat. Some was great, some was rubbish, and much didn’t apply to me or my business. Paradoxically, although part of my job is to offer advice, I also tell people to be wary of it. I think it can be overwhelming to try to listen to everybody.
My dad gave me the best piece of advice when I was setting up – and it’s one of the few that can be applied to any business. He said “Make a good product quickly and sell it quickly.” Everything else will follow naturally.
Tip 4: Do everything well
A rather tall order, but something to aim for. If you strive to do everything properly in your business, you’ll benefit with loyal customers, hard-working staff and great products or services to sell. A refusal to compromise on quality doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to shell out more on supplies, or give your staff everything that a larger organisation can. It means doing the best you can with what you have, owning up to and apologising for your mistakes, and always looking for improvements. Our policy at SugarCat is that we do not use the expression ‘It’ll do’. We want to be able to say ‘Yeah, that’s great!’
Tip 5: Work out what you can and can’t do yourself
This can be quite hard, and is often down to trial and error. Also, it depends on how much money you want to spend on outsourcing things. I discovered fairly early on that it’s a lot harder to spend your own money rather than someone else’s.
When deciding whether or not to outsource, think about the following:
How long has this person been trained to do this task? Does it need 3 years of college or can you do a six-week online course to learn what they know?
How long has this person been doing the job? My designer has 20 years of experience, so even if I could do a job myself, she can still do it better and quicker than me.
Will this person bring something to the job that I can’t? For example, an experienced web editor might write your copy for maximum usability and search engine friendliness, whereas you might just write something acceptable but not wonderful. And, as we mentioned before, a good businessperson aims higher than ‘acceptable’.
Tip 6: Accept that you’re going to be on a steep learning curve
This was quite hard for me, because it means everything takes longer, and that can be frustrating. It also means that, in the beginning, you have to change things a lot – how you structure your invoices, how you organise your work, etc. It all takes time and it’s never a very exciting task.
I went to visit a client who runs his own business and mentioned the fact that I had to learn a lot of things, very quickly, to which he replied “I’ve been running my own business for six years and I’m still learning too.” For example, he was used to dealing with small companies, but then he got some contracts in from large corporations, so had to learn how to deal with them. Because he was willing to learn, rather than just apply the same formula to everyone, he got more business from the large companies.
Tip 7: Take time to think
An American friend of mine introduced me to the term ‘potty prophecy’. It refers to a ‘eureka’ moment – perhaps the solution to a problem, or a great business idea – while you’re on the loo.
Now, I’m not suggesting we all troop off to the bathroom right now, but I am pointing out that we all need a quiet place to think now and then. Whether that’s in the bath, out for a jog, in the cinema or, yes, on the loo, it’s important that you take time out of your day-to-day business so you can think about the bigger picture.
Tip 8: Be honest
Especially with the tax people.
Tip 9: Focus
As your business grows, it can be tempting to forget why you started it and what you’re supposed to be doing. I’ve seen many businesses falter because they forgot what they were good at and started dabbling in areas which they didn’t know enough about. Of course, diversifying, adapting and growing are all part and parcel of developing your business. You just need to make sure you do it in a way and at a speed which complements the core of your business, rather than detracts from it.
Tip 10: Don’t let fear stop you
Fear of failure is a big reason why people put off their dreams of being an entrepreneur. And the odds aren’t good: you may have heard of the often-quoted statistic that 80% of businesses fail in the first five years.
There are two things you can do to counter this. The first is to arm yourself with the knowledge to succeed. Knowing your market, your consumers, how much you should charge, how much you should pay, what your staff want and need – all of these will help you avoid failure.
The other thing is to remember that failure is not the end of the world. You can always start again if you need to, and learn from your mistakes. Nobody thinks Richard Branson is a failure, even though he’s had over 200 failed businesses!
By John Hester