Guest post: Top 6 tips for starting your own business
Alex Ritchie decided to fling herself into entrepreneurship after being made redundant in 2011. She now runs her own successful consultancy firm, and recently appeared at Mumsnet's WorkFest to advise on starting a business. Here, she shares some of her top tips - add yours on the thread below.
Business consultant and author
Posted on: Thu 03-Jul-14 12:21:12
(6 comments )
My first plunge into real-life entrepreneurship began in January 2011, after I received the dreaded redundancy letter as an unwanted Christmas gift. After the initial shock and worry, I decided I could re-frame this situation into something more positive. Rather than telling people I was unemployed or ‘between jobs’, I initially became self-employed as a consultant - I had been working on supporting entrepreneurs and business start-ups and realised that many of my skills and experiences could be transferred, along with my contacts. But I soon learnt that, even though ‘consultant’ might sound better when networking or meeting new people than ‘unemployed’, it doesn’t quite match the security that comes with a monthly salary. I needed to bring in some business, and quickly.
Starting out in business can be lonely and intimidating - even if theoretically, like me, you know what you should be doing. You’re moving into a world where the buck stops with you, and your skills really have to stand up to the test and work for you. I’ve never been the greatest salesperson (although I’ve hugely improved in the last few years!) but when it came to selling myself and my own services, it was ten times harder. At this point, I was single, so had no dependents to worry about providing for - but it still meant that the mortgage and bills were solely down to me, and that in itself filled me with a great fear of failure.
Up to this point, I was used to working in teams and managing people. Now, I had no one to bounce ideas off or support me, which took some time to get used to. It certainly can be a lonely place to be when you’re sitting at your kitchen table at midnight wondering whether your latest idea will sell, or trying to figure out which profit and loss template is the easiest to use.
For me, it's crucial to have people to talk to who understand what you're going through. They may have different types of businesses or be at different stages, but they know what it's like to be in your position and face tricky situations, like waiting for clients to pay invoices before you can pay staff - let alone yourself. You need people who will remind you why you're doing this.
The first step was to network like crazy - I arranged meetings with old contacts and took on a pro-bono project to keep me busy and start building my client portfolio. It was hard work. At times, I found it difficult to remain motivated and focussed but, within a couple of months, I’d bought in my first contract and secured free desk space in a busy office for myself and an ex-colleague in the same situation. It felt good to be back in an office environment - and this time, on my terms.
I love running my own business because, strange as it may sound, I feel it gives me more control over my future, my potential earnings and my working life - and if any of you are thinking about it, here are some of my top tips:
1. Be flexible, especially in the first few months. Your great idea hasn’t yet been tried and tested, so accept that clients may want something slightly different and be willing to adjust. You need to be pretty resilient too, as you’ll have to deal with knock backs and disappointments without taking it personally.
2. Research your market place. Think about your prospective customers: who are they and where are they? Can you do some market research with this audience? Maybe use social media, local networking events, or be prepared to ask questions on the street or door to door.
3. Reach out to other people. Early on in the business, we won a big contract that gave me lots of sleepless nights and self-doubt. I really relied on other entrepreneurs and business professionals in my network as mentors and sounding boards. For me, it’s crucial to have people to talk to who understand what you’re going through. They may have different types of businesses or be at different stages, but they know what it’s like to be in your position and face tricky situations, like waiting for clients to pay invoices before you can pay staff - let alone yourself. You need people who will remind you why you’re doing this.
4. Build your social capital. Make sure you always join relevant and useful local business networks, women’s networks, online business forums and industry sector networks. Talk to everyone you know in the world of business and work in order to build up your social capital.
5. Develop a client base as quickly as possible. This is more relevant if you are running a service-based business. Offer to do some pieces of work for free, at a reduced rate, or in return for much needed advice and services, or referrals and recommendations.
6. Seek out a professional. Don’t expect to be able to do everything yourself, especially if it really isn't your skillset. A good accountant can be worth their weight in gold - and you might consider a bookkeeper, business coach or mentor from time to time, to guide you through certain aspects of the business. Good luck!
Starting a Business in 7 Simple Steps, by Alex Ritchie and Natalie Campbell, is out now and published by Collins
By Alex Ritchie
I'm a children's storyteller, and an author. I set up my business in 2012 and it's doing well. Tips I have:
Keep on top of filing/invoices/accounts regularly, it's a lot easier than letting it mount up.
Write a decent set of Terms and Conditions, and put them at the end of all invoices. You can always (generously) offer customers more lenient terms, but it gives you legal backing if you need to enforce terms for e.g. Late payers or non-payers.
Take an hour or so a week away from the day-to-day business to focus on the bigger picture. Which aspects of the business work well? What needs tweaking? What are you doing to ensure repeat and new business, and how can the business grow and change in response to current and emerging markets?
Keep on top of social media streams. A strong online presence is invaluable these days, and in most cases, this only need cost you time (proviso: keep this time limited, otherwise you could end up with lots of banter but no product)
My advice would be to keep a notebook on you at all times, and use it to jot down ideas, useful names and addresses, websites, scribbled drawings, sketches of possible new products, quotes that you hear people say etc etc. I have done this all 16 years I have been self employed and still find useful stuff in these books even a decade after I wrote it!
I'd be interested to hear people's opinions on point 4 above. I'm at the point of juggling my business with small children, and the only convenient networking groups (ie not stupid o'clock in the morning or evenings at bedtime) seem to be 'women's business networks'. The majority of members seem to be either pyramid sellers - Utility Warehouse, Forever Living etc., alternative therapists to varying degrees of woo-ness, weight loss experts, knitting/sewing/cakemaking, and various other women focused enterprises. All very lovely to chat with over tea and cakes, but useless when it comes to bringing in business. Are they worth persevering with, or should I forget structured networking until the children are older? Any tips for getting business from these type of situations?
Great advice! I started my jewellery business, AccessoriesOnline.co.uk with £50 ten years ago now (I'm just writing a blog on how it all started, funnily enough). It's one of the most hair-raising and stressful things I've done in my life, but as a whole I love being my own boss (too stubborn to work for anybody anyway).
My advice: be tough. It's hard to be tough all the time, but sometimes in business you have to stand up for yourself - there's nobody else to do it for you. You grow a thick skin in time.
Wishing you lots of future success!
Velvet, I've found a surfeit of woo-peddlers and crafters at women's networking groups, the best groups I've joined have been either online (I'm in a MN spinoff FB group for entrepreneurs) or a business group my friend set up to promote local business. What they have in common is that a) they're free, and b) they are not about "you buy my stuff, I'll buy yours", instead they offer practical support for business development.
If you can't find a group like that, set one up!
I learned about Ts & Cs, social media marketing, finance, and branding through my local group, and I'm learning a lot about finding new markets and converting enquiries into customers through the FB group.
My advice is not to get sucked into paying money you can't afford to people you don't like for advice you could do without.
More and more networking groups these days are free, especially the online ones.
Fabulous to see the additional tips! Thanks all.
Velvet I'm not sure where your based but you could try your local chambers of commerce or enterprise agency. Some are better than others but many run networking opportunities during the day.
The suggestion about online networks from IMST is also a good one. I was involved in the original development of www.virginmediapioneers.com which uses video blogging and offers users peer support and other online and face-to-face opportunities. I'm sure there are many others out there. Good luck!
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