The dream of being your own boss, working from the sofa, and clocking on and off when you choose is alluring, but setting up and running your own business takes more than a good idea, a clever name and a bank loan.
More businesses fail in the first year than at any other time, so it’s vital to build a solid foundation. Here, business advisors and entrepreneurs outline the top 10 things to focus on during those crucial first 12 months, if you want to make, not break, your enterprise.
When you start a business, you’re the boss – and you need to make sure you’re the right person for the job. “Get a deep understanding of your reasons for starting a business,” advises Lee Sharma, Chief Executive of Simply Do Ideas, which helps people turn raw ideas into reality. “Evaluate if you are a ‘good fit’ for the business – would you recruit you as the CEO?”
“It’s all about goal-setting,” says Dorian Payne, Director, PF Homes, who set up his first business at 16. “Think how many transactions you want to do and how much money you want to make. Without goals, you don’t know where you stand.”
Don’t plan in isolation, though. “You need someone – a relative, bank manager, accountant – to sense-check what you put down,” says Mr Lamont. “Is it reasonable, achievable, is there a market, what are other people doing, where might the financial pitfalls be, where will you find working capital?”
“Customer research is the most important thing,” says Anne Griffiths, Head of SME Proposition at Zurich insurers. “Individuals get blinded by belief in their product. Carry out market research and focus groups. Understand the customer base, how they spend, the elasticity of pricing. Are you clear on sales strategy and contract strategy? How are you going to take it to market?”
Before you make the leap, get the backbone of your business in place. “Make the most of your lead-in time,” says Alun Bevan, Director of Dragon Business Consultancy. “Put aside time to put everything in place, such as setting up a limited company with Companies House, getting VAT-registered, and setting up the right bank accounts.”
Think about the structure of your business, too. Will you be a sole trader or do you need a limited company? “From a tax perspective, unless you’re making £60,000, you’re better off being a sole trader,” says Mr Lamont. “Also the date you start is important. If you’re going to have initial losses, you’re better off starting in November or December, so you can set them off against PAYE for that tax year.”
A strong network is key to success. “Surround yourself with people who inspire you and have strengths where your weaknesses are,” advises Dawn Evans, Director of Ajuda Training Services. “Get yourself a mentor. When you’re the boss, you’ve got no one to give you direction. You need a sounding board, someone to signpost you to areas you need to explore. People make the mistake of locking themselves in a room and trying to do it all themselves.”
Associate with your peers as well as your personal network. “Find a networking event that suits you,” says Mr Bevan. “I’m not the world’s best networker, but find the FSB events are at a suitable time, local, and cover a range of industries. It fits with the budget, scale, and type of people I want to speak to. Pick brains: people are willing to help, even if they’re direct competitors.”
Your business can’t do without you. Be realistic about what you personally can achieve, and protect yourself from burnout. “There’s a start-up culture of people being egotistical, with lots of bluster, saying they’re doing well when they’re struggling,” warns Mr Sharma.
It’s easier to keep going when you’re having fun. “It can be hard work, and you have to work on it all the time, but enjoy it as much as you can,” advises Mr Bevan. “It’s put a smile back on my face, and that comes across to clients.”
From the outset, you need to manage cash flow and mitigate potential shortfalls, especially if you’re starting with limited funds. “There’s a difference between making money and cash flow,” warns Mr Lamont. “You can get lots of contracts, but if you don’t get paid for two to three months, how do you fund the business? A financial forecast is vital.”
You also need to ensure you take steps to prevent your new business from falling victim to crime. Cybercrime is an increasing threat – a report published by FSB in 2016 found 66 per cent of small firms have been victims of a cyber attack, at an average cost of £3,000. FSB membership now includes cyber insurance as standard; visit fsb.org.uk/benefits for more information.
“Even after 10 years, I don’t believe I know everything,” admits Ms Evans. “There’s so much to learn – you need to continue to educate yourself. I’m always buying books, watching webinars, learning about entrepreneurial traits.”
For members looking to continue their professional development, there’s a course created by Mark Wearden, Senior Lecturer in Corporate Finance and Corporate Governance at Lincoln International Business School, in association with FSB.
“FSB approached Lincoln University because it wanted something to help small businesses develop,” says Mr Wearden. “It had to be different from the standard workshops – they’re a nice idea, but if you’re running a business you don’t have time to spend half a day in a classroom listening to other people.”
The fully funded course, Sustaining Self-Employment, is split into two phases, The Start-Up Business and The Growing Business, with 24 15-minute online sessions plus self-assessment activities. “It’s lively, practical and not academic,” says Mr Wearden.
For more information, visit lincoln.ac.uk/home/lbs/ and click on ‘courses’ under Services for Business.
A wealth of free factsheets and more than 500 legal documents are available for FSB members to access. Visit fsb.org.uk/benefits and select Online Legal Documents.
“Don’t be scared to step out of your comfort zone,” says Ms Evans. “The business doesn’t grow when you’re comfortable. I’ve won a lot of business through public speaking, which is not something I’m happy doing. I booked into a public speaking academy, and learnt about posture, tone, how to tell a story.”
Failure is also unpleasant, but important. “Starting a business is a rollercoaster with constant ups and downs. You learn from every experience,” says Mr Sharma.
You will always make mistakes, adds Mr Payne, but don’t be discouraged: “I always had the feeling I was meant to be an entrepreneur. It keeps me going. Whatever you demand from life, it’ll eventually give in and give to you.”
Choose your premises carefully. “Start small – don’t get ahead of yourself,” says Ms Griffiths. “Think about what suits your needs. If the kitchen table is the right place, save the money.”
Also, consider the longevity of your location. “Our first offices were rented off a local authority, which decided to turn it into a work hub,” says Ms Evans. “All our clients knew where we were, but we had to up sticks and move. It was traumatic, but I learnt from that and bought the new centre. No one can kick us out because we own it.”