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Notes from a small business: Making the break


By Guy Browning, a writer, film director, after-dinner speaker and author of Never Hit a Jellyfish With a Spade

There are few things as invigorating as taking the step to becoming your own boss. 

All you know is that life will never be quite the same again.

I remember exactly where I was. I was sitting on a park bench by myself. It was a sunny day in May and I was just far enough from the office that I wouldn’t bump into anybody on their lunch break. And that was where it happened. I decided on that bench that I was going to go into business by myself, for myself and with myself. 

The other thing I remember clearly was the price of baked beans. It was 1997 and the price of baked beans was 18p a can. The reason that sticks in my mind is because when I was sitting on that park bench the only thing I had with me was a little notebook and a pen (and my sandwiches, although they were probably gone by that stage). On the first page of that notebook I wrote down the absolute minimum amount I could live on without a nice regular pay cheque. Hence the baked beans. 

Making that initial decision to go it alone was intensely liberating. When you go back to your office you’re suddenly immune to all the normal stresses and strains because you know you’re leaving. The danger then is that you become so happy and likeable and carefree that they give you a great new job with a snazzy company car and then you’re really in trouble. 

To be honest, you don’t need to worry too much about this happening because one of the main reasons people set up on their own is that they can’t stand working in an office any longer, they can’t take any more ‘management’ from their fat-headed boss and they never want another conference call/team meeting/360-degree appraisal for as long as they live, possibly longer. 

Thinking back, there was an equally important moment of liberation before the park bench and that was during one of those endless buttock-numbing, soul-destroying meetings. My boss at the time was a cross between Ed Sheeran and the Hulk: difficult to picture, I know, but imagine that in the flesh with a very poor attitude thrown in. Anyway, he’d once again done something of lizard-like lowness. So in my head I sacked him. I thought: ‘That’s it, your part in my life is over. Why don’t you just go back to your cubicle and carry on with whatever the hell it is you do in there because I’m out of here. For ever.’ 

This was followed by a moment of extraordinary maturity, never to be repeated. I decided not to flounce out in a huff but to plan my exit for when it suited me. That in itself was probably a good indication that I was mature enough to run my own business. Obviously, my exit wasn’t just a matter of removing ten tonnes of stationery, pot plants and office furniture from the old office; it was thinking about where my first customers were going to come from. 

Once you’ve had your I’ve-got-to-leave moment and your I’m-setting-up-a-business moment, there comes another moment, possibly the most beautiful. It’s the first somebody-actually-paying-you-for-doing-something moment. Yes, paying you directly!

Into your bank account! With your name on it! You can stare lovingly at that credit line on your bank statement for hours, if not days. But then you have to go out and do it again.

And again. And again. Except now it’s your business so everything’s just fine. Apart from the staff canteen, which is now decidedly baked bean tin-shaped. 

I’ve worked for, with and by myself for 20 years now and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m in the same boat as florists, designers, plumbers, bookkeepers and, er, boatbuilders. We may be one-man bands and one-woman choirs but we’re all going through the same thing. Next time I will look at the worst part of being self-employed: the boss.