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FSB Case Study: Kate McKay of AKU Training

We want to give our members here in Northern Ireland a platform for telling us all about their experiences as an SME in NI and their reasons for being a member of the FSB. Following the success of the #ThinkSelfEmployed campaign last July we are delighted to get the “Small Business” story from a member’s perspective. This month we speak to Kate McKay of AKU Training LTD that provides practical, engaging and practitioner-led training in Belfast, Ireland, UK and further afield – here is her FSB & Small Business story…

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Background Story…
I’m a qualified marketer and a Learning and Development (L&D) professional. In the past I’ve worked in a number of marketing roles in the UK in software, PR, health and finance sectors.

Having always had a passion for L&D, I began training in 1995 delivering evening IT courses. I quickly realised that there was more to training than met the eye when I found myself in front of a very inexperienced audience who referred to their mouse as a “gerbil” … and so it began.  

Thoroughly enjoying the challenge of training, I went on to study with CIPD and developed my CIPFA role to design and deliver communications courses across the UK.I also took on an Associate role to deliver CIM’s Professional Qualification locally and part-time lecturing with Ulster University.

In 2013, I took the leap from employment to self-employed and established AKU Training with co-Director Alyson McNutt. We now provide practical-skills based courses across NI and beyond in Professional Development, Finance, IT, HR, Marketing and Project Management.   

With a team of 28 associates that bring years of experience and expertise, we have developed a reputation for quality and reliability in the marketplace. This has led to quick, phenomenal growth and we are delighted that AKU is now one of the leading local training providers.

Why did you join FSB?
As we started to grow very quickly, we realised that we needed protection, support and guidance to ensure that we undertook all our responsibilities in terms of the ‘red tape’ that small businesses need to comply with.

The benefits of FSB were very clear to us and having joined as members we have peace of mind that we have access to such a wide range of information, advice and guidance.  We felt that a number of benefits were key:

1. The legal and tax investigation protection and advice

2. Access to templates and guidance to help us comply with GDPR

3. Access to a cost-effective workplace pension scheme

4. Networking opportunities to help us grow.

We’re glad to say that we haven’t needed any legal or tax investigation protection, but it gives us peace of mind that it’s there if we need it.  

Have you used any FSB services so far and how has this experience been/helped your business?
The FSB workplace pension scheme has provided us with a cost effective solution through its partnership with Legal and General. It has given us a simple way to meet the legal requirement with an easy to access and manageable scheme. This has really saved us time in investigating schemes and enabled us to focus on growing the business. 

The legal helpline and hub have given us access to advice and key documents/templates to meet our GDPR requirements at very little expense.

We recently entered for the FSB awards and were delighted to be finalists in the Micro Business of the Year category in NI. This has given us a great opportunity to raise our profile with a much wider audience across the UK.  We were delighted to be awarded Highly Commended in this category at the awards in early March.

What is the single greatest challenge for any SME at the minute? 
The greatest challenge for any SME right now is the lack of certainty and direction both at a national level with Brexit and at local level without a functioning Assembly.  

Local businesses like ours are trading as best we can, but we are nervous and don’t have a great deal of positivity for the future just now.  

Our challenge is that we are making decisions to invest in premises, staff and systems that are badly needed to support and sustain the growth of our business.  However, it’s daunting to make decisions that could hugely impact our future when we are in limbo and very unsure of what’s around the corner.  

These two issues are really stifling business growth and prosperity for small businesses as it makes planning with any degree of certainty impossible.  

What are the opportunities and positives for SMEs at the minute? 
The opportunities and positives for SMEs just now are that we are operating in a much healthier economic climate and that’s good for everyone.  

We first launched AKU Training at the tail end of the recession and business was tough.

Similar to many other industries, our services are easy to cut and first to go when purse strings are tight.  That’s all changed and our economy is now healthier.  

As such, businesses have the opportunity to grow again, invest in their development and seek new opportunities both in existing markets but also export.  

FSB key campaign issues at the minute include: Brexit, Small Business Rates Relief, GDPR, Prompt Payment, local Bank Branch Closures, Broadband.  Which is most important to you and your business at present and why? 

The most important of the campaign issues to us at AKU training at the minute is the small business rates relief.

With the aim of sourcing premises to include our own training facility we are finding that rates are a huge problem in enabling small businesses to move to the next stage. 

We have sourced and identified a number of options for premises which are costly, but achievable.  When we consider the rates element it actually makes most of the options unaffordable and unachievable.  Rates alone in some of the premises equate to half of the annual lease cost and up to £13k in some locations for just one floor in a building.
If it wasn’t for rates we would have established ourselves in an excellent location more than a year ago with our own training facility.  However, this issue is holding back our development, potential growth and expansion significantly. 

In the current scheme the small business relief rates are based on the Net Annual Value of the business property but the limits set for relief are too low compared to the cost of premises. There is also a huge question as to whether the existing scheme will continue after the extended period at the end of March 2019.

Your words of advice to anyone starting a small business? 
Start small and put realistic expectations on yourself.  Growing slowly and steadily as a small business in a managed way is definitely best. 

It’s amazing just how much work you have to do as a business owner: as well as growing and managing the business you are quite often working in the business.  It’s important to take time out as the business grows to analyse what is working well and what areas need attention and development to keep up with growth and give your business scalability without relying on yourself.

Build a network of people around you that you can talk to and get support.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep going as a business owner and having other experienced business owners to chat to and get advice is key. If they’re running their own business they’ve probably done it, seen it and got the t-shirt.  A coffee or chat with the right person can save you a lot of time, money and worry.

I’ve found that the business owners that I’ve got to know in my network have helped me turn confusion into clarity, see the bigger picture and given me contacts for others who can help to build the business in a profitable and good way.  They’re also a great sanity check and a soundboard for ideas or issues and are always happy to give time to talk things through.

Most of all, celebrate your successes and never be afraid to walk away if it’s not working.