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Why the time is now to #ThinkSelfEmployed

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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. No better week to start the ball rolling that during our #ThinkSelfEmployed campaign launch week. This month we speak to Claire Ferry who runs Maitri Studio based in Belfast…she tells us about her journey.

Background Story…

I graduated with a BA in Natural Sciences from Cambridge back in 1997 and went on to a career in nature conservation, finally settling with the RSPB where I focussed on environmental law and planning policy.

Throughout this time, I was a keen yoga practitioner and trained to be a teacher. In my late 30s after a period of considerable stress due to illness of close family members, I decided to change direction completely and become a freelance yoga teacher. This I did successfully – although taking a hit to the household income, I felt I achieved a better life balance.

So successful in fact that I soon realised I would benefit from having my own premises, and Maitri Studio was born. My husband and I now run this yoga & wellbeing studio in East Belfast, offering a warm welcome with yoga, pilates and a wide range of wellbeing activities for all. 

Why did you join FSB?

Two reasons. I wanted to bank with the Co-operative Bank but they only offered business banking via FSB. And secondly in my previous career I had known someone who worked for another conservation organisation who had moved across to management within FSB – Northern Ireland is a small world! Then when I met the woman from FSB she was so helpful and friendly, and I realised all the other benefits of becoming a member. At that meeting she recommended a great financial advisor who we’ve been with ever since.

Have you used any FSB services so far and how has this experience been/helped your business?

To date only the Co-operative banking, and one phone call for some advice, I think perhaps it was about insurance. I feel there is probably more I could use, from sending in articles to the local magazine to business advice. Like many other business owners, I find myself strapped for time and don’t seem to get the clear space to investigate properly.

One of the main benefits for me is the offer of FSB support should I ever have HMRC look to do a routine investigation of my accounts. While I’m sure they’re all fine (we’ve a lovely accountant), it’s one of those things that I would panic about on a dark night! The knowledge that FSB would be there to help gives peace of mind.

What is the single greatest challenge for any SME at the minute?

I’m not sure how representative of SMEs we are, but for us it’s the level of uncertainty around the economic climate what with various global players and UK-Ireland issues, all with the potential to impact inflation and living costs.

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We tick along at a modest profit, with some but not a huge amount of room for growth given that the price people are prepared to pay for room hire and fitness classes is never going to increase much. If inflation increased and we saw a rise in rates, rent, utilities etc, and at the same time our customers were feeling the squeeze at home and didn’t have the spare cash to come to a yoga class…well you can see it wouldn’t add up well for us.

What are the opportunities and positives for SMEs at the minute?

There is the advantage that yoga and mindfulness are becoming household words and there are many linked stories in the media. This is an opportunity for us to showcase real, in depth practice that goes beyond the social media buzzwords into tools that help people enormously with every day living, including with all the stresses that modern life brings. 

Maitri Studio already has a good reputation, including with local organisations, charities, the council and funders, so we aim to build on those links to help deliver physical and mental wellbeing in the local area and communities. 

We are also starting to branch out into a more diverse range of offerings, including the arts – from dance and life drawing to art exhibitions and music. There is a trend towards local provision of arts as central government funding is squeezed, but it makes us all more inventive and probably decentralises arts away from larger venues to smaller, affordable spaces like ours. 

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?

Probably small business rates relief as having the most immediate and direct affect, with Brexit as the wider concern. Like any small business we live in fear of a rates hike. GDPR was tricky for small businesses but there was at least some useful guidance out there and we believe we are holding and using our client data securely and responsibly. Thankfully we’re city-based and therefore have an excellent broadband supplier (and indeed a choice, therefore price competition), but I’m sure it’s harder in rural areas or for people with less technical and computer know-how and expertise. 

I would love to know more about the breakdown of where our business rates go. It costs extra to have a bin collection, and we pay separately for all utilities including water, so what does that leave? I don’t mind paying if I can see value. As a business we have benefitted from two small grants towards Lifelong Learning and Family Friendly events that we’ve run, which comes via the council, but I don’t know if that money was raised by rates or something else. 

We don’t tend to run contracts so prompt payment has not been an issue for us, and as I mentioned earlier we bank with the Co-operative and all is done conveniently online or through our local post office.

Your words of advice to anyone starting a small business

If you’ve got as far as thinking about starting your own business, it’s like you already have a passion for what you intend to do. That is excellent – don’t lose it! 

At the same time, put some plans in place. Have a ‘worst case scenario’ modelled. Do you know how much you need to earn to pay your household costs? What about the business costs? We found it extremely helpful to observe our monthly accounts and make a realistic estimate of what we needed to live on. 

We also did a business plan, at the time with a short course from Invest NI. That was a very useful experience, focussing our mind about our niche, our market, the competition and so on. And we had a plan B – I realised I could earn extra if necessary even taking a few hours on in a local supermarket, so it took the pressure off thinking I had to make it all via the business. Although in the end, we did!