The motivations for starting a business can vary from a desire to make money to juggling work with other commitments. The trick for owners is to adapt to the realities of running a business without losing sight of the original aim, says David Adams.
What is a business really for? People start businesses for many different reasons, but many founders simply share a desire to change the way they work and live.
Darren Fell is founder and CEO of online accounting service Crunch, and before that of email marketing software company Pure. Prior to that, he worked for a telecommunications company, where he says he felt “stuck in a corporate that didn’t listen to new ideas”. This drove him to start working on Pure in his spare time, and eventually to leave a well-paid job “so I could express my creativity”.
His experience of running Pure inspired the creation of Crunch, which is designed to help small business owners better manage their tax and accounting function. Mr Fell says his aim was, at least in part, to help other people do what he had done when becoming an entrepreneur: “to stop doing things they hate, so they can do things they love”.
Of course, the desire to make money is also often an important motivation. “The aim of making a lot of money is a perfectly valid reason to start a business, but is not in itself a recipe for building a great business,” says Jenny Tooth, Chief Executive of the UK Business Angels Association (UKBAA).
Entrepreneurs must have a coherent vision for the business, she says, particularly if they are seeking investment. “I want to know why the entrepreneur has set up the business,” she says. “That personal journey or story is incredibly important. You need a
rationale behind the business.”
A mission, some kind of end-goal, helps a founder get the business off the ground, to win support from investors and to persevere when things go wrong. The trouble is, once a business starts to grow and the owner or managers have to deal with the stresses
and complexities of running the company day to day, it can be very difficult to maintain a view of that mission.
But it is particularly important to do so during early growth phases, says Anu Khanna, business coach and franchise partner at ActionCoach, formerly a senior manager at both IKEA and General Motors. “Most business owners have a dream they want to fulfil, but then they get lost, because of the enormity of what they’re doing,” she says.
“Very few break through to understanding that there are more sophisticated ways to grow.”
One problem is recruitment – problems often arise when the owner or managers simply hire the first person they find, without thinking carefully about whether they have found someone who will help the business work towards its long-term goals and initial vision.
“You need the right people in the right place at the right time,” says Ms Khanna. “Then the business starts to grow.”
A founder will also need to alter or adapt their strategy at times. Sometimes, change is forced on them by market forces, other external events or sometimes simply because it takes longer than they had expected to bring a product to market. “The biggest challenge, as a business owner, is to have a flexible mindset, so you can adapt to changes rather than being overwhelmed by them,” says Ms Tooth. “That’s generally the difference between a business that succeeds and one that fails.”
Many successful entrepreneurs that do turn an idea into a successful business have done so because they are able to maintain that focus on the vision, even when they have to adjust and pivot to continue to work towards it. Whether or not they become rich, working towards that mission can be hugely rewarding.
“Most entrepreneurs are in it to make money, but also to achieve personal satisfaction around what they’re doing and what they have achieved,” says Ms Tooth. If you’ve not reached that point yet, hopefully that day will come – as it may for the organisations profiled here, all still trying to keep working towards that end-goal for their business, their employees and themselves.
Eight years ago, while taking a career break after 15 years as a secondary school teacher, Bini Ludlow was feeling uncertain as to what she should do next when her friend Hannah came round for a cup of tea.
“She said, ‘You cook amazing Indian food and everyone wants to learn how to cook it’,” she recalls. She had been taught traditional Gujarati cooking skills by her mother when growing up in Bradford. It became apparent that no one else was running Indian food cookery courses anywhere near her home in the Somerset countryside and she realised there could be a demand for learning those skills.
The Sweet Cumin Cookery School was established in 2011 and was an immediate success. Another friend then inspired the creation of a second business, because she wanted to eat the food but didn’t want to have to cook it from scratch.
Ms Ludlow set up Bini Fine Foods, creating a line of ready-meals now supplied to a growing range of outlets across southern England. She continues to run the cookery school as a sole trader, but the ready meals business employs a chef. Both businesses have since won multiple awards.
“Why do I do it?” she asks herself.
“I want to feel that my classes and the food are valued – and I think they are.”
Liv Conlon, founder and CEO of Glasgow-based The Property Stagers, and winner of FSB Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2019, always thought she might want to run her own business. “My mum was self-employed, so I’d seen her being able to control
her own schedule and I liked the look of that,” she says.
She was a schoolgirl entrepreneur, importing nail foils in bulk from China and then selling them on eBay, but found a highly successful outlet for her entrepreneurial instincts by accident, during her final year at school. Her mum, Ali, was trying to sell an unfurnished flat let previously to tenants. After three months, no offers had been received.
Ms Conlon then had the idea of ‘staging’ it: buying furniture, ornaments and other decorative items to furnish it. Once staged, the flat sold within three days. “The person that bought it paid over the asking price and bought all the furniture too,” she says. “I felt like I was onto something.”
Five years on, she has built a business with a seven-figure turnover that stages about 300 properties per year, throughout the UK, from £50,000 apartments to £2 million mansions. The company employs 10 people in a mix of full-time, part-time and contracting roles.
“I think when I first started, the most important thing was to be able to control my own working life, but it’s become a dream job, because it’s something I have a passion for,” says Ms Conlon.
Adam Bradford’s involvement in business began while he was still at school. “There was always this feeling, throughout my academic life, that I didn’t quite fit in,” he says. “None of the careers that were presented to me sounded very exciting.”
The turning point was an entrepreneurship competition organised by the local council when he was 14. Mr Bradford and several friends had taught themselves some IT skills and developed software that made using IT in schools more interesting and inspiring.
They won the competition two years in a row, and their technology was adopted by schools across the county and beyond.
The experience convinced Mr Bradford that he should start his own business instead of going to university and spending years working his way through
a corporate hierarchy.
Today, Adam Bradford Associates seeks to advance social change through consultancy and other services, particularly in the social sector, addressing issues including youth unemployment, disability rights, homelessness and poverty. He also campaigns to help combat problems related to gambling.
In part, this commitment to improving society and helping clients who face challenges is influenced by his own experience, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a young man.
“Having been through the bullying, stigma and trauma that the diagnosis can bring, it’s something that has helped me to have some tenacity,” he says. “A lot of the work we do touches on the need to challenge perceptions and stereotypes.” In particular, he suggests, it has informed the way the company helps clients with disabilities.
Kate Davies was working as a history lecturer at Newcastle University, when she suffered a stroke in 2010. Recovery was very difficult and the physical problems she experienced, which affected her mobility and her hearing, led her to decide not to return to her former job.
Instead, while recovering, she started sharing her own knitting designs with other people via knitting social network Ravelry. “That enabled me to set up a business selling the patterns online,” she says. “I suddenly started making a reasonable income from a business that didn’t really have any overheads: it was just me, a computer and a knitting needle.”
In 2012 she put some of the profits from the business into publishing a book, Colours of Shetland, which told the story of the islands’ knitting heritage and included knitting patterns. The Edinburgh-based business has since expanded to sell finished knitwear as well as patterns, yarn and more books, to customers all over the world. It now employs six people, including Ms Davies and her husband Tom Barr.
“I feel that we’re big enough,” says Ms Davies. “We are able to be sustainable by making the margin we do selling direct to customers.
That supports six salaries and all of us being happy. I think it’s important that you’re enjoying it.
“My passion for knitting is how this began and that’s still at the heart of it. And our work is now enjoyed by people all over the world, which is wonderful.”