This week, by popular demand and to end the ‘Starting something new’ theme for April, I’m going to share some hints and tips from my own experience of leaving the security of a salaried job and starting my own business.
Many people that I know or meet, harbour some kind of interest in starting a business or working for themselves but, often, either haven’t concluded on exactly what it is they’d like to do or, quite rightly, have significant concerns about losing the security of the guaranteed monthly paycheque and other benefits of being an employee.
For some people, based on their strengths/preferences/ideas/timing/life circumstances, it’s the right thing to stay employed. For others, like me a few years ago, not only was corporate salaried life not the work that was going to bring me fulfilment, there was also an undeniable pull to do things differently and I was lucky enough that my circumstances lined up to make it possible.
There are a couple of health warnings I feel that I need to give at this point, particularly for those who might be on the brink of ‘going it alone’:
1) (whether you consider this to be a fortunate thing or not) I have no dependents and, therefore, was able to take more of a financial risk than someone with kids, a partner to support or a big mortgage;
2) I’m not particularly motivated by money and was more than willing to flex my lifestyle in order to be able to cope with a significant drop in income;
3) I am a one (wo)man band and what I sell is, essentially, my own time – therefore the planning and execution of my business is very simple compared to many. (The info I’ve shared below is most relevant to those considering a similar style/size of business.)
Even with these, somewhat unique, circumstances it took me somewhere between 6 months and 5 years (depending on which way you look at it) to get to the point where I was able to resign to start my own business – so I know very well that it’s not an easy decision to make.
Hopefully some of the information below will help you to explore the ideas that you have, manage the risks and not necessarily be put off by some of the unknowns.
What are the answers? (Or even, what are the questions?)
If I’m brutally honest, I had my first serious thoughts about leaving the corporate world some time in 2010.
I realised I had to do it in September 2013.
But I didn’t get around to doing it until March 2014.
Some of that time was spent experiencing, considering and working through important things. But much of it was spent procrastinating, getting stuck on the ‘what if’s’, talking to and getting lots of differing opinions from others (which heightened my confusion) and waiting for someone to tell me that it was 100% the right thing to do, that it/I was going to be ‘successful’ and that I was going to love this new job/life.
Did I get all the answers that I originally thought I needed, before I resigned? Absolutely not.
It turned out that the critical questions that I needed to work through were:
- Will I become destitute and homeless if I do this? No.
- Do I really have anything to lose (considering I hadn’t found prolonged satisfaction in work for several years)? No.
- Do I believe that I have a good idea which both meets a need and plays to some of my strengths? Yes.
- By getting opinions from all and sundry am I tuning into my own internal compass of values and priorities? No.
- Will anyone ever be able to tell me with 100% certainty that this is the right thing to do? No.
- Do I want to do nothing and still be working in this type of job in 1/2/5/10/20 years time? ABSO-BLOOMIN-LUTELY NOT.
- Can I give myself permission to try it for a year and see what happens? Yes.
It was one evening in March 2014, when I was reading an article not too dissimilar to this one, that these questions and answers became clear and I knew what it was that I had to do the next day.
I resigned. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to do it, not even my mother. I was extremely scared – before, during and after. But I ‘felt the fear and did it anyway’ because, at that point, I knew it was the right thing to do in spite of the risks.
So, if you’re currently in the ‘stuck’ phase of making this decision then I’d encourage you to make your own list of critical questions to work through, which could include the following:
- What are the financial implications and consequences?
- Are you willing to change your lifestyle and financial needs to make this possible? If so, by how much?
- What do you have to lose? And are these things important to you?
- For how much longer will the current situation remain tenable before it has an impact on your well-being?
- Do you have a business idea which meets a need and which plays to some of your strengths?
- Is there opportunity for a ‘phased plan’ e.g. stay in your current job while you retrain or start building a business?
- Can you give yourself permission to try it for a period and then re-evaluate?
- Is ‘doing nothing’ an option?
To business plan or not to business plan?
I am an economist by education and an accountant by trade.
Therefore you may expect that I’d have felt the need to thrash the hell out of some spreadsheets and develop a very thorough business plan before deciding to resign.
When I started my business I’m not even sure that I’d done the maths to guesstimate how much I was likely to earn. That felt irrelevant to me at the time – it was definitely going to be a lot less than I had been earning and it was hopefully going to be more than zero.
My reason for wanting to be self-employed was far more emotional than practical. I knew I wanted to do something different and I knew that I wanted to help other people. And that was enough to know that I just had to give it a go.
Another reason for not getting into business planning was that, until I actually started running my business, I really didn’t know what it was going to look and feel like. That felt scary at the time but I now know that, as a result, I’ve been far more open to opportunity than I would have been if I’d been attached to a defined plan.
Businesses which require significant personal or external capital investment or where there’s complexity in the revenue stream or cost base, definitely need to go through a business planning exercise. My point is that, to me, there was no point in getting hung up on doing it for the sake of it when it wasn’t going to influence my decision at that point in time.
[FYI – to assure the risk averse accountants that will be reading this, 18 months into the business, I do now have a business plan and strategy (of sorts).]
How narrow do you go?
As mentioned above, I feel that my business has really benefited from not getting too specific or rigid too soon.
For the first year of it’s existence, I found it really difficult to explain to people what The Mental Movement is or does. Not at all ideal and not something I would really recommend.
But, by not nailing it down too soon, it gave me the opportunity to have lots of different experiences, to work with lots of different people and to understand better what I enjoyed and what I was good at.
I believe this process has now put the business in a great position and enables me to clearly explain what I do from a position of experience, backed up by real examples and from a place of genuine passion.
Now that I know what I want my work to look and feel like, I have made those more detailed plans and become much more targeted in what I’m doing, which seems to be having a great impact and, perhaps more importantly, feels really satisfying.
With a small business like mine, my dad’s favourite saying of ‘keep it simple stupid’ is probably the best advice to follow.
However, I’m quite into design so was always going to want to spend quite a bit of time developing my own ideas and wanted to feel really good about the end product.
I did have some help though from a lovely person that I found through People Per Hour. I published a short brief for my logo design, various people from around the world responded, I had a quick look at their portfolios and decided to work with Hannah (yes, there was probably some bias towards the name!).
On PPH you can either set a fixed price or give a rate per hour – I offered a fixed price of £40 for the job and, over the course of a week, Hannah came up with and then refined some ideas until I was happy at which point she handed it back to me for some final tinkering.
A very positive experience from my end.
One piece of advice on this one – make sure you end up with the logo in all the different formats, sizes, colours, versions that you think you might need. I tinkered about with mine in Adobe Illustrator (on a 3 month free trial) to come up with lots of different options which has proved really useful.
Re branded materials – I’ve only done some business cards, flyers and posters through a site called Zazzle which was cheap and simple, perfect for a first attempt.
My advice on this is straight forward.
If you’re cash rich and time poor, get someone else to do it for you. If you’re time rich and cash poor then have a go at doing it yourself.
I built my website myself using WordPress because I was curious to understand how it worked, I knew I would be quite fussy about the look and feel and I wanted to have the autonomy to update and ‘fix’ it when I needed to without the reliance on someone else.
I think self-administered websites have improved loads in their functionality in the last year or so and I’ve heard good things about SquareSpace and Wix.
To start your own website or blog, you need to do three things: buy the domain name from a web hosting company (mine is GoDaddy), choose and sign up for a content management system (e.g. WordPress) and choose a template (mine was from Theme Forest). I had to get some help to link my domain name to my WordPress site (huge thank you to Rob Jones) but I did the rest on my own.
It wasn’t easy. It took ages. But I quite enjoyed it.
There are bits of my site which are very easy and intuitive to update but there are other things which most definitely aren’t and where I’ve had to use the trusted method of trial and error to change some of the background code (do this at your peril!).
If you want some help then, again, I’d take a look on People Per Hour.
Accounting & tax
I spent three, really tough, years qualifying to be a Chartered Accountant.
But, because I worked for a huge firm that worked with huge clients, I had no idea how to set up or do the accounts for a small business!
The most useful piece of guidance that I was given (however, I’d suggest that you corroborate this )…..
- Set up as a Limited Company (Ltd) and pay corporation tax if:
- you’d be a higher rate tax payer for personal income tax as a result of your business income plus any other sources of income e.g. investment, property or;
- you’ll need to charge/claim back VAT (main criteria is revenue over £83k) or;
- you plan to employ other people in the near future.
- If none of the above apply then you should operate as a self-employed individual and continue to pay personal income tax – it’s less hassle in terms of accounting and should be more tax efficient.
So, I don’t have my own company. When I left Deloitte I informed HMRC and then when I launched the business (i.e. income started coming in) I registered with them as self-employed and was also able to apply for an exemption from National Insurance Contributions for my first tax year.
I keep very simple records of my income and my costs in a spreadsheet and am then required to input a summary of this information into an annual tax return and pay according to their deadlines. HMRC provide some useful guidance around expense calculations e.g. estimate of costs of working from home, using a car for business purposes etc.
Doing my accounts and completing a self-employed tax return have been far easier than I expected.
But, and this is quite a big but…..my experience has been that when you register as self-employed and/or complete your first tax return, this can trigger investigation into your historic tax affairs (I was then asked to complete returns for the previous 3 years in which all of my income had been PAYE) and, of course, this can result in errors being uncovered (like having been on the wrong tax code) and that either that you owe them more money or they owe you. This bit is a royal pain in the butt but I haven’t heard of a way around, just be prepared.
This section is quite specific to the kind of work that I do.
I have professional indemnity and public liability insurance.
The former is to cover me for actions that my clients may take and consequences that may ensue as a result of the conversations that we’ve had and the ‘advice’ that I’ve offered. I would say that this is absolutely necessary in my line of work and costs around £200 per year.
The latter is to cover me for damage that may be done when I visit a clients home (I break something) or damage they could do to themselves when they come to my house (they trip over something and injure themselves). This seems less critical but my approach was better safe than sorry and costs around £80 per year.
I get asked pretty regularly whether I’ve ever looked back after starting my business…….
But, I neither regret the time that I spent ‘working for the (wo)man’ nor think that everyone should have a go at being self-employed.
I have no doubt at all, that my 13 years of experience in the corporate world makes me good at what I do now. But the right time came for me to do something different, I needed to work for myself to get enjoyment and fulfilment from my career and, fortunately, the circumstances of life at the time made it possible.
So, if you can’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have your own business, work out what your key questions are and be really honest with yourself to find the answers.
My final, and most important, piece of advice if you’re thinking of becoming self-employed and, particularly, if you plan to work from home……
Get a dog!