Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What you learn when you work for yourself

It's approaching a year since I founded Stepping Out. Although it's my second time out on my own, it has felt like a debut because the foundation of Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) was so long ago and, from fairly early on, it grew very quickly. I was not on my own for that long.

My intention this time is also to grow - but more slowly and with quality not volume as my focus. I also want to protect my life a bit and believe that good margins on a small volume are probably better than smaller ones on a larger one. Growth starts in September with our first employee. Rob came through 150 applicants and I have the blessing of having employed him before. So I know who I am getting. His quality and commitment are both incredible and I cannot wait for him to start.So I won't be a solo act for much longer!

What did I learn during my year as, in effect, a sole trader? I would point, if this is not excessive, to three things. The first is that you realise that your greatest resource is your time. I have become ultra-sensitive to how time is spent. An internal meter now tells me how well my minutes and seconds are being spent. Meetings, one finds, have to have a clear business benefit. Few go on longer than an hour. There is nearly always a focus and a decision. You know when it's over.
Ditto phone calls and emails. People in organisations often struggle to see this - indeed I did by the end of my time as a CEO. I would think little of a three hour senior meeting followed by a couple of interesting visitors - BANG - there goes another day.

The second thing I have learned is that clients crave a personal service they can trust. The experience of most people most of the time when it comes to the services they buy is mild disappointment. Whether it's dealing with BT, going for a meal on a Saturday or finding somebody to help their business, while the choice out there is dazzling, actually finding A1 service is very hard. Therefore the gaps in any market concern not what people obsess about - the uniqueness of one's offer - but the level of service offered. As a small business, you're in a strong position to offer incredible service and great value at the same time. This is what we have tried hard to do with Stepping Out, in a tough market place. And I believe this has helped us to achieve strong year one results.

The third piece of learning is that working for yourself is good for your personal development, confidence and all-round well-being. While you swim in a sea of uncertainty from month to month (I have no idea where income in October will come from), you also know that what happens in the business is nearly all it down to you. I find this reassuring, rather than worrying. Compared to, say, someone in a big firm or council, who has to wait on the decisions of others, I feel my future is in my hands. My 'job security' is a simple function of my attitude and activity, not a string controlled by a drunk puppeteer who neither know nor cares about me.

Further to this, I don't think one can underestimate the psychological benefits of having to get a grip on something, on yourself and push a business forward. Few people who do go it alone go back to a job - and i think this says something. Despite the hours and the effort, working for yourself seems to unlock a lot of human satisfaction. I am always, when I go speaking, evangelical about this, but the looks I get from my mostly-employed audience indicate that it's only something you understand once you've done it. Salaried people, however unhappy, can only see the risks involved and seem blissfully unaware of the risks of sitting inside organisations, going stale, losing confidence and waiting for the hammer to fall. Which increasingly now it does, of course.

So, what do you learn when you work for yourself. Three things: You care about time, you understand the importance of service and you grow as a human being.

So - what's stopping you?


Rob 'Arris said...

Craig, congratulations on Stepping Out's soon to come first Anniversary! You took a gamble leaving the security you had when you did, but i suspect you are glad you did.

I read with interest what you had learnt in year 1 of this business; my intrigue is how you compare that to the thoughts after year 1 at Speaking Up. My guess is that this is a far more controlled business year and the maturing years and experience you carry has dictated a lot of actions.

My own story is similar to yours (seat of your pants growth, get off the roller coaster if you havent got the stomach for it....) but i know that although i am proud of what i have achieved i know that when i build a business the next time i will do things differently and longer term it will be better and less frustrating; i am guessing but i think the 2nd business for me will be something that suits the market place but also suits me and my needs too.... Good luck

Matt Kinsella said...

From what you have written here I think you will do well. You have such a well rounded attitude to your new business particularly in regards to quality over quantity. I started my first business over 10 years ago and made loads of mistakes trying to get rich. My business now is focused on the product and the customer and the money just follows. I have recently written a book and blog about entrepreneurship at