I’m lucky enough to do what I love and love what I do, even if to those around me that may not always seem the case, but then running a small business is stressful.
I get asked fairly often how I started the business and why. I’m not big on Me Stuff but perhaps there’s something I’ve discovered in running a business for 8 years that will benefit someone just starting out. So, like a sage old rune pronouncing from on top of a hill, here are my Top Tips for getting a business off the ground.
First of all, a bit of background. Before I set up Great Escape I worked in marketing for agencies and clients. I had a nice salary, office, car and lots of staff. I hated what I’d become. I always wanted to be my own boss but lacked the killer idea and the confidence to jump.
Great Escape was hardly a killer idea -hiring out old cars – but it excited me and I jumped in at the end of 2006, setting up a hobby business whilst holding down a job. I got it all wrong – borrowed money I didn’t really need and went for a big bang approach that wasn’t really necessary. But the noose the loan put round my neck put me under pressure to make the business succeed.
I loved the start up phase, getting the first customers and seting up the systems. For the first two years I got up at 4am every day to work on Great Escape. Soon I realised that signing up each new customer gave me more of a thrill than anything in my day job.
I carried on like this for two and a half years, my enthusiasm for my day job diminishing by the hour as the business I’d created from scratch took off. It was hugely stressful and so when I was made redundant in 2009 it was almost a relief. There was no question that I’d start running Great Escape full time. With the enduring and essential support of my utterly brilliant wife Janine, I could and did.
The intervening years have not been all growth and glory. There have been setbacks and break points. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve fallen out with a lot of people too. I could and perhaps should have chosen a less difficult and stressful business area, but I’ve endured and turned what most saw as a lifestyle business into a proper, structured concern. Today Great Escape Cars employs 9 full time people and several more part time staff. I’m very proud of that.
If you have thought more than once or twice that running your own business would be just your thing, then just get on and do it. I’m not endorsing a jack-it-all-in-live-on-gruel solution, which would be silly. But if you think you have a good idea, want to make it work and think it will, put your energy into developing it. Nobody else can or will do it for you. The only barrier to your idea becoming reality is you: your drive and determination matter more than any money or brilliant idea.
I spent years dithering over setting up my own business, only finally jumping when I was in my late 30s. I gave myself lots of excuses: thought I lacked experience, my idea wasn’t good enough, I had a mortgage. Now I wish I’d believed in myself at age 25.
2. Ignore the Idiots
People who can’t run their own business and never will don’t get people who can and do. Packing in a perfectly good job for what appears to be thin air and fancy talk only looks mad to people who can’t believe in it. Success begins at exactly the point where others give up.
Over the years several people have told me to give up, some have even tried to stop me. And at various times I’ve been tempted. They’re idiots. To succeed in business you need to be more determined and driven than anyone else. You don’t give up because you believe and love what you do. Plus for me the alternative was many more years of drudgery doing what I used to do.
3. You’ll never be the perfect candidate
Lots of people don’t jump because they think they lack the full range of skills to run a business. But nobody can honestly say they’ve got them. Only by running a business can you learn how to run a business. Mistakes are inevitable: I’ve wasted a lot of time and money over the years; I regret that but crucially I hope I’ve learned from it.
4. Grow a pair
People who run successful businesses need thick skins. Business is a real dog eat dog world and unless you’re prepared to bite back you’ll be eaten alive. I’m not a particularly tough businessman but I’ve finally learnt how to protect my interests and those of my staff and also sleep at night. It’s been the hardest part of the whole experience. In business assume people want to take advantage of you or that they utterly lack empathy. With that unpleasant mantra, you’ll do well.
3. Self Finance
No matter how much you believe in what you do, you can’t guarantee success. You may be prepared to drive on through setback after setback but your investors won’t share your determination. They’ll sell you down the river or force compromise on you.
Having independent advice is valuable but in the early days you need the drive and commitment to survive setbacks. If you can self finance your business then you’ll remove one of the biggest headaches to success: external pressure from vested interests.
If you can’t self finance then borrow as little as possible. Anyone who invests in you doesn’t fully share your interests. They want a return. You may want that and a few things besides – like never having another boss again.
4. Make your own luck
Some people argue that success in business is 10% talent, 10% ideas and 80% luck. I don’t agree. Luck doesn’t happen, it has to be created: you have to recognise it and use it. What others call luck, I call opportunity.
My business has grown through opportunity. I had an idea but have never had much in the way of a strategy, despite strategic development being my old ‘proper’ job. Strategy is just an excuse to sit around planning what you may never be able to do. Opportunity is seeing, grasping, doing.
I never imagined I’d be running a fleet of trucks sourcing cars for TV or running a classic car workshop. These things would never have been in my strategy. But I saw opportunities and grabbed them. That’s what makes business fun and addictive to me.
5. Employ the right people
Plenty of people set up businesses to be their own boss. Being a boss is quite a different task. It’s not one I enjoy. But creating a team of the right people is critical to success. It can only grow by delegating control to decent people who share your enthusiasm. Finding such people is not easy, building them into a team is harder.
Small businesses like Great Escape Cars rely on people who mercifully don’t have the Big Business ethic. They recognise that doing is more important than meeting and discussing doing. They relish front line reaponsibility. They don’t wave a job description in your face every time they’re asked to do something.
6. Remember why you’re doing it
Running a small business is hard, very hard. It’s a vocation. A huge proportion of businesses fail in the first few years. Those that survive do so through a mixture of determination and the ability to learn and adapt. If you’re determined then that hardship never quite diminishes because you’re striving to be better and bigger.
While you’re running a business you need to be clear about why you’re doing it. It’s rarely about money, but of course that matters. Whatever motivates you try to keep that goal in mind and prioritise how your business runs accordingly. Your business is your world: you yank its chain, not vice versa.
7. Learn and Adapt
Success in business is earned. It doesn’t stand still. I started in business by learning from what others were doing and trying to do it better. In time, others came along and inevitably tried to learn from me.
I spent too long trying to make work what couldn’t work, eventually learning enough to see the light. And so I changed things around. Only by learning and changing has Great Escape survived. The old adage of knowing then what you know now applies in spades.
If you can’t look at what you do and find a better way to do it or learn why what you’re doing isn’t working then your business won’t survive. Either someone will come along and do it better for you or you’ll run out of money.
By all means look at what others are doing and learn. But don’t assume they understand the key to success better than you: businesses are run by flawed, blinkered, fallible human beings. Just because they do it doesn’t mean you should…
8. Step out of the rapids
When you run a small business it’s very, very easy to get caught in the ebb and flow of daily dramas and crisis. Because doing means earning it can be difficult to stop, think and observe. But that is critical. If you run a business you need to take time off, regardless of how much you love what you do. And you need to get some perspective. You need to step out and look around at what you’re doing and where you’re going. It’s very easy to accept the current situation as cast in stone, when it need not be.
I use a business mentor to give me this stop and think point and perspective. It’s been transformative – in taking me out of the daily rapids and enabling me to improve and develop.
9. Stick to the plan
When you set up in business the next 10 years is a long way from top of mind. You’re planning to survive the next 10 days. Once your business looks like it will survive you need a plan – a personal one and a business one. Consider what you’re trying to achieve, why you’re trying to achieve and how you can get there. Too many successful business owners discover too late that they can’t get out and retire without destroying their business. Or nobody wants to buy what they’ve spent years creating. Building a business is an exciting journey, but you need a destination. Don’t forget to choose one.
I’m not self satisfied but occasionally I do stop and surprise myself by what my little hobby business has become. It’s been the hardest, most stressful and most demanding thing I’ve ever done. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I knew what I know now, but I’m very glad I didn’t and that I did.
If you’re planning to set up a business, good luck. Don’t spend too long thinking about it, just do it.