“The Challenge Was Exciting, But...”

Alison Colley, The Real Employment Law Advice, Cowes

I started my business with confidence in my profession as a solicitor, but as a first-time business owner. The challenge was exciting, but the responsibility was heavy. I really wanted it to succeed.

I'd had enough of big law firms. That was the obvious career choice, but I hated it.

I set myself to learn everything! And then I started to do everything.

As I got more and more busy, I couldn't keep up. I needed to get help.

Sometimes it was obvious – like getting a website built – not my thing at all! Same with bookkeeping.

But other things like writing letters and organising things was more difficult to let go of. That made me very nervous – I really wanted them done to my standards. It kept me awake at night!

In the end, I had to balance how busy I was with what the business actually needed me to do. I was the only one able to do the professional work. Another part to keep was what I'm actually good at.

So despite desperately needing the help, the decision to let go and bring in the first staff member was much more difficult than you would think!

Commentary by Dave Simon

“Business growth is not an accident.”

Growing a business is hard work.
Government research shows that owner/managers of successful businesses have worked on the business as well as in it (Business Growth Ambitions in SMEs). They have two jobs.

They work at finding investment, developing export sales and improving productivity. They also support people-skills like innovation, staff training, and management decision-making.

In most successful businesses the real reason for their growth is “the exceptional execution of an ordinary idea” rather than a brilliant idea.

Being 'exceptional' is hard work too.

Successful owners more often seek strategic advice, training and mentoring for themselves.

But half of UK businesses said a shortage of information on mentoring stopped them seeking this support, said the SME Business Barometer report. 

Still, owners who spent at least 40% of their time on marketing and sales for their companies grow their revenues 60% faster than those that do not. These researchers called this the 'Two Days for Growth' rule.

Your own ambition is one of the biggest factors in growth. Believe you're a small business and you'll stay small. Believe you're a large business in early development and your growth mindset will take you there!

For more information read “Why Your Own Ambition Is Vital For Building Your Business” (free report).

Alison's interview continues...

My First Dream

I had wanted to be a solicitor from the age of 9 or 10. Very young, I know, but I was very focused on what I wanted to achieve. My parents, although they worked hard, often struggled for money. I was the eldest and understood the stress that it caused. I realised quite young that I didn't want to struggle like my parents had and I wanted to be able to help my family when they needed it.

I'm not sure how exactly I fastened onto the idea of being a lawyer. I liked the idea of helping people and the secure income that appeared to come from a career in law.

I qualified, went travelling around the World and then returned to the Firm that I had trained with. After a few years, I applied for a job in a bigger law firm – but quickly realised I did not like the culture of the Firm. It did not sit with my own ethos and beliefs about working life and I grew to hate it.

I started to question my future career in law and eventually after a lot of thought and with inspiration from my younger brother, who had started his own business, the idea settled on me.

A New Ambition

It meant a change of attitude. I changed my priority from having security to having the freedom to work how I wanted. I knew that would be more enjoyable, even if it was harder work. And to begin with it would be much less secure.

I had a voice at the back of my head saying even envisaging the worst case scenario it couldn't be as bad as what my parents had been through when we were kids. I was confident that if I got it right, it could get a lot better. That perspective let me change my ambitions.

The idea of specialising in employment law made it clearer that I could start on my own. While a single-handed law practice is quite possible, I quickly realised I wanted to grow the business.

Taking That First Step

At the height of my unhappiness at work I received a gift voucher for Waterstones, and I was wondering through the business and self-help section when the title of a book caught my eye. It was 'The 4-Hour Work Week' by Timothy Ferriss. I would read it on my commute to work and it totally opened my eyes to the possibilities available in business.

Despite thinking of lots of weird and wonderful business ideas I realised that I was not ready to give up on all I had worked for to qualify as a Solicitor and that the best way of going about this was to start my own legal practice.

That was where the change of attitude really set in. I've continued to read business books ever since. And I continue to talk to colleagues about business (much more than about law!).

The argument I had with myself was: “what's the worst that can happen if I do” against “if I don't”. I know that I have the skills and experience to replace money and get another job, but one thing I cannot replace is time.

What scares me most is the idea of unfulfilled potential and not having the confidence to try a something new. I feel it is better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven’t.

Experiments Are Essential

I have had projects and ideas that have failed. For example I took on a licence for some Human Resource software that would add value for my clients. However, it didn't work as I had hoped – my clients weren't interested, and perhaps neither was I, really. It was quite a large investment and I had to cut my losses.

But experimentation is essential. I think what has helped me to succeed is to grow in small steps. It meant an easier learning curve. And with a lot of late nights, I got through the early stages of the business and have now been going for just over 4 years.

My year out travelling was an experiment – I didn't know what I'd find on that journey. But I learnt from it and it gave me confidence in myself, which is such an important step in growth.

We're Doing Well

Alison Colley 3.jpg

In any business, even a profession where everything seems so secure, making a profit is vital. Without a profit, you basically have a hobby. Would you really want a hobby with all those responsibilities to staff, customers and the taxman?

Growth takes time. Profits can take a lot of hard work to achieve and you have to be realistic about this. It has taken four years of hard work to get to this stage and I know that there are several more years before we get to where I want the business to be.

I feel the Island's economy is better than we often think. The trouble is, we don't celebrate our successes enough. We have relatively low levels of unemployment here, and our cost of living is lower than average. It is also a beautiful and safe environment to bring up children.

Doing Better Together

Of course, we could do more to help ourselves. If everyone spent more of their money locally, there would be more money kept on the Island. When I worked in Southampton and Portsmouth I would make a point of spending money locally bringing my mainland wages back here.

A key point for me is that we must stay positive and actively support the Island everywhere we are.

In my ideal ‘Isle of Wight World’ I would streamline our transport systems. If I was in charge of the Island, I would find a way to reduce the number of cars. I feel we are becoming too congested and we need low-cost, efficient and environmentally friendly public transport systems. I would much prefer not to drive to work.

I would put together a comprehensive tram network between towns and more buses around the countryside. It would help in promoting the Island as a ‘green’ place to live and do business.

Good Advice Is Valuable

At my very first networking breakfast after starting the business - just 5 days in - a lady who ran her own business told me: “You are not charging enough!”. This was really honest and helpful advice as I had set my prices too low. On reflection this was an issue with my own confidence at the time.

When running your own business you need to recognise your strengths and get help where you are weaker – no-one is able to do everything perfectly. And receiving advice has helped me be more confident about my judgement in the areas I didn't need advice.

Business owners have the ultimate responsibility – the staff need the owner to get it right! So owners – especially new ones – need more support. This can come from family and friends, but support from coaches is clearly more focussed and objective.

My coaching has mainly come from self-coaching via reading and listening to podcasts. And every so often, I take a day out with colleagues to talk about the business. We look at it from the outside, we don't talk about the daily details. It helps us guide the overall direction.

I meet a lot of business owners and you can certainly tell the difference between those who have an outside adviser compared to those who are working alone.

Juggling Two Jobs

Business owners usually have two jobs: one as owner-manager and one in the profession or trade that the business is founded on. Juggling those two means your work is automatically more complicated than most others.

It's important to remember to balance the time that goes into each – reviewing progress and planning new developments. A good part of it is reflecting on your own thoughts and feelings – are you blocking the progress of the business or are you speeding it ahead too fast?

Even with all the hard work, nervous nights and this extra complication, I wouldn't go back to a job, and don’t think I am employable again! Building a business is so fulfilling. I think most business owners would agree.

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