Don’t follow your dream? You can if you plan it.


Life by the sea

I am all in favour of dreams. I have them myself. The trouble is that as a tax and business adviser, I have come across a lot of shattered dreams.


Life by the sea

I was reminded of this again the other day when watching a re-run of a Relocation, Relocation programme. If you haven’t seen it or don’t live in the UK, it’s all about people moving from one part of the country to another, as the title suggests.

A couple were looking not only for a new home in the South-West of England, but also for a cafe-bistro to run. It sounded a lovely idea.

As regards the cafe they were looking at, the owners wanted about £70,000 for the business, which might be roughly what their profit was, plus about £200K for the premises. £70K sounds great doesn’t it? However, the couple would have to borrow the money. It struck me that they could well end up paying about £20K in interest. Had they thought about their children’s childcare? Running a cafe is pretty full-time. If they weren’t going to be on the premises all the time wouldn’t they need more employees to cover the childcare times?

The thing is, the idea of running a cafe in a seaside location does sound idyllic, doesn’t it? It just needs planning and adjusting not only lifestyle in terms of time, but in terms of costs of living. Do they want their luxuries or do they want a comfortable life without pressure to spend on extras? These are questions that have to be asked.

Déjà vu

Some years ago, I saw another couple who had started a cafe in a seaside town, because it had been their dream. They really hadn’t thought it through. Yes, there was plenty of trade passing, but not so much coming in, because there was a cafe in every other shop along the main drag. The rent was extortionate, and they were trying to supply full short-order hot food. That meant more electricity and gas, but the few times they were full up, they had simply not enough covers. In small premises a cafe-type business is better supplying cold food, sandwiches, rolls and cakes with a choice of eat-in or takeaway (or carry-out). The turnover and therefore profit would be much higher. This couple went out of business and lost their savings because they had not done their homework.

Planning the dream

I am all for following the dream. It’s just that the dream needs a plan which involves adding up the costs including the rent, the utilities, the business rates to the local authority and also employee costs. Then think about how much you need or expect to draw out of the business to have a good life. Then look at the expected takings. See if you find out how other similar businesses in the area do.

Ask the previous owner about takings and profits if it was a similar business and check that the accounts they show you make sense. Get a second opinion from a professional. I have been asked to check the accounts produced by a vendor and could see that they were complete fiction. Don’t take it all on trust.

Do follow your dream. Just plan it first. Take advice. Write down the plan. You might have to write one for the bank when you need a loan, but write a proper plan for yourself. One that makes sense. Not one to try to convince yourself it will work if you know in your heart it won’t.

If after you have thought it all through properly and taken the advice you need you know your dream is there for the taking, grab it and hang on to it.

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Let another brain take the strain

Local businesses

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Are you good at everything? I’m not. I doubt many people are.

Do you like having to do everything in running your business: both the creative and the mundane?

Of course what is mundane to some is interesting grist to the mill for others. My business started very small and once upon a time I did everything myself. Now I only do the things I enjoy doing and which I find most rewarding, and the things I am best at.

It took me a while to realise that there were some tasks that were no fun at all, and that I wasn’t very good at some of the work my business was expected to produce. Also, I didn’t have time to do everything, so it seemed a good idea to concentrate on doing the fun stuff, the premium higher work. That didn’t mean that I stopped supplying the other services. It seemed logical to me to subcontract work to those who were better at it than me and who enjoyed doing what I didn’t.

Subcontracting has been great for my business. My subcontractors are good people, otherwise I wouldn’t use them. They deliver to me on time so that I can deliver to my clients, and I can negotiate a rate which gives them a steady income, but allows me to sell on a great service at a margin. That way everyone is happy and my business makes money without my having to do all the work.

You might ask why this system differs from having employees. Well, that would be a commitment, and in a small and growing business, I would not always have enough work to keep them on. They supply other businesses too and they have their own customers, so we are not tied to each other, but what we have between us is trust.

The business model I have suits a supplier of services. If my business made anything or was in retail, the concept wouldn’t work.

It is just no good trying to do everything yourself. I think all small businesses should use their networks (and build a network if they haven’t got one) because there is someone out there who can do for you what you think of as the boring bits, and you can profit from their expertise while concentrating on your favourite most profitable and valuable stuff. Your subcontractors can be your best referrers too.

Do you subcontract? If not, should you?


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The fear of the unknown

Wall Street, Manhattan is the location of the ...

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The premise of this blog is my story of starting my own business by accident, because I became unemployed and couldn’t find another job. I had no choice.

Of course prior to my involuntary arrival in what was a freelance market (my businesses have evolved and diversified since and some is outsourced) I would not have dreamed of going out there on my own from the comfort of an employment with a great monthly “pay check”.

Lack of freedom

In employment we have little freedom, though. We do not make decisions about the business which could affect us or improve our situation. We cannot plan to change things. We can suggest to our bosses how things might be done differently. Our best ideas may be taken up, but we cannot guarantee to get the credit or the benefit.

When we are bosses ourselves, I hope that we do give our employees credit where it’s due, and proper reward, but as an employee we have rights in connection with our employment, but not rights to be appreciated.


It is understandable when we come across employees who are talented enough to run their own businesses that they are afraid to make that big step. As employees they feel more secure in getting a regular income, but that is month-to-month security. It is not a guarantee that the future will bring the same rewards they are getting right now.

Of course there is no guarantee of success in running one’s own business. There is much more control of our destiny, though. We can make a decision which will have an impact in the future. We can make changes to our lives with more freedom. We can build relationships with other businesses. It’s just simply being much more satisfying.

I would not try to badger a talented employee into making a giant leap into starting a business, but I would give every encouragement if I thought their idea was sound. What would you do?

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Snake oil and the knitted woollen cat

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment. Before 1920.

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In my early days in business I was offered, at the price of a considerable investment, an opportunity to have a very successful business. At the time it really seemed the way to go and I borrowed what was a lot of money to me to pay to have the opportunity.

Guess what! It tuned out not to be the money-spinner I had hoped for. Subsequently I found out that it was not just a failure on my part to grasp an opportunity. I know many who invested their time and money and none who had the success that was held out as a near certainty if we worked hard. And we did work hard!

Ultimately the investment was not a total disaster. I did make some money out of it and in fact still do, though it has not been without considerable application. It is one of the tools I use but was not the get-rich-quick deal I fell for in those days of extreme naivety as an ex-employee trying to survive on his own in the business world. If I had known then…


Of course I had no context when I went for the deal. I believed that I was being told the absolute truth about the opportunity. With the benefit of hindsight that was particularly stupid of me. The joke is that the same “salesman” is now offering a similar great deal to his past “customers”. However, there is an old saying “Once bitten , twice shy”. I doubt there will be many sales this time.


The lesson is that there are many offers out there, and particularly on-line which promise great wealth, sometimes for only working six hours a week. They sound tempting, but may well be snake oil with no substance. If you have a great offer or see one, always speak to others who have tried it. Find your own and don’t rely on testimonials from stooges of the sales person and especially not from those on the get-rich-quick website. You need proper context.

The cat

What about the cat in the title? Well, I had a dream in which our cats were playing with a green-and-white knitted woollen cat which was every bit as lively as they were. It was ridiculous, but it was a dream where of course I could place no context or knowledge that the concept was impossible.

Snake oil

If you are offered a dream, check the context and the facts behind the offer, and do proper research before committing. There are a lot of people with redundancy money wondering what to do with their lives and how to earn a living. The sharks are circling. Beware!

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Panorama of sad tales

Fifties blues

Jobcentre at Galashiels, by Walter Baxter

Last night’s edition of Panorama on BBC1 in the UK was about the lack of job prospects for the over-fifties. There is no getting away from it. If you have reached a certain age you will be subject to age discrimination in recruitment either directly from employers or from the recruitment agencies representing them. I was talking about this only the other day.

The programme did well to highlight the difficulties, including the direct discrimination based on age, the greater difficulty in getting a job after having been out of work for a month or so. The longer someone is jobless, the more difficult it is even to get an interview. If one were forthcoming it would very likely be with someone much younger who might be uncomfortable even interviewing the older person, let alone giving them a job.


Panorama had the four people featured in the programme interviewed by Lord Digby Jones.  He is of course a successful businessman and no doubt a fine fellow, but I thought he was pretty unsympathetic, making some uncomfortable suggestions. He suggested that two of the men should consider moving across the country to find a job. That would be pretty difficult for someone with deep rooted in his local community and with his wife at least still holding down a job as one was. A suggestion of taking voluntary work might be useful in showing that someone was prepared to keep busy while looking for a job, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Lord Jones then suggested that the men should re-skill and go into business, perhaps as a plumber or a brickie or a carpenter. Obviously Digby doesn’t know anyone in the construction industry. If he did he would know that hardly anything is going on and there is not enough work even for the already skilled and experienced. Even if a newbie fifty-something plumber worked on his own it would be a big step to take his skills out and start his own business. It is the sort of occupation where it would be best to get a start working for someone else to learn the practical ropes, which would involve the employment hurdle again. It was just unrealistic and I have to say rather condescending.


The female victim was trying to start her own business, but had low self-esteem resulting from loss of status. If you have been “someone” in a certain sector, it is hard to come to terms with not being “anyone”.

Of course as we know here, it is great to start our own businesses, but it is not for everyone. It is very hard, and many simply do not have the life skills to do it. My view is that we need to do something allied to what we know in our start-ups, but not to be too choosy. As a friend said this morning, we should not be afraid of having bolt-on businesses. That is why I have at least three businesses and come to think of it, help out with a fourth which is not mine. They had roots in the difficult early days, and have grown and taken on lives of their own.

What the out-of -work population needs is not patronizing suggestions, but helpful information. The poorly skilled need special assistance and those with some skill need help from some organization other than the JobCentre, which is useless for skilled people.

I hope StartUp Britain will help in showing the way, and give people ideas to help themselves, but starting a new business takes planning and ideally mentoring (there’s always me for that), but let’s not pretend it’s easy. It’s hard work and not for everyone, which is why those of us who have made a success of such adversity should help those who cannot help themselves to find work.

It’s tough out there for the lonely older unemployed. How do you feel about it?



The edition of Panorama, “Finished at Fifty?” is here for the next few weeks, at least for UK viewers.

Booing from the sidelines


New business

I was rather disappointed last week at the reaction in much of the press and from politicians who should know better to the launch of StartUp Britain.  I am sure they do not mind my quoting their “About Us”:

“StartUp Britain is a new campaign by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, launched on 28th March 2011. Designed to celebrate, inspire and accelerate enterprise in the UK, it has the full backing of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and HM Government.

This is a response from the private sector to the Government’s call for an ‘enterprise-led’ recovery. We believe that many of the important functions and services necessary to foster and champion new enterprise can be open-sourced, instead of provided by government directly. We aim to do this by creating a living market-place online for the wide range of enterprise support that is already available.

As a private sector organisation we aim to shoulder some of this responsibility for enterprise promotion with the government, re-modelling existing cost centres, and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.”

I suppose the Prime Minister’s launch of StartUp Britain got up the noses of his opponents, but surely support by Richard Branson as well as the involvement of many admirable business people (go and have a look) should show that this is a really serious campaign with great potential which we should hope will be fulfilled.

New resources

There are a lot of resources on the StartUp Britain website. There is a pooling of useful resources and reading and some major companies have special offers available. The initiative differs from StartUp America (also a good idea) because that is White House driven. StartUp Britain is supported by the Government but not publicly funded. However successful or otherwise, there really is no downside to StartUp Britain, so surely it should be embraced by:

Not everyone has the nous or capability to work for themselves but by supporting StartUp Britain the business community and the country has more opportunity to help those who would be always prefer to be employed. At “On our bikes” we got on and started our businesses with no help from anyone at a time when there had been a previous dip in the market. It can be done with good planning and guidance. New entrepreneurs need to understand that it is always good to seek help and advice along the way, and learn to listen to the market. In other words to understand what people want in terms of goods and services.


I am not a life coach. I am not someone who tells you uplifting feel-better things to inspire you. I know and you know that success in business is largely in our own hands. However, success in business is about belief. It is about market sentiment. The more positive people feel about the business environment and the economy in general, the better it actually is.

Of course there is an issue of what people can afford and external pressures on the greater economy from abroad. In the end, business and our lives are as good as we believe they are. If we believe we are on the up, we ARE on the up and we take others with us. That’s not coach stuff (I love coaches and count several as my friends). Positive market sentiment makes for a positive market.

Let us not have the naysayers and those who wish to receive but have nothing to give get us down. Let’s get on our bikes and pedal hard (or even peddle our wares) for a great future is in our gift.

What do you think?

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Ageism, realism and working life in the twenty-first century

My starting point

Lake District work opportunities

As many of you may know, when I lost my job nine years ago I came to realise that at the age I was, I was not allowed to have another employment. I was too old, by which I mean I was somewhat over forty. It took a while for me to understand that was the problem. For a while I laboured under the illusion that there were not many jobs about and that was why the recruitment agencies had trouble finding me interviews. Ageism is a bitter pill to swallow, as many people who have just come out of employment will be finding out.

My solution

Realistically, the only way I could earn a living was to start my own business. That is why I call myself an “accidental entrepreneur”. I have actually set up several businesses because I had to get money coming into the household. I had a specialist field from my employment days, but I also had to do whatever it took to try and achieve some inflow of money.

Over the years since and especially at the beginning I had various short term contracts and also took subcontracted work from another firm. Effectively the services I provided have helped businesses to avoid taking on an employee. I had no security in doing what I did.

Two of the firms I helped just told me they didn’t need me any more, one with no notice at all; I had no expectations of a continuing presence with them so I had to shrug my shoulders and move on to the next assignment, and of course I had been steadily building up my own business and individual clients. My business is both B2B and B2C, to use the jargon. It is a long while since I had to depend on just one or two clients for an income stream. Nowadays I subcontract quite a lot myself. It is an efficient way of doing things.

The ageist job market

Not much has changed since I left employment for the last time. If anything, the work market for older people is much worse. There is legal protection against age discrimination within an employment but once a reason for redundancy is identified or contrived there is little an employee can do.

Age discrimination in the job market is hard to prove. One can be annoyed by an ad such as the technical writing opportunity for a “newly qualified” person I saw yesterday. Newly qualified? We know what they mean.

Older people want to work. They are just not allowed to be employed, as Julian Knight reminded us the other day when writing in the Independent. Apparently there are those who think that older workers are just standing in the way of the young. I agree with the hypothesis that a younger manager would rarely think to take on a person twenty or thirty years older because

  • the person will be too slow
  • the person will be off sick a lot
  • the person will show up the manager by knowing more and being better than he or she is

We know that most “old-hands” would take fewer sickies, be as quick as anyone and know better than to embarrass the manager, but these prejudices remain.

The work market of the future

I don’t claim to have second sight, but since I started my businesses I have ploughed the furrow which many others have to do or will in the future. Realistically, the bureaucratic burdens on employers and their prejudices over age will need them to be more interested in taking people on short-term ad hoc contracts where there is no long term commitment on either side. The current employment laws both on the HR side and in relation to tax do not match up yet, but Seth Godin said recently “In the post-industrial revolution, the very nature of a job is outmoded.”  I agree with that.

I think that employment rights are going to have to be watered down to relieve the employment law red tape mess that businesses have to suffer. In the future, there will be no such thing as a job in the old sense, and there isn’t even now for many over-forties, which is why so many of us are already out there in the brave new twenty-first century. There will be more mobility, which surely is a good thing?

How do you feel about this?

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The Appointed Time

Often small businesses, and especially start-ups, skimp on purchasing really important services. Many less experienced people to think they can do everything for themselves. This can lead to giving a really bad impression and a loss of business, which may be repeat business.

I booked an appointment to have my car repaired. I have a track record of using this business over several years, and have found the service good in terms of delivery. I have just had a poor experience because the owner mixed up my appointment for another date in the future, which I would not have agreed to because my car urgently needed attention.

When I made the appointment the business owner took the call. When we spoke there was music in the background, which is not unusual in a car repair shop. However, I now suspect he was actually driving and made the appointment from memory, which turned out to be faulty when he later incorrectly recorded it in his appointment book.

I ended up being very cross that my car was not to be repaired when I thought it was. It was fortuitous that a business meeting I had organised the day after was cancelled by the client, otherwise I would have had to hire a car for the day.

I use a call answering service / virtual assistant. All telephone calls to my office which I cannot take are answered by a real person who takes a message. Virtual assistants can also make bookings, which is really handy if you run a motor service and repair business or are a physiotherapist, osteopath, or almost any type of small business that sees clients regularly.

A prospect who calls and gets voice-mail or suffers an appointment mix-up could easily and immediately go elsewhere as could an established client if it happens more than once. It is not even as though it costs very much to have someone answer your telephone, and if you factor in the sheer value of never missing a call it costs absolutely nothing. On the contrary it helps a business make more money.

Have you suffered similar frustration?

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Never mind the quality?

Eeyore being sad.
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I love being in business, and not being an employee and part of someone else’s business. Many of you have heard that from me before. Just the same it is not all plain sailing and that is partly because we are dealing with other human beings.


Over the years I have had many lovely people as clients and who have appreciated the service they have received. Happy clients are those who are prepared to pay for what they get because of the benefit they perceive. However, there are some who are not very often of a cheerful nature and no matter what they get, try to pay as little as possible for it. These are the glass-half-empty people, the pessimists and the generally grumpy who want to pay as little as possible and never want add-on services. They are the people who can get you down if you let them. This is the Eeyore view of life.


As we have said before, start-up businesses take on as many customers and clients they can get, and that’s only natural. As the business grows and develops, an owner, particularly of a service business, can afford to weed out the ungrateful and low coupon clients and concentrate on the higher value and generally more appreciative clients, and at the same time have more enjoyment in dealing with the higher coupon work which is generally more interesting.

If you haven’t got to the point of being really choosy who you work with, at least sack the miserable cheapskate customers because all you will get from them is grief; you certainly won’t get a decent profit.

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Why starting a business is hard work for the brain

Holiday times are when we have space to think about the future, and for some it will be to seek new opportunities in starting a business.

When we go back to first principles to start a new business we need a business plan, and not just one for the bank. We need to think whether:

  • There is room in the marketplace for our business
  • We can stand out from the competition.
  • We have enough money to spend and to survive on before we get into profit.
  • If we borrow money we can pay it back
  • We know how to market and have done our research
  • We have support from our family and friends

We need to think hard about each of these things. We need to spend time going through each aspect. We need to think about lifestyle changes and the effect on our families and ourselves.

Getting on our bikes is never easy but it can be very fulfilling. It is not wrong to accept help along the way and even to hire someone else’s expertise or their bike of course. Just do it!

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