The exciting but sometimes frustrating world of being self-employed

Its been a while since I wrote a piece, thankfully business is good and keeping all the team here in Lincoln out of mischief.

I wrote a small piece recently, (yet to be published), which has been well received so I thought I would begin a short series on my life and hopefully help others at the same time, it has also been prompted by that fact that I ‘turned’ (that’s a strange phrase) 67 this year and 3 months ago was diagnosed with cancer, this combination puts a whole different perspective on your outlook to life.

I’ve been in business all of 31 years and in management roles with multinational companies for many years before that means that I should have a good mix of knowledge and skills. However, I do not profess to know it all.

I have 5 rules that I have always run my businesses by:

1. Be careful who you tell if you’re thinking off going self-employed.

When my wife Paula announced that she was having a baby, in fact it was twins, I was working in the middle east and cut my trip short and returned home. Whilst having lunch with my boss, I mentioned that I was considering my future due to the impending birth and that I wanted to spend more time with them, something I missed out on with the birth of our son Peter 17 years earlier.

We returned to the office, and an hour later my office was cleared, I was relieved of my keys including the keys to my company car and was left standing in the car park with a box and no transport and no job.

Quite a daunting prospect, with a young family on the way, the usual mortgage etc. and not really where to start.

2. The need for support

Many people I would think would firstly look to their bank as the means for support; I was no different at the time, but it was only later that I realised the support I received from Paula and Peter was far more important and powerful. You don’t work to support the bank, although at times it feels like you are doing, you are working to keep your family and without their support and encouragement then what’s it really all for?

In the early days of setting up the Society of Will Writers, money was tight (one day I’ll write it up about how the SWW started and the ups and downs endured including the time we became ‘Royal’) but for now I needed the support of my family, Paula, she would call me to see whether we could shop this weekend, we lived hand to mouth for months, but if it had not been for the family supporting me and what I believed in, mainly putting the family second, there would be no Society of Will Writers.

3. Honesty

I’ve said this before, and I think its one of the most important things to consider before becoming self-employed. What do you need to live on?

We probably never think much about what we spend each day, week, month or year. But if income dropped to such a low as to not be able to pay for these things that’s when problems begin to show and not just with the suppliers but also the family.

You do need to sit down and go through and list absolutely everything that you spend, do not forget some DD’s are payable monthly, quarterly and annually, as well as TV licence and Sky etc. Mortgage and food, car running costs all need to be accounted for.

It does not matter how good your projections are for the new venture, it is highly unlikely that you will realise these very soon after the start-up of the business. This is a time for complete honesty, both with yourself and with those that depend on you.

If you can’t make the figures add up you really need to look again, but if your idea is sound don’t give up, there are alternative ways, but try not to borrow money. Talk to family and friends, you never know they may be looking for an opportunity. Being in business for yourself can be very lonely, sometimes a partnership is better.

4. Know your product

Knowledge is key to your success, without it you are set to fail before you begin, just because other people are successful in the same field it does not follow that you will be.

When I started the Society, I had two close friends and guru’s David Barnes and David Parsons, with whom I spoke every day on technical matters to do with Wills and powers of attorney. Between them what they didn’t know was not worth knowing. And it to these two friends and their unstinting support that the Society is the success it is today, as they not only gave me answers when I needed them but also the willingness to emulate them in their knowledge and for me to pass it on to others.

5. Customer Care and Service

I left school at 15, education held no interest for me, today however, it is part of the most important aspect of my job, but at that time all I wanted was a new bike in British Racing Green with 10 gears.

There is a phrase, and I’ve used it myself, ‘the client is king’, I no longer believe that, there needs to be a rapport, a relationship between you and the client for it to work. My own Will Writing company WillPack many years ago coined the phrase “Where Service Comes as Standard”, the client should not have to expect it, it should be automatic but also sincere. All the team work to that belief and it is today one of the oldest established trade names in the profession.

Recently I’ve had cause to spend more time in hospital than I would have liked, and the thing that impressed me the most is the patience and understanding of the nurses that I have had the pleasure and honour to know during these stays. I was awoken one morning at around 5 for the usual ‘observations’ with “good morning blue eyes, sorry but I’ve got to take your blood pressure”. She did not have to say that, especially after a 12-hour shift, but such a comment can make all the difference. After all, as patients we are also clients.

It was whilst I worked for J Sainsbury’s where I learnt my customer care skills of tolerance, patients and understanding of different peoples needs. And that we are never too busy to listen to the client.  The original Sainsbury stores were vastly different to today’s supermarkets. When I started there in 1966, the counters ran along each side of the shop with an assistant at each section and “Miss Potter” in her glass fronted position taking the money centre stage at the end of the shop, and whilst there was a manager, it was Miss Potter who controlled the staff.

We wore what were and possibly still are ‘bum freezers’, similar to a chef’s jacket, double rows of buttons and immaculate starched aprons. The jackets, when fully buttoned up, which was always when on the counter, hid the fact that you wore a white shirt and black tie, black trousers and polished black shoes, and you presented yourself to Miss Potter every morning before going on duty and if you were found to not to have a tie, you were sent home and your wages docked. It was only occasions that you were excused a tie. The shops were unheated, hence the term for the jacket.

But I loved it and it was amongst the happiest days of my life. Being in London, there were inter-store competitions, outings on day offs it was truly like working for a family, which in those days of course it still was.

Anyway, I digress. I mentioned tolerance and understanding. In those days we still sold butter by weight, if the customer wanted 2 ounces, she had two ounces and hand patted before the stamping it with the J Sainsbury mark and wrapping in greaseproof paper. One of my favourites was a turn on the bacon counter (I was a butcher), Mrs Miggins would come in on a Saturday morning, as she did every Saturday with her shopping list, and on it would be two rashers of bacon for Mr Miggins Sunday breakfast. Having looked at what was on show, nothing suited he for her husbands breakfast, So would begin the dance of the sides of bacon, proudly showing Mrs Miggins each side of bacon until we found the one that was perfect for Mr Miggins Sunday breakfast, and it was from this that two perfect slices were cut, exactly to Mrs Miggins specification as to thickness, and fat content, which, could take several attempts until she was entirely happy. Happy Mrs Miggins would then go on to the meat counter and the butter counter repeating the process each time. Grocery shopping back in the 60’s was an experience.

Such was the patience and tolerances needed of people’s expectations that it has stuck with me all my life and I work to it as does my team. And is the of the bedrock of the personal code by which I practice in business and my life.

In summary

Setting up your own business can be daunting, regardless of how well you think you know it and the path ahead can be full of pot-holes – did you know the term pot hole was first use in Stoke on Trent from when the potters dug up the clay they needed, usually in the middle of the cart tracks hence the term potters or pot hole – but it will probably be one of the most exciting times you will experience in life.

I’ve personally loved every minute of it, people often ask why don’t I retire, why should I when there is so much more to do not just for me but for all those I come into contact with, the past 24 years with the Society have been simply the best.

Will Writing has come of age, the Society is 25 years next April, and it’s a great opportunity for anyone to train as a Will Writer or Estate Planning Consultant, with very little outlay, and I believe very little risk. When I started, I worked it out that at the end of the week my hourly fee was around £3ph yes three pounds, today you can, with the right clients and the proper training earn approx. £1400 or more per client, leaving you plenty of time to get a couple of rounds in on the golf course.

If you need more information, go to www.willwriters.com or better still call me personally on 01522 687888 for an informal chat.

Brian W McMillan
Director General
The Society of Will Writers

Footnote

In business its OK to make a mistake (if it has not cost too much) just remember it, learn by it and don’t make it again

  1. Thank you for everything Brian and I wish you and yours all the best.

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