When you go from being an employee, to the one who’s running a business and having to make all the decisions, it is both liberating and scary. Who will do all the work if you’re the only one in the room?
In this episode
In this episode of Essential Business Radio, first broadcast a few years ago, we talk to Soraya Shaw of Springboard Coaching, Mark Walsh of Integration Training and Curtis James, now of Fieldwork and ask them, “How does it feel to run your own business?”
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Julie Stanford: How does it feel to run a business? When you go from being an employee to the one who’s running a business and having to make all the decisions, it’s both liberating and scary. Who’ll do all the work if you’re the only one in the room? I’m Julie Stanford, and a few years ago, I presented a show called “Business As Usual” for RadioReverb in Brighton. What my guests talked about then is still very relevant today. In this show, I ask my guests, how does it feel to run a business?
About the guests
Julie Stanford: When you first started your business, how was it different to the way you thought it would be?
Soraya Shaw: I think the biggest thing was, when you start your own business, is being alone. When you’re in organisations, you’ve got different departments. You’ve got people to support you. You’re also very clear about what it is your role is and what you’re actually doing, what your product is or who your clients are. It’s all defined. It’s all been set in tablets of stone. Then you start running your own company, and it’s down to you to do it all. It’s down to you to define “What’s my position” and “Who am I talking to. Can I do it, actually?” And not having other people to spark off and that whole sort of support network around you.
Julie Stanford: Curtis, what about you? When you started, how was it different to the way you thought it would be?
Curtis James: I think when I started running my own business, I still actually had a job elsewhere. I kind of merged the two things, so there wasn’t a definite end to that or a definite crossover point, but I think the obvious. You just covered some of the obvious things, that kind of feeling of … Especially when I started my business, I was working from home, and there’s a sense of not being able to share what’s going on, not having people around, going a bit stir-crazy sometimes.
Still now, I do a lot of my best work in a coffee shop by just getting out of my … because I’ve got my office at my home still. So yeah, and having people to bounce your ideas off, or just someone to go to lunch with that you’re working with and just things like that, that I think actually help with how you’re doing your work. The buck stopping with me is the biggest one, I think. Yes.
Julie Stanford: It’s quite a sobering moment when you first realise, and I think that moment arrives at different times for different people, but there is a moment for all of us in business where we suddenly realise that it’s down to us. I think it can be quite scary. It also can be incredibly exciting, because if one of the reasons you left employment and started your own business was because you wanted to be more in control or to do something the way you want to do it, then that’s very empowering, isn’t it?
Curtis James: Yes.
Julie Stanford: I think there’s always going to be possibly the positive and negative sides of all these aspects.
Curtis James: In the same way there are when you’re employed.
Julie Stanford: Yes, yes.
Curtis James: The positives are that the buck doesn’t stop with you.
Julie Stanford: Yes.
Curtis James: The negatives are you don’t have that control.
Julie Stanford: Yes, yes, so it’s sort of a … it’s a direct opposite then, isn’t it?
Curtis James: Yeah, yeah.
Julie Stanford: Mark, what about you? How was it when you started? How was it different?
Mark Walsh: For me, the whole deal is it’s much more personal, and that means the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I can definitely relate to what people were saying about social support. As a very extrovert person, it was quite difficult for me at first to be in my office in my home alone. I’ve really valued getting associates, working with those, and people like the Chamber of Commerce, so being around other business people.
Julie Stanford: It’s interesting that when we talk about networking … And I do bang on about it. I know I probably bore people, but to me, the value of networking is not … Okay, yeah, there’s an element of bringing in new clients, and there’s an element of possibly meeting suppliers, but actually, the richest element of all is that peer support, because you don’t get that anywhere else. Nobody else understands how you feel as a business owner as well as another business owner, do they? They can’t.
I realised the first time I went now, because I was really slow on the uptake. I must get someone to hit me on the head with a frying pan really, because I’d been going probably 14 years before I even lifted my head above the parapet and started networking. When I went out there, I thought, “This is fantastic, to meet other people who just get it.”
Skills needed in business
Julie Stanford: Let’s think then about the skills that you need. How are the skills different running a business? How are they different to being an employee? What would you think? Yes, Mark?
Mark Walsh: Yeah, for me, it was like I already knew how to do training, and three years ago, I thought, “Well, that’s enough. I’m already a good trainer.” I didn’t realise there’s this whole set of practical skills around that, so for me, it’s been a learning journey of learning about marketing, learning about sales, really needing to put myself out there and the skill set.
But also there’s a piece around emotional, as well. What is it like to wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, my God, I need to bring some money in to pay the rent, and no one’s going to just give me a cheque“? Also, the positive side maybe is the love, to go, “Wow, I really love what I’m doing, and I’m able to get out there every day and do what I really care about.” Yeah, there’s the practical side and also that emotional side that supports that.
Julie Stanford: I think that also you need to learn the art of keeping your eye on the future whilst working in the present, so you’re always having to think, “Where is my money coming from two months, three months, four months down the line?” because you’ve got to keep that funnel … I mean, they talk about this, the sales funnel, don’t they? They have lots of ways of touching people or meeting people at the top, coming through down into this funnel. As it gets narrower and narrower, you might get one or two contracts or one or two jobs out of a large number of ways of meeting people, whether you’ve been speaking to them.
Soraya, just thinking then about these different skills, you’ve got a lot of experience in marketing. You understand the whole idea of having to constantly find new people, but even for you, was it still quite sobering? Was it a shock, or did you just know it would be like that?
Soraya Shaw: Do you know, it’s one of the weirdest things in the world, isn’t it? You’re so good at doing it for other people, but can you do it for yourself? When you’re in your business, to actually be able to see it is so difficult, but you can go and talk to clients about it. You can do it for other people. I think the hardest thing was actually, and it still is, is to be able to step back and say, “Well, who is my target audience? What am I selling? What do people want, as opposed to what do I think people want?” and actually really asking yourself some of those questions and also always trying to think about being innovative and what is your product and what does it …? These whole set of skills.
Yeah, I find it remarkably difficult to keep my eye on what I am doing and still do the work. I think, going back to what you were saying before, the skills that you need, they’re so multi-faceted, because you can’t just be technically good at what you do and keep on doing it. You’ve got to fill the funnel. You’ve got to do the marketing. You’ve got to get out networking. You’ve got to understand finances and forecasts and all the things that other people used to, who specialised in the industry, did for you.
Julie Stanford: I remember a business owner I knew who was very successful, but he was talking about when he first started his business and his computer failed. He went to pick up the phone to call his IT guy and, with a dawning realisation, understood then that he was his IT guy and that he couldn’t actually do it. There’s always that moment for someone where you think, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
That idea of working in the business on the technical skill, it’s very common. As I go around the country and I meet and talk to a lot of businesses, they often say to me that they set up around their skill, like you did, Mark, as a trainer. You set up around your own skill set because you think, “I could run a business doing this.” There’s that point of moving from that to running a business, where that is the technical side of it, and you’re not necessarily having to do it. You might bring other people in to do it.
Delegating in business
Julie Stanford: That’s quite challenging, that move from “I’m going to work on my business, on my strategy and my vision and building the relationships, because I can do that best, and I might bring other people in to do the thing that I once was technically so proficient at”. Curtis, how have you handled that, because you had that passion for the core of what you do, but you are still out there trying to bring people in as clients, aren’t you, and people on your workshops?
Curtis James: Well, the interesting thing is, when you were saying that, I was thinking about some of the people that come on to our workshops. One of the biggest challenges for them is they often say, “I haven’t got time to do all of this stuff. I haven’t got time to do all this stuff. This is what I want to be doing.” I say to them, “Well, why aren’t you outsourcing that? How much do you value your time? Where are your expertise? Should you be doing that filing or that kind of task that’s quite mundane? You could be outsourcing that, and you could then be focusing on that strategy stuff that you want to be doing that you think you’re an expert in.” It comes up a lot. I think it’s a big challenge for people running a business, is to let go of certain aspects of it when they need to be focusing on other stuff.
I’m just saying. I mean, I’m not sitting here acting like I’m the perfect business person, because I’m certainly not. I think, as you were saying, my passion was in either making music or the stuff I’m doing now with Steve with people who do and kind of helping people to do more, but there’s also so many aspects of that business that we have to decide whether or not it’s worthwhile us doing it or whether or not we go to the expense of employing someone else to do those things. It’s that balancing act of, at what point … What’s the tipping point where you need to get someone else in? Sometimes, that’s the difficult decision to make.
Julie Stanford: I remember when I first took on my first employee, I had sleepless nights. I had too much work to do. I had to take on an employee, but then I realised that then I had responsibility for another person’s life, their mortgage and their family and everything, in effect, financially, at any rate. That felt very scary. Mark, when you’re working with people as a trainer, and you’re covering these areas for a lot of people, does that same sense of not understanding that you can outsource some of this, does that come up at all?
Mark Walsh: Yeah, it does, but for me, your business is perhaps, in some ways, like a child and then it’s become like a grandparent, in that sense. That’s one analogy I use. Another one is really how people orientate around control. What’s holding on a bit tight and trying to do everything for yourself, and what’s actually going the opposite way? I think there’s no definite answer to that. It’s a constant flux.
Julie Stanford: I wonder whether it comes from that most of us started business as a sole trader, in effect, because very few people launch straight into employing 10 people. So at that very start, we have to do everything, as we’ve said earlier. Then it becomes weird to have to just let go of certain reins, doesn’t it? Soraya, with your coaching, because you must coach people on these subjects, as well …
Soraya Shaw: Yeah.
Julie Stanford: … is this common? Is this what everyone goes through? Are we saying that this is the nature of making that move from being an employee to being, in effect, an employer or at least a business owner?
Soraya Shaw: I think people do. I think people start and then … Obviously, all of us are individuals, and we all have different strengths and skills and a vision for what we want for our business. I think what people … The work that I do is helping people to get some real awareness around who they are and what their strengths are and what they really want to focus on and, therefore, helping them to realise that their strength may be that they’re very, very good at networking and selling their product, but they’re absolutely rubbish at the marketing. Well, outsource it, as you’re saying. Getting people to recognise that somebody else is much better in that field than them I think is a… That’s around really creating emotional awareness and what people want to do.
The other day I was reading an article about asking young people about how they’d set up their businesses. All of them, I think there was about six of them, were talking about setting up virtual businesses. I think that’s where technology and the way that we live today is actually giving people so much freedom in how they run their business, because you do know people who are very good at doing your bookkeeping or who you can turn to, a brand expert to help you with your marketing. Actually, a lot of people do pro bono work. It doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. I think that’s what’s very interesting.
Julie Stanford: I remember that moment of realising I could skill swap. I’ve mentioned this before. It was just a revelation to me. I realised that, as a designer, I had a skill that people might want, and there were lots of people that I could get in, bookkeepers or people helping me with the business planning, because I was really bad at business planning. It meant that we could do that together. It was fantastic. We think, at the beginning, that we have to buy in the skills, and of course, we don’t. We can just, because we’re out networking and we are making relationships, we can skill swap.
The nature of business
Julie Stanford: I would like to just hear your thoughts also about the fact that the nature of business is that it’s a roller-coaster ride. I think it takes a while for us to realise that it’s not us. It’s actually the nature of business, that it’s not an even, calm journey, I suppose. How would you deal with it yourselves, and how would you advise your clients to deal with the fact that there are going to be dramas? Life gets in the way, but you still have to carry on, and it will ebb and flow. Curtis, when you’re working with your clients, how would you help them deal with that aspect of business?
Curtis James: It’s not something that we directly help people with at the moment. It’s not really something I’m coaching people in, but I think that, if I was talking to someone about that aspect of their business, I think there are no certainties in life. Nothing’s ever constant. We have to kind of just accept that, at any time, anything could happen. In one of my businesses, it’s been up and down for the last couple of years. As you were saying, Mark, that when the times are good, they’re really good, but when they’re bad, the buck stops with you, and there are sleepless nights sometimes. It’s just a case of …
If you’re really passionate about what you’re doing … I think that was a point I was going to make earlier. When you’re running your own business, that’s a really important part of it. You can work. You can be an employee and not really care about the job, but if you’ve got your own business, I think you really need to believe in it and be into it. If you’re not, you’re doing the wrong thing, and you’re probably going to fail. It’s those times when times are tough, when if you don’t truly believe in what you’re doing, you’re going to end up giving up pretty quickly.
Julie Stanford: Yes, exactly, because it’s that love of what you’re doing and that passion that keeps you going during the tough times. The things that will happen, such as a problem with cash flow or a client who cancels a contract, you just find a way around it. You almost know that it’s the nature of business. It’s not personal. It just is how it is.
Mark, when you’re working with your participants on your training courses, they’re there to talk about time management, stress management. Do you have a lot of business owners who come on who are really struggling with the stress of it?
Mark Walsh: Yeah, often, it’s the business owners and senior managers in large organisations who are extremely stressed. There are some key skills which I work with them around. It’s hard to summarise, but a couple of very brief ones. One would be the ability to say no. A lot of people can’t say no either to themselves … For example, what people were saying earlier about, “I have to do everything for myself,” and being able to say no to that.
The other one related to that is asking for help, we call it delegating sometimes, so the ability to say, “Look, I can’t do all this on my own. Would you take this piece of work?” They’re two very key skills. If people don’t have those skills, they’re likely to be quite overwhelmed, which I see everywhere, across all three sectors. I think it’s the crucial challenge of today is how to manage time, energy, mood, so one related challenge, really.
Julie Stanford: I also just really think about the financial aspect, which is probably the biggest one, isn’t it, because of the one that’s going to hurt the most for us, it’s … Well, it’s not necessarily hurting the most, but it certainly hurts when there’s a lack of money. I think, of all the business owners I’ve met or new business owners, that’s a shock, as well, is this idea of if you’re not out there building it, then you might not have any money. Sometimes, even if you are out there building it, you might not have any money. How did you deal with that challenge, because it hits every business owner? I’ve never met one person in a big business or small business who hasn’t had that on their mind. Curtis?
Curtis James: I think it is the toughest thing to deal with sometimes. You can feel like you’re working harder than you’ve ever worked before, and yet there’s no money coming in. If you think back to when you’re employed and you’ve got a salary coming in, compared to that, it can be very tough. Yeah, it’s a tricky thing to deal with, but when the money’s coming in, it could be very good because that’s normally all of your money. It’s your business, and that’s kind of the bonus there.
But especially over the last 12 months, I think a lot of people have been struggling. It’s been a tough year personally for me, and yeah, just getting through … It’s just the cash-flow thing. Everyone seems to be taking ages to pay at the moment, and that can be very difficult, and banks aren’t being particularly helpful. I know everyone’s saying this, but it’s the reality of things. It can be quite tough.
Julie Stanford: You have to sort of, I don’t know, acquire the art of being quite philosophical, don’t you? You have to learn to just go with the flow. I think it’s quite a … It’s a strange way you have to … You have to learn the art of accepting things how they are, while at the same time doing the things of managing the credit, making sure you send your statements out, doing all the practical things that you can, but not being too hard on yourself.
Curtis James: I think it’s very difficult, as a business person, to admit failure. I think everyone finds it hard to say, “I’ve messed up a little bit,” because even if it’s contractors or other people that owe you money, you’re still going to feel like you failed a little bit. It’s very difficult for you to still show a positive face to potential clients knowing that your business is struggling a little bit. You still want to be positive and bring new business in, but yeah, that’s a difficult balance and a difficult thing to deal with.
Soraya Shaw: I think that’s a really important point because I think you need to be kind to yourself, because when you’re an employee, you can get feedback from people. You can get support around the water cooler or whatever it is. When you’re by yourself, you can start bashing yourself up. I mean, “If I had done that, should I have done this? Maybe I could have done that better”. Actually, a really good point: you’ve got to be kind to yourself because, otherwise, you can’t go out there and talk to people and actually be genuine.
Mark Walsh: The emotional piece is crucial. There’s two sides of it for me. I think it was Saint Francis of Assisi who said really go out … In business terms today, it would be: Change everything you possibly can; really go out there and work and put the hours in and do what you can do. Then there’s also a piece of accepting things you can’t change. There’s a recession on. That’s not something I personally can change, so there’s a piece about acceptance and peace. Having the balance between those two is critical and very difficult.
Julie Stanford: I’ve had all these. I’ve been in business a very long time, so there have been a number of moments of revelation, one of them when I was working with a colleague. She is a remarkably sanguine person, and we’d had a really awful bit of news. A work contract that we had been expecting was supposed to be coming in. We’d had all the … Well, I mean, we’d actually had a promise of it, not just the positive signs, and it failed. It was a really big blow.
As she walked in the room, I didn’t want to tell her, and then I said, “Look, this has failed.” She looked at me, and she said, “So what can we do now to solve it?” I just thought, “What a fantastic attitude!” She just looked at it, took it on board, and then said, “Right. What can we do that’s positive now?” because actually there’s no point being negative. There’s no point beating yourself up. There’s no point wallowing in it. You’ve just got to get back out there. It’s like saying, “Get back on the horse.” You just have to keep going.
I now, all these years on, remember the self that used to get upset, used to … and sometimes cry. I have to say, I did. I used to get very upset about these lost contracts because I felt that I could have done something better. Now I just think, “Oh, well. Okay, right. We’ll move on. Let’s get another one. Let’s keep going, keep going.” I think that I wouldn’t want our listener to be thinking that they are failing if they’re not able to do that, because it isn’t easy.
I say to people, when I do talks, “It isn’t easy to run a business, and you should be very proud of yourself if you’re doing it. It takes guts and commitment to do it, and” as you said, Curtis, “passion.”
How business changes you
Julie Stanford: Given that you’ve all three of you been going for a while now, how are you different now to the way you are when you started, do you think? Do you think there’s been a change? Are you more philosophical? Are you more passionate? How are you different?
Soraya Shaw: I think the way that I’m different, when I left my previous world, I kind of denied wanting to use any of the skills that I had, for various different reasons. I think now, six years, seven years down the line, I’ve really learned how to marry it all, but I’m also much more focused on where I want to go and what I want to do, which has really shifted in the six years. I think, as you say, always having that vision about where you want to go. Certainly, when I was working, I never had a vision. Didn’t even know what it was really. Just that I might get promoted, might get a pay raise, and might get a new piece of business. So I think that actually driving yourself and being very focused on you and what you want to achieve is a big difference for me.
Julie Stanford: Curtis, how are you different, do you think, if at all? You might not be.
Curtis James: No, I think I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about … I think when I first started, I was a one-client business, and I think if you’ve got a good client paying you good money, it’s very easy to fall into that trap of just focusing on that. I learned the hard way that if you lose that client, that’s your workload and your money and your income gone. That’s an important lesson learned.
But also, I think, about looking after yourself. I’m doing this because I love doing it, and I want to work for myself, and I want to have my own business. Sometimes, you need to take a step back and have a little review of what you’re doing and what you’re getting out of it on an emotional level and a financial level and work out “Is it worth me putting my effort into those things, to be chopped away? What do I need to say no to a bit more?” And then refocusing where you really want to put your effort in.
Julie Stanford: Mark, do you think you’re different now?
Mark Walsh: Yeah. I regard business really as a very demanding personal-development practice.
Julie Stanford: Very demanding.
Mark Walsh: I think it’s transformative. For me, it’s really the sense of direction in the world. What I’m contributing to the world, what I’m all about is very clear. That’s just a fantastic gift. I’m very grateful that I get up and do what I love. I think I’m much happier. The other thing, for me, is really the integration of getting things done and being effective in the world, and also marrying that with the very human side of taking care of myself physically, the emotional life, relationships. So for me, yeah, it’s one of the most demanding personal practices I know of.
Julie Stanford: It certainly is. It’s like walking through fire at times, isn’t it?
An idea to end on
Julie Stanford: We’re coming to the end of this part of the show, and I’d just really like to … I mean, I normally say, “Could you give us a tip?” but actually this isn’t really relevant on today’s show. Maybe just a thought, an idea to end with that you might like our listeners to really think about.
Soraya Shaw: The key thing for me is, because when you’re running your business, there’s so many … As we’ve just been saying, there’s so much to think about, and you want to appeal to people. The key thing is just be authentic. Be who you are because, at the end of the day, we all work with people because we like people. You might be selling a widget, but you could buy a widget from Joe down the road. You work with people because you like them. So just stay true to who you are.
Julie Stanford: Mark, that probably resonates with you, as well, given what you were saying earlier about that human side of what you’re doing. What was the last thought for you, really?
Mark Walsh: Do what you love, and do it effectively.
Julie Stanford: Succinct. That’s a very clear last thought. Curtis, what about you?
Curtis James: I was going to say something very similar. Yeah.
Julie Stanford: Has he pinched your last thought, Curtis?
Curtis James: Well, it’s about doing stuff that you want to be doing, making space for that. Going back to what I was saying before about that’s why we started our businesses, generally, because we want to be doing these things, and sometimes you forget that.
Julie Stanford: There’s no question in my mind that, as I said earlier, I think it takes courage and determination to run a business, and I am always so impressed by people who do it. I do talks, and I see all these people sitting in the audience, and sometimes I just want to go out and hug them because I just think, “I’m so proud of you for doing this because it isn’t easy.” Not everyone can run a business. I know that the government would have us think that everyone can be entrepreneurial; we’re all potential business owners. I don’t think we are. This is my opinion, but I don’t think we are.
I think those of us who are managing it are doing something that actually takes courage, and so we should be proud of ourselves. I will unusually leave with a last thought on that really, that I think that anyone who’s doing it is doing something that makes life different, Mark, as you said. Thank you very much, the three of you, for coming on the show.
This show was originally recorded for Business As Usual on RadioReverb. I’m Julie Stanford. Thank you for listening to Essential Business Radio.