Caitlin Sykes

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Going it alone

Innes Fisher, owner of ULS.
Innes Fisher, owner of ULS.

After spending more than 30 years working in IT for big companies Innes Fisher decided to set up his own business late last year.

Fisher says his business, ULS - which locates and maps underground services - is going well, but given he's the only one working in the operation that means busy working days - and nights and weekends.

The absence of colleagues to call on for advice and support, and having to be a jack of all trades are also challenges, he says.

"One of the aspects I didn't really think through enough is the diversity of skills you need to run a successful business," Fisher says.

"In a large organisation you have other departments - sales, marketing, finance, legal - to take care of all the functions that make up a business, and while you might not think a zero-employee company needs all of them, you pretty much do to be successful."

Fisher is not alone in going it alone. A whopping 326,000 businesses, or 69 per cent of all firms in New Zealand, have zero employees, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's 2014 Small Business Sector Report.

While that doesn't mean all of these business owners never work with others - some might hire in contractors, for example, or have unpaid family members working in the business - there are an awful lot of small business owners shouldering their operations alone.

Fisher says some of the strategies he's used to get around his challenges include taking on a business mentor, tapping online forums for advice and calling on a range of other professional advisors and personal supporters.

"Being in a company of one, everything ultimately falls on your shoulders, but I love the fact that you are in almost total control of your own future. Every success is ultimately yours," he says.

Graham Southwell is the national director of BNI New Zealand, a business and professional networking organisation that has a number of members who are solopreneurs.

Southwell says it can be lonely going it alone and it's easy to get swamped by everything that needs to get done when you're the only one in a business.

"What we encourage people to do is to take some time out to work on your business rather than in your business," says Southwell.

"It's like anything that's important - you need to set the time aside to support your business. It's like making the time to go work out, where you say on these days at these times I'm not available. It's healthy for your business and needs to get done otherwise all of your time will get absorbed."

Solopreneur Lauren Callender - owner of The Aviary, a retail homewares store in Gisborne and online shop - has hit on a way to find strength in numbers even though she's going it alone.

Callender shares a retail space in the historic Poverty Bay Club with three other business owners, splitting the rent and rostering the time each owner works in the shared space.

"It allows me to work five days a week, even though the business runs for six. I feel confident that when I'm not in the shop it's being well taken care of, because the people working there have a vested interest in the store and know the stock, customers and procedures really well," Callender says.

She says the environment enables her to bounce ideas off others, stay motivated and keep overheads low.

Callender established her business three years years ago and despite the challenges says she loves the variety that going it alone brings.

"One of the things I love about going it alone is the variation from day to day. I can be ordering and unpacking new stock, uploading new products to the website, advertising, even doing the accounts and vacuuming. The days fly by and I'm never watching the clock."

Innes Fisher, ULS

Innes Fisher is the owner of ULS, a business that locates and maps underground services.

Why did you want to go it alone?

I'd spent more than 30 years working in IT for large organisations and I'd really come to a point when that type of work no longer held my interest.

I started ULS in late in 2013 after I spent quite some time researching the business opportunity, which included training in Australia, time with a similar Melbourne-based business, and then two months working in central London for a UK firm. I'd already been doing a bit of work for a big company analysing ground-penetrating radar data only because I had an IT background. It was one of those left-field opportunities that comes along in life. You can choose to let it slip by or take up the challenge.

Some of the desire to start a business was also fuelled by the potential to do everything 'my way'. Since I started ULS there hasn't been a day when I didn't want to get up and go to work. That's not to say I don't wake up and think about all the challenges I have owning a small startup, but I wouldn't go back to the corporate world unless I had to.

What are some of those challenges?

One of the aspects I didn't really think through enough is the diversity of skills you need to run a successful business. In a large organisation you have other departments - sales, marketing, finance, legal - to take care of all the functions that make up a business, and while you might not think a zero-employee company needs all of them, you pretty much do to be successful.

The other downside is not being able to talk over ideas or issues with workmates. Getting advice is easy when you have the diversity of skill and knowledge you'd find in a corporate. I think that's the hardest transition to make from corporate life to being a 'one-man-band'. I'm lucky in that my work now brings me into contact with a lot of different people and that makes up for the social interactions you would get from a large business environment, but there are some days that I miss being able to talk over a technical problem or get independent advice from a colleague.

One thing I will say about my time in the corporate world is that you'd be surprised how much knowledge you pick up by osmosis. While you might not have all of the practical skills of every other department, plenty of exposure to the work of others does give you an edge.

What are some of the things you've done to overcome these challenges?

One of my best moves was to get a business mentor. We meet monthly and talk about how the business is going and how it might grow. Being the sole employee can be very isolating at times so getting out and talking to other people is an important way to deal with that.

Talking over technical issues has been the biggest challenge I've faced so far, but that's where developing a network of contacts and peers in your particular industry is really important. It never ceases to amaze me at how highly skilled people are so willing to share their knowledge. I use online forums and groups to ask for help and advice.

Help with the practical aspects of a running a business can always come from elsewhere. I've found a good accountant, lawyer and banker have helped meet some specific needs and friends, family, and a patient partner are also good sources of advice and help.

Your business has been going for not quite a year, but what are some of the highs you've had since going it alone?

The biggest high so far has been landing our first major contract. That was when I knew taking the plunge had been worth the risk. Part of the reason I think we won that contract was because of my years of experience in a corporate setting. Report writing, writing proposals, and budgeting, were all part and parcel of big business and I think they gave me an edge when it came to presenting a strong proposal.

Being in a company of one, everything ultimately falls on your shoulders, but I love the fact that you are in almost total control of your own future. Every success is ultimately yours.

Coming up in Small Business: What are the main considerations if you're looking at taking on staff for the first time? How do you go about figuring out what kind of person you need, where do you find them, and what's the right selection process? If you've got a good story to tell about how to build a team, get in touch: nzhsmallbusiness@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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