It comes as no great surprise to me that a recent report by the Office for National Statistics showed 4.7 million self-employed people in the UK in the first quarter of 2016. With the freedom and benefit that breaking free from traditional working chains affords, there is no doubt that number will continue to rise.
The original driver behind my business
Before I set up my business back in 2004/5 I had tried doing ad hoc freelance projects. However, I decided to take a job part-time in an international law firm because freelancing was time consuming and erratic. Marketing wasn’t a skill I had developed. All I wanted was a regular income working flexibly. I thought a part-time job would give me the desired flexibility to manage my work/life balance. I was wrong. The hours I worked for this firm may have been part-time, but the flexibility was non-existent. And flexibility was key to making my life work as I had young children to pick up from school, and look after.
Setting up my business seemed the obvious way to get the balance I was searching for, albeit, I sensed it would be time consuming to get the business off the ground. Entrepreneurship worked for me because I was willing to put in the long hours to achieve my objective of having the freedom to pick and choose when to work. For example, I wanted to break up my day by taking a few hours off in the afternoons, and work later in the evening instead, once my daughters had gone to bed.
The business slowly got off the ground. My learning curve was extremely steep. Gradually, business began to come in thanks to a networking circle I joined, my website, and also due to repeat business from existing clients.
The new dilemma
Fast forward twelve years and I found myself once again facing another work/life dilemma. I had originally set up my business to allow me to work on my own terms, which is what I needed all those years ago. Now I was feeling more and more like a slave to this monster that I had created: my ambitions for the business had me renting a big office and recruiting a large team to fill it.
I realised that what I had worked so hard to achieve was no longer working for me. The life I was living was not the one I had envisaged when I started along this path – the flexibility I had once craved was no longer there. While I don’t have young children to look after now, I still crave the freedom to work flexibly, and not to be chained to an office. Yet I had to come into the office every day because that is where my team was. I dreamed of working from home, getting out and about meeting interesting people, popping into the office only when required. If only I could grow the team to a size where it would be feasible to pay a highly experienced manager to run the office.
Growing the Business
I needed to bring about change again. Only this time I didn’t need to create something new, I just needed to readjust my thinking on what it means to run a successful business. I had to stop listening to all the business advice out there which had led me to believe that there was a particular way to grow a business. I had to listen to my own needs and find a way to achieve my ambitions on my own terms.
While I still firmly believe you need the right team around you, and that they are crucial to a business’ success, what I’ve subsequently learned is that they don’t need to physically be around you, and nor do they need to be permanent full-time employees.
And so earlier this year I made the call to downsize the office space and have a team that works remotely – coming together at the office only when necessary, such as for meetings.
Despite the huge changes…
So far it has proven to be the best thing I could have done for myself and the business hasn’t suffered even though the transition has coincided with huge changes within the business. For example, we were moving to using new systems to replace our legal case management solution with Microsoft Dynamics. That had been on the agenda for more than a year. Moving to the new platform we use, not just for CRM, but also for managing our cases and files, has entailed a new accounting system, time recording system, new processes in the business for taking on clients, and countless other changes. Doing all this at a time when we moved to remote working has been doubly difficult. We lost a few team members along the way too.
Nevertheless. all this change has been worthwhile because I had fallen out of love with the business, and now I’m enthused again.
Everything I’ve learnt about entrepreneurship tells me that the mindset and attitude of the business owner is crucial to success. So, I knew that I had to look after my own needs first, just as in an emergency on a plane you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. I now know how vital it is to find your own way of doing things in business. You have to be happy and engaged in your business if you’re to succeed. So, don’t put your needs on hold, like I did with mine for all those years.
Now, four months on, I am really loving my business again. Working remotely allows me to attract a wider pool of quality talent from far and wide. Some are freelancers who work on occasional projects, while others are more regularly involved in the business.
I’m outsourcing the maintenance of our CRM database, and development of business processes to a specialist who has done this sort work many times before. Instead of giving such tasks to paralegals, I now use experts to deal with everything I want to delegate.
The general advice about growing a business had me retaining a team of paralegals in order to be ready to deal with the increased work once it came in. As they were not fully occupied in the meantime, I had spare capacity to use up. So, I would assign tasks like writing web pages, brochures, researching blog posts and the like to the team of paralegals. The goal was to grow fast in order to engage a manager to run the office so I could be free to work from home.
It seems ridiculous in retrospect. The approach of increasing capacity with the aim of growing proved expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful as team members were not particularly interested in doing work outside their area of desired expertise. Even though it’s important for lawyers to learn how to sell legal services, few of them actively want to learn the skills that go with it.
Outsourcing such work to freelancers with the right expertise is proving revolutionary because it saves so much of my own time. Instead of virtually having to rewrite everything, I often just make a few tweaks, and the job’s done. And by not having to go into an office every day my time has been freed me up, so I can now focus on what really matters.
My point is this: to run a successful business doesn’t involve following a linear path that others take or advise. This book by John Lamerton Big Ideas… For Small Businesses perfectly captures my philosophy about business. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Forge your own path. Do what works for you, and for your customers. Be very wary of following advice out of context. It may not work for you personally. Instead assess what it is you really desire for your life. Then be true to your own needs, and you will find a way to develop your own roadmap to business success.
In a future blog, I’ll discuss why our new approach of remote working now runs through every aspect of the Azrights brand. It provides us with engaged, motivated team members, who are attracted to working with us because of the flexibility on offer. The benefit to clients is that we can provide an extremely high quality of expertise at affordable prices. So, ultimately, remote working better caters to our clients’ needs too.