You may not always notice them, but microbusinesses and small- to medium-enterprises (SMEs) are the lifeblood of the UK economy – they compose more than 99% of all businesses. While running your own business can be highly rewarding, it’s not without its challenges. Here, three successful small-business owners discuss their motivation for starting up on their own, the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned.
The accidental entrepreneur who swears by a ‘test and learn’ approach
Holly Thomson didn’t set out to start a business. “I was on maternity leave last year and I started making clothes for my baby and just really liked the shape,” she says. That shape is now the distinctive Bomba, a unisex romper made from sustainable fabrics and designed to be grown into and handed down.
Thomson’s advice for anyone with a business idea is to “test and learn”, set little achievable goals and be flexible in your approach. “Eighty percent of my research was done on my phone while trying to get my baby to sleep,” she says. How Bomba looks online – its website and social media – is now very slick, thanks in part to a selection of free tools found via Google and a “rudimentary understanding of SEO” (search engine optimisation, which helps to ensure websites can be found).
Now back at her job four days a week, Thomson fits Bomba around her other work, but says she’s lucky that it still doesn’t feel like a business: “It feels like a hobby that’s just gone really well.” She says she looks forward to her “Bomba time” in the evenings – or at least, the little evening that she has. Her trick for avoiding burnout with a job, a business and a baby? “I know I’m someone who needs my sleep, so I’m in bed every night at 9pm.”
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The arts consultant who used networking to grow her profile
“After returning from living in south-east Asia for many years, I knew I wanted to continue my arts engagement work around identity,” says Samantha Allen, who has set up a business offering arts and heritage consultancy services. With her business, Creative Arts Social, she aims to tackle racism and colonialism in UK institutions. Explaining her motivations, she says: “When the Black Lives Matter movement was taking place in 2020, I became more and more drawn to networks and organisations that reflected my values.”
However, growing a business during a pandemic meant she had to find ways to adapt to restrictions. “Without the opportunity to mingle at post-conference drinks, meeting other attendees online can be a challenge,” says Allen. She advises aspiring entrepreneurs to pick events that make space in their schedule for discussions with other attendees, then maximising the limited time in the breakout rooms: “I always have my phone handy to connect with people on my apps.” It’s also vital to get to the point quickly, she adds: “I have a succinct elevator pitch ready to tell people about what I do briefly but meaningfully.”
Partly thanks to her networking, Allen now regularly hosts online sessions herself. She makes a conscious effort to be as inclusive and engaging as possible, including quizzes and online polls so that “those who may be silent also have a chance to participate”. Beyond that, virtual networking is not that different from face-to-face. “You may find nothing happens for three to six months, but you are planting seeds and you’ve got to give them time to grow,” she says.
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The wine seller who connects with family to stay grounded
Le Social is as much a lifestyle brand as it is a wine company, selling independent, organic and biodynamic wines from a trendy Manchester-based shipping container and through stockists, restaurants and events across the city and beyond.
“I first started a wine events company back in December 2019 and had a full summer planned out – then the pandemic hit,” says Le Social owner Jérôme Boullier. Instead of being deterred, however, he pivoted. “I ended up starting a delivery service for my friends, cycling round on my bike to deliver it. It was the middle of Pride and also the Black Lives Matter [protests], so I decided to put the profits towards an LGBTQIA+ charity for people of colour,” he says. A year later – with a fully fledged business behind him – Le Social hosted an alternative Pride event at its popup venue, raising £2,600 for four charities. One of them was Rainbow Noir – the same organisation he supported in the beginning.
For Boullier, this is an example of how there’s no point in fixating on “setbacks” as a business owner. “Once you consider the charity donations, we actually made a loss – but is that a setback?” he asks. He is philosophical about his approach to business (“It’s just like in life: opportunities come and go”) and draws strength from his community – although he went into business alone, he always thinks of Le Social as a “we” since he’s so close to his suppliers.
When Boullier needs a break from the day-to-day challenges, he will “go completely off grid, just to get away from the noise”. He also has a secret weapon for gaining perspective. “The other night I called my grandma for an hour, and when the conversation turned to business – as it always does – she was great at bringing me back down to Earth,” he says. “Your family have known you since the day you were born, and they will tell you what really matters.”
Tech tip: To make sure your business stands out online, check out Google My Business, where you can create a digital storefront for your company that shows up in Google Search and Maps, informing customers of opening times, service areas, offers and more.
Discover the tools, training and support Google provides to help businesses across Britain grow at grow.google/intl/uk