Starting a Business

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Many of us dream of working for ourselves, being our own boss and making all the decisions instead of working for someone else. But how many people actually do it? This is our story of how we got started, the pitfalls, the traumas (and there were a few along the way), the things we’d never, ever do again and the satisfaction when things went right.

Our story actually started a short while before we formed the company in 1998. All three of the Directors who started the company had worked for other cartographic companies in the past, and we’d all also worked together at one time or another.

Our reasons for wanting to start the company were probably all different – whether it was dissatisfaction at where one of us was working, someone needing a new challenge or just the thought that we really couldn’t do any worse than some of the previous bosses we’d had and would hopefully actually be a bit better.

Anyway, the suggestion was made that we should go our own way and the three of us took the idea and ran with it. I’m not quite sure we knew where we were running to, but it felt good.

Then came the reality of company formation, accountants, Articles of Memorandum, business bank accounts, commercial Estate Agents, leases and solicitors. And, on top of that, work was coming in and maps had to be produced.

We struck lucky on the bank account, opening an account with the NatWest purely on the basis that one of us had a personal account with them. We were allocated a Business Advisor by the name of Brendan Minihane and he helped us enormously through those first months, and even for years afterwards. I know it’s not fashionable to praise banks these days, but some of his advice was invaluable and set us off in the right direction. Yes, he did try to sell us various add-ons, insurance and the like but I think he quickly got used to the answer ‘No, thanks’. Can’t blame the man for trying though.

The next big hurdle was office space. None of us had any experience of renting office space so we were flying by the seats of our pants. Fortunately, we fell on our feet with decent, modern offices in a converted church hall in Guildford and a flexible lease. It was at this time that we won our first big contract, with Thomson Directories. We had many other clients as well but it was the sheer bulk of work for Thomson’s that enabled us to quickly expand.

the_hall

(The Hall, Woking Road, Guildford – our first offices)

In fact, we expanded so quickly that within a short period of time we were employing fourteen full time staff and a number of freelancers too. Which was a problem in itself.

The problem wasn’t so much in actually employing people (we’d have input from solicitors and Human Resources experts to help with the legal side of things) and had many applications for employment. No, the real problem was finding the right people. We quickly learnt that a  University Degree was no guarantee of a person’s competence or even their ability to work in an office environment. Added to that, we were also looking for an ability to draw maps. We found some very good staff, but we found an awful lot of very poor ones too.

With the number of staff rising we made the decision to move to larger offices, this time to Old Woking, Surrey. We also took on two new salesmen and looked at finding new markets for our maps. Some time before this one of the Directors dropped out and we were down to the two Directors we have today, Sally and Paul Cooney.

westminster_court

(1 Westminster Court, Old Woking – our offices up until 2008)

With hindsight, moving offices was probably a mistake. But our biggest mistake was taking on a 10 year lease on the new offices. No-one can foresee the future and 10 years is an awful long time in business. It’s not that we weren’t doing ok, we were, but we kept thinking of the higher costs (higher rent, higher business rates, service charges etc) for the larger offices than we had previously and how much better off we’d have been.

Eventually we took the plunge and bought ourselves out of the remainder of the lease and changed the set up of the business, moving to using more freelance cartographers rather than permanent staff.

This had an immediate positive effect on the Company and we had some of our best years ever. It also coincided with the massive downturn in the UK economy (we’re talking 2008 here) but now, with our overheads substantially reduced, we were fairly immune to the forthcoming recession. Fortunately, we also had some major contracts during this period and the Company remained buoyant.

Switching away from permanent staff and working with freelancers also gave us the opportunity to move away from where we had been based in Surrey to the much more relaxed location of the Isle of Wight, which is where we are now.

Which brings us just about up to date.

We’ve learnt a lot over the last 16 years since starting the business. We’ve had a lot of highs and a few lows along the way. We’ve enjoyed drawing maps for a lot of household name companies (British Airways, Virgin, IKEA, Automobile Association, Thomson Directories and Thomas Cook to name but a few) plus thousands of much smaller businesses. Would we do it all over again? Almost certainly, but wouldn’t it be great to do it with the benefit of hindsight too!

 

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