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.

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(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.

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(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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Thomson Directories – a tale of 400 towns

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It was in late 2000 that we first started work for Thomson Directories (TDL) at PCGraphics. We had only formed the company two years earlier in 1998, so taking on a prestigious contract such as this for TDL was a big step for a small, newly formed cartographic company.

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The contract was to produce more than 400 detailed maps of UK town and city centres which were to be used in the TDL Directories that are delivered annually to nearly every home in the country. The Directories at that time had up to four or five maps in each publication.

Previously, TDL had used the Automobile Association Cartographic Department for the supply of maps but, for a number of reasons, TDL decided to look elsewhere for a supplier.  Fortunately, PCGraphics were in a good position as several of our cartographic staff  had already worked on the TDL maps – the Automobile Association subcontracted the drawing of the maps to a cartographic company in Surrey where a number of us had worked previously.

The requirement was to create ‘royalty free’ maps of each of the 400+ locations. At that time, to produce a royalty free map (which means a map free of all copyright issues), we had to purchase aerial photography and, after taking it into a graphics programme (Macromedia Freehand initially and, later, Adobe Illustrator), trace all the roads and other linear features. The only way to obtain all the names of roads etc, without infringing any other publisher’s copyright, was to send staff to each location where they would annotate a printout of the map line-work with all the names from street signs etc.

This was obviously an extremely time consuming task as an average map could take up to one whole day of walking around every street writing down all the names – and we had more than 400 to do. Larger maps, such as London and other major cities, obviously took a lot longer. This street checking had to be done in sun, rain or snow as we had a tight schedule of map production to keep to.

Torquay-Battersea

Two of the smaller size maps created for Thomson Local Directories – Torquay and Battersea

Most of the production work – both the street checking and the actual map production – was carried out by permanently employed PCGraphics staff members. Several times though we did have to use freelance cartographers for elements of the work and, occasionally, this did cause us problems. One incident which is still indelibly burnt into our memories is where a freelancer, as far as we could make out, simply copied an old map of the town centre we asked them to produce, along with all the errors and omissions in that old map, and passed it back to us as a new map (which was supposed to have been drawn from scratch and street checked). This caused us enormous problems at the time as we had to independently check this freelancer’s work and then redraw the map ourselves.

One other error which slipped through the net was when a Sikh Temple in Huddersfield was wrongly marked on the map as a Mosque. This, understandably, provoked an adverse reaction from the Sikh community and the map had to be quickly amended. Interestingly, this map was also produced by the same freelancer as before. Unsurprisingly, we haven’t used that freelancer ever again!

But, fortunately, mistakes with the mapping were very few and far between. Keeping the majority of the work in-house meant we were able to apply a high level of quality control to the project which was essential with that number of maps and the tight schedule.

After the initial three year period producing the maps, the contract rolled on with updates to the maps, more new maps and improvements.

The contracts with Thomson Directories ran for nearly eleven years, the last work being done in 2011, and we are extremely grateful to Mike Callaghan, Steve Arnold and all the others at TDL whom we worked with over the years and who had faith in PCGraphics back in 2000 when awarding us that first contract.

Michael Callaghan, previously of Thomson Directories, writing on Linkedin:

Whilst working for Thomson Directories a few years ago, we had a requirement to change our cartographic supplier.
Speaking to Sally and Paul at PCGraphics we were impressed.
They were professional, realistic on timescales achievable, well organised, good communicators and the quality of their work was of the highest standard.
Our requirement was for over 400 town plan maps to be generated to a tight schedule.
Sally organised the ground surveys and generation of maps and we were very pleased with the end result which incidentally, was on time.
I would not hesitate to recommend Sally and the wealth of experience she brings to her work.

 

 

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