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By @SimonCocking great interview with Tony Robinson OBE, champion of small businesses. See more about Tony on his website here

How did you get to what you do now?

It’s mainly hard work but it is partly luck and passion.  The lucky break I’ve had is to work with brilliant women business partners throughout, and having an Irish wife, of course.  I’m sure having a passion for what we do helps too.  I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t go with my beliefs.

Integrity and doing ‘what you really believe in’ can be major assets of independent business owners. ‘Never do anything which means you have to cross the street to avoid someone’ and ‘Follow your heart’ was the great advice, when starting up, that  I was given by a business owner friend.

Certainly the 21 year old ‘I’ would not have expected and would probably have been very unimpressed to see what the 63 year old ‘me’ does.  My mum and dad ran their own very successful business, a sales agency in the timber trade, in East Yorkshire.  When my father died when I was 18 I so hated the idea of ‘being in business’ that my mum knew I wouldn’t be staying to help her run the business and I left for London to do a degree in English and Philosophy.

It was many years later that I realised how much I’d learned about running a business from helping out at home. Interestingly,  my business partners have parents that ran their own businesses. It’s not a bad idea to be an ‘apprentice’, for a few years, to a business owner before you go it alone.

Even when I took post graduate business qualifications, whilst at the 2 US multinationals I worked for,  my motivation was that I wanted to be a CEO by age 30 and I got there at 31. Then I started my own business at 34 with Clare Francis, and we still have that business.  2016 is our business’ 30th anniversary year.

It was 10 years into our business that we realised that the Government funded support being given to pre start and start-ups  was often just wrong  and dangerous – boiled down corporate management stuff – and so we founded a UK wide organisation (the SFEDI Group including the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs), now international, to improve the quality.

So, I’m an adviser and speaker on all matters to do with micro businesses because there was a need for one. I still like writing, theatre, sport, blues, chocolate and wine as much as business.

Did you always aim to help and give back to others trying to start their own businesses or did it evolve over time?

I don’t think of it as giving anything back – it’s just a problem I can help solve.   I have many entrepreneur friends.  Some  are famous and some are very wealthy, but most are neither famous nor wealthy. All of them give up their time free to help others.  That’s how communities work and we run #MicroBizMattersDay annually  because of this massive, voluntary effort.

I’ve never earned as much money as I did as an employed CEO thirty years ago.  We started our own business because like many people we wanted to be our own boss – control our own destiny.  If we’ve been successful it’s because we’ve achieved that – ‘freedom from bosses forever’ – to give the title of a ‘must read and very funny’ book ( by me).

All of us that are trying to make life better for prospective and existing micro (0-9 employees) business owners don’t expect any thanks and we won’t get any. We’ve just seen that there’s a playing field that needs to be levelled and we’ve learned, through research and experience, what needs to be done to level it.

We’ll never win any popularity contests  and this is a shame because I love applause.  For 15 years corporates have been in jobs melt down and the self-employed have provided the majority of new jobs in most countries.  In the UK 1 in 6 working adults run their own business and 600,000 started up last year – Ireland and most countries are similar. We think every one of these new business owners deserves the best possible chance to make ends meet.

What tips would you give to someone thinking of starting their own business?

Halve what you expect to earn in the first eighteen  months – hardly anything for 18 months isn’t unusual. Stay lean especially whilst you are test trading. Always test trade, preferably whilst you’re still in a job. Learn from real buying customers how to improve your offer. It’s best to bootstrap and not borrow. – and that will help you keep costs to the absolute minimum at the beginning.  Find a business owner that you trust to be your guide to the enterprise jungle.

Be very wary of generic advice, business management theory, gurus, investors, government schemes and lenders. They may not only take away your independence they can easily steer you in the wrong direction or pull the plug on your future.

The only advice that really counts has to be in the context of the business you’re running. Don’t expect to be able to write a business plan to get additional funding, from any source, until you’ve had 6 months trading with real customers – nearly every pre start business plan is pure fiction.

We should all go through the pain and tears of learning from customers what works. It’s what will make our business unique and sustainable. What I’ve said in this section increases the survival rate of new business owners, over 3 years, by at least 20%.

What aspects of being your own boss do you love the most?

It is the freedom and the fun of working with people you really like. I’m lucky to be paid as a speaker at events mostly comprising two different types of audience. One audience is of prospective and existing business owners and the other is employees in large corporations. The former audience is usually more fun because corporate employees are often at the event because they’re expected to be there whereas the business owners choose to be there. There seems to be a great deal of stress caused through constraining corporate policies and processes.

Most independent business owners are so close to their customers that every day is different.  On the last #MicroBizMattersDay I interviewed the top Savile Row tailor to the stars.  I now liken the satisfaction a business owner gets as being like this top  bespoke tailor whereas the corporate senior executive is more like a manager running a chain of off the peg suits shops.

Customers love it that we can take immediate decisions, risks even,  to help them more. Many of our customers are now close friends. So despite the inevitable long hours I can safely say this freedom that we have leads to more fun than we’d get in an employed position. One of my famous friends, millionaire plumber, Charlie Mullins, says that as an independent  business owner (and he’s got 300 staff, 200 vans and a £28 million business) you can say ‘What the hell – let’s try it’.

Doing something you really believe in makes time fly and controlling your own destiny becomes so important to you that you  become unemployable. On average self-employed and micro business owners like me earn 20% less than they would in an equivalent employed position. Yet  I wouldn’t  be employed again and I’m not the only one – surveys show we’re far happier than our employed equivalents.

Without naming names, what mistakes do you see people making over and over?

That’s easy – it is ‘not learning from your customers’.  Starting and running a business is all about trying things and learning from them. Being self-employed (90% of us start as one person businesses and 70% remain as one person businesses) is not a ‘planning’, ‘budgeting’ and ‘managing’ type role like you have in companies it’s a totally ‘hands on’, customer focused and ‘doing’ role. It’s primarily about gaining customers and ensuring positive cash flow.

Some blokes, and this is primarily a bloke thing, are too arrogant for their own good. I’m sorry to stereotype but more women succeed in their own business because they are flexible  about their offer,  their income and are willing to learn. Some blokes I’ve met think because they’ve had a highly paid job with all the trimmings that they know it all and deserve a wealthy lifestyle. They’re often the same people that borrow,  get funding or pitch to an investor before they’ve got paying customers.

With the ability to sell and grow your product online, has this changed the fundamentals of starting your own business, or do the same core values apply if you are going to be successful?

Your main role as a business owner is about winning and keeping customers and ensuring a positive cash flow and that hasn’t changed. The changes are in the business opportunities and the business models.  For example, we know a very high priced womenswear business that gets most of their new customers from out of town and that’s because of how they use facebook to promote their new lines.

Equally I know online selling has led to big price drops for many services and we are a service economy.  Some of the services our business provided 20 years ago – for good fees – are now available through such platforms as ‘people per hour’ and ‘freelancer.com’ at a tenth of the price. To take another example, content for printed or digital products can be quite difficult to sell because there is so much now available freely on the internet.

The great bonus for our business is that the cost of marketing, through say Linked In, Twitter and Mail Chimp is far less than when we used to buy expensive lists for direct mail campaigns. We can test new products and services cheaply, quickly and easily. Most businesses can now launch globally from day one.  It’s far easier to develop multiple income streams because of online selling and  this is a good for evening out the inevitable ups and downs in income.

We love business a lot more because of ‘going digital’ Because we’re in a freelance or ‘gig’ community collaboration is much easier too. So, our  book keeping is in Northampton,  our website is designed and updated  in France, our branding is designed  in Sheffield, our videographer is in Leeds and our photographer, TV broadcasting and radio partners are in different businesses in London. We share everything in the cloud and talk to each other most days on skype, hangouts or blab.

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#MicroBizMattersDay is a ‘go digital’ community and movement

Tina Boden and I co-founded and co-fund, the Enterprise Rockers movement to make business life better for micro enterprise owners everywhere. It’s free, informal, no sign up and is a totally independent network of networks.  In just four years we’ve been able to get to the point where our second #MicroBizMattersDay engaged with over a million business owners.  We trended on Twitter for 5 hours and had 8 hours live streaming, Blab and periscope of tips from over 50 entrepreneurs in the studio or joining in from all over the world.

Although all our famous entrepreneur friends like Tim Campbell, Penny Power, Charlie Mullins, Emma Jones, Chris Percival and the rapper & indie label owner, Sway, gave up their time free to come to the studio – we couldn’t have built this huge, global audience for them any other way but online.

#MicroBizMattersDay 3 on January 13th 2017 will engage with 10 million and there’ll be ten cities partying around the world, I hope that Dublin is one of them. All these City parties will link up with our London mega event and broadcasting from Pimlico Plumbers HQ.  It’s the ‘Power of Plenty’  and is mainly thanks to the power of social media -Twitter in particular.

Work / life balance – your tips on it?

Nope – I’ve no idea on that question.  I’ve always thought of work-life balance as an employee thing. Many people start a business to integrate their life and family priorities and situation into it. My Mum and Dad started their business from home when my Dad, because of illness, couldn’t hold down a job.

My two business partners, Clare and Tina, work from their homes 200 miles apart, because of their family priorities, whereas I work mostly from an office.  Most business owners I know  work a lot of hours so the only tip I can give is to be doing something you love that you have a real passion for – then you’ll persevere in the hard times. When it’s your own business you can still enjoy a holiday and enjoy thinking about how you can delight a customer – it’s not like work.

Websites http://TonyRobinsonOBE.com   (our business)

http://FreedomfromBossesForever.com (my writing)

http://MicroBizMattersDay.rocks (next #MicroBizMattersDay is Friday, January 13th 2017)


If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking