WiseOwl Training - Established 1992 Wise Owl Training

Established May 1992
30 years in business
Wise Owl Training
30 years in business
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5 messages for anyone thinking of starting their business
This blog lists our 5 worst moments from the first 30 years of Wise Owl, and the 5 bits of advice these would prompt me to give to anyone thinking of starting their own business.

You can see a summary of our 30th anniversary nostalgia (and celebrations) here.

Posted by Andy Brown on 25 February 2022

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5 messages for anyone thinking of starting their business

I'm deeply suspicious of anyone giving advice.  How can I put myself in your shoes?  Surely your abilities, experiences and hopes will be very different from mine?  But despite this, I thought I'd look back on our 5 lowest moments in the past 30 years to see if I can extract any useful messages from them.

You might be wondering why I'm not writing a blog on advice gleaned from the 5 best moments of running Wise Owl.  There are two reasons for this: a) I'm a natural pessimist and b) you learn so much more when things go wrong than when they go right.

Number 5 - Cold calling (message: know your first clients)

Jenny's already described how much we both hated cold calling potential clients.  The truth is, it didn't even bring in much work (the only time I can ever remember succeeding was in selling a course to a manufacturing company in Liverpool).

When we began, we relied almost entirely on four clients (three Jenny used to work with, and one I used to work for).  Until the Internet came along we struggled to expand our client base, and we still rely almost entirely on repeat business.  So the first message I would give to anyone thinking of starting a business is:

No one will be interested in your product or service initially - don't start unless you can name your first 3 clients.

Number 4 - Binding before our wedding (message: be prepared to work hard)

A question for you if you're married: can you remember what you were doing the night before your wedding?  I know what Jenny and I were doing at 1am in the morning: binding manuals.  I don't think I've worked that much harder for Wise Owl than I would have had I remained in my previous job, but there have certainly been many periods of intensive activity!

My second message would be this brutal but realistic advice:

Don't set up on your own unless you're fit, able to work full time and have the support of your family and friends. 

Number 3 - Our largest client ending our contract (message: review your aims)

For the first 10 years of Wise Owl we relied heavily on delivering training (and to a lesser extent consultancy) for a major oil company near Ellesmere Port.  It was terrible news when we learnt that they were going to start using a different training provider, taking over 50% of our income away.  However, what it actually allowed us to do was to develop other services and other clients, and we've not looked back since - I think Jenny and I would both agree that losing our largest client was the best thing which ever happened to us. 

So message three:

For the last few years we've made a list of a few things that we'll try to achieve in each coming 12 months.  Had we done that in the first 10 years of our business life, I don't think we'd have ended up drifting comfortably for so long.  So: have a few clear aims which you focus on relentlessly, but which you're at the same time prepared to change over time!

Number 2 - Buying an office (message: don't take on overheads willingly)

At some time in the late 1990s (I can't remember exactly when) we decided it would be a good idea to buy an office:

Britannia Road, Sale

15/17 Britannia Road, Sale (aka "The White Elephant")

This might have been a good idea if it hadn't been next to a garage on an industrial estate, and far bigger than we needed at the time.  We had to move within a couple of years, after spending many a happy evening and weekend renovating it.

You should never worry too much about raising your direct costs when business is going well, as you can always reduce them when the tide turns.  You should be very careful, however, about taking on fixed costs (and in particular leases or property purchases).

Number 1 - COVID (message: employ amazing people)

It's strange that in 30 years the worst moment should have happened so recently.  On 23rd March 2020 Boris Johnson announced a full lockdown.  We were enjoying one of our busiest ever periods, but within a few days every single one of the courses we had booked in was cancelled, and we had no prospect of delivering the classroom courses which were our sole real source of revenue.

It was a grim moment (I confess to crying during a staff meeting).  What happened next still makes me emotional.  Andrew, Rachel, Sam and Shaun (and Dave, Jenny and I) worked together to launch - from scratch - an online training service within a couple of months, and within 6 months we'd fine-tuned it to include the use of remote desktop to monitor delegates' progress (I think special mention at this point to Andrew for pushing the whole project forward and to Dave for solving many of the technical problems).  This taught us something which we actually already knew:

If you're recruiting, don't settle for second-best: it's better not to employ anyone than to take on someone who you don't think is right for the job.

I do have one more message for anyone considering setting up their own business: you are much more likely to do it if you ... do it!  If you want to get rich (we didn't, but we've enjoyed the journey nonetheless) this book by Felix Dennis gives the best advice I've ever read, including explaining the sacrifices you'll have to make.

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