The juggle between working on, and in, a startup business

As a firm of commercial lawyers, we provide a service to businesses. My own specialism is employment law so my days in our startup business are filled with a stream of clients’ problems to solve and assist with.

As an employment lawyer, my work is often fast paced and reactive to problems arising so it’s impossible to plan your day (I’ve spent 20 years trying and failing).

You never know what the next phone call or email will bring. Today, for example, has consisted of a telephone call from a client at 8am who had a difficult upcoming performance management meeting with an employee at 9am. He wanted to talk through how he should deal with it and what his options were if he didn’t hear and see the progress he was expecting.

As I was finishing that call, a client rang to talk about restructuring the management team of a business he has just bought and this was all before I got on a train to go to London for a day of meetings with a group of clients who are leaving their jobs to startup their own company with the backing of some investors. So today’s working on my startup business will be limited to what I can fit in to the train journey.

I love my job as an employment lawyer, and have spent years gaining knowledge and experience which I can pass on to clients to help them run successful businesses, but nearly four years ago I took the step of starting my own business and that was a new learning curve completely.

Not only did I have to provide a great service to clients to generate an income, I now had to find time to make sure that the business functioned, was compliant, profitable and grew.

Before I had started trading I had created a startup business plan. One of the advantages of having a regulator as a solicitor is that you need to apply for registration before you can start trading.

As part of that registration process you had to submit a business plan. I found it difficult to do and cursed the need to put all my ideas and plans down on paper when all I wanted to do was get on with starting the business – but I had to do it and that was something I later appreciated because that business plan (although it quickly became out of date) created the blueprint for the business and provided an anchor in those very early days when everything was new and lots of people wanted to know what we were about.

Without a doubt this key piece of preparation saved a lot of time in the early days and allowed me to concentrate more time in the business generating income when it really mattered but doing it in a planned way.

Likewise, I needed to do some financial projections both for my own sanity and to make sure I could continue to pay my mortgage and support my family. I’m the first to admit I’m a words person (just as well as a lawyer) and numbers were never my strong point, but it all sounded relatively straightforward and something I’m sure I could have managed myself if I’d spent some time on it.

When time is such an important resource, I decided to delegate this task because it would have eaten into valuable time if I’d tried to do it myself. I needed help to get these financial projections in shape so I asked around for recommendations for a good accountant.

I found one and agreed a fixed monthly fee to support me for the first 12 months so that I could budget accurately. I didn’t like spending money in outsourcing this task because I thought I could do it myself, but that decision to invest in my startup business undoubtedly freed up so much time in those early days again, allowing me to concentrate on working in the business and generating income when it mattered.

My network is something I have relied on heavily since starting the business. I work with lots of recruitment companies and one of my clients, having sold her recruitment business, had moved in to business coaching.  She identified some government funding which would support growing businesses and she became a mentor and business coach. This was probably the best thing that I did in helping me grow the business and creating time to work on the business without neglecting working in the business.

We met monthly, which at the start sounded like a significant time commitment, but actually was right for those early days. We met away from the office, which again gave me palpations when she suggested it, but again was exactly the right thing to do. Getting away from my desk, computer and phone. Talking and thinking about the startup business in a different environment really helped get away from the day to day trials and tribulations and helped me see the bigger picture.

Probably the most important aspect to these sessions was the time we spent concentrating on what we’d achieved, and not my long list of things that I still needed to do and which remained untouched. I genuinely came away from those sessions with a spring in my step and bubbling with ideas.

With the confidence that my startup business was moving in the right direction and with a clearer vision of what I needed to concentrate on in the next few weeks.

I really think that those structured sessions, which were set aside to think about the bigger picture, kept me sane and helped us achieve our phenomenal growth in a sustainable and sensible way. There are some big and scary decisions that you need to make as a business owner, ones which are much easier to make if you can see them as part of the bigger picture and long-term plan – but to do that you need a plan and to find time to focus your vision on those bigger and long term goals. For me the business coaching and mentoring helped me do just that.

Has finding time to work on the business become easier four years on? A little bit, because I now have a bigger team around me who can pick up some of the day-to-day tasks that need to be done. But it’s still as big a challenge as ever, because I still have clients whose companies I support alongside the need to work in the business – generating income. But it’s something that I regularly make time for in my diary, away from the office and all the welcome distractions that it brings.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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