Taking a small business up a level is challenging for founders. Between the time spent doing the day job that earns the cash and the time devoted to the admin and paperwork of running a business, founders can quickly find there’s little capacity left to grow the business.
I need another me, basically,’ says Andy Holland, founder and owner of Holland’s Electrical. Andy set up his electrical services company in January 2017, specialising in restaurants and hospitality businesses. ‘I’d love to be able to expand, but it’s just not that easy,’ he says.
There are 29% more small and medium businesses operating in the UK now than there were 10 years ago, and they have created 73% of all new jobs since 2010. But taking a business to the next level presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum for many founders.
For Andy, growing Holland’s Electrical would need marketing, to get new customers, and employing another electrician – both of which require his time and attention, and time is something he doesn’t have.
An average day might start around 6.30am, answering emails or sending quotes to prospective clients, before heading to the first job of the day at 8am. Eight hours later, he leaves the site and heads home to an evening of catching up on paperwork, pricing new projects, sending invoices and ordering new materials.
‘We try and do an eight-hour day on the tools, but it sometimes feels like I do another eight hours in the evening and the next morning, so it’s exhausting. Sometimes I’m up until 10 or 11 o’clock at night so I can get a proper day’s work completed before the next day.’
Paperwork takes up a large amount of Andy’s time; invoicing software is helping him to streamline some of the admin, but for other aspects of the job there isn’t a straightforward answer. Writing up quotes for prospective projects isn’t practical to outsource to someone else who hasn’t seen the job, he says.
Being hampered by admin is a common challenge for sole traders and micro business owners. According to the Federation of Small Business, British small businesses lose as much as three weeks each year just on tax compliance.
‘Ordering materials is sometimes a pain. I make lists and have to go into the wholesalers sometimes, or get on your phone or on the internet to order, and then make sure it turns up when it’s supposed to. It would be great to outsource that.’
Getting the work hasn’t been a problem so far. Andy had a good reputation as a sole trader before establishing his company, and he’s specialised in a niche. So he’s been able to grow his customer base organically and rely on word-of-mouth.
Andy’s in the process of developing a website for Holland’s Electrical, to help generate more customers and ultimately expand the business. ‘I know other contractors who’ve got websites, Instagram accounts, Facebook, LinkedIn – they’ve got all of these things and at the moment I can’t find five minutes to have a cup of tea, let alone set up a website,’ he says. ‘But website design isn’t cheap. It’s either make the company bigger and employ staff or spend £5,000 on a website. It’s tricky and I want to get it right.’
Growing his business will sooner or later require more staff, but finding the right candidate is tough and time-consuming. ‘I can’t find anyone that wants to jump ship from where they are at the moment,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult to find the right person who’d work with our company.’
It’s a familiar story: skilled professionals striking out on their own quickly find that while they have passion for their venture, they’re less prepared for – and not interested in – the admin of running a business. ‘When you start out training as an electrician, no one tells you you’re going to spend most of your day in the office,’ Andy says.
‘The size we are at the moment, everything is quite tricky. It’s constantly balancing and struggling to divide time correctly. Working on-site is definitely what comes most naturally to me. [Business management] didn’t come naturally at the start but I’m definitely better at that now. I realised that I had to stop and tackle that side of the business, because if I don’t, the business is never going to expand.’