Monday, 21 November 2011

The Tide Turning?

It's been 2 months since I last wrote to you but rest assured I've not been idle. The rare quiet time I get has been spent on a very important task. One that could launch me to a whole new level of success. Or see me down the nearest bankruptcy court. One or t'other.

If you remember (or can be bothered scrolling back to previous posts) there are health issues within my family that make it unwise for me to leave the house for long periods of time every day. That's assuming I could find a damn job anyway, which is a lot easier said than done.

I've spent most of my adult life working for myself and it was always my aim to get back to being self employed. It's true what they say, once you've worked for yourself it's really hard to enjoy working for someone else. Since I left college over 3 years ago I've always put my efforts into starting projects that could lead me back to self employment. The only stumbling block has always been money. To be precise, the total lack of it in my bank account.

Considering that for about 4 years we've been in a recession/credit crunch/whatever other fancy name economists want to put on it, you'd think the government would have wanted to do whatever it could to encourage people to start their own businesses so they can use their skills and initiative to graft their way back to solvency. It's always been my attitude that if someone didn't want to take me on then I'd make some sort of opportunities for myself. Yet up until recently the help offered to get the jobless to try self employment has been pretty poor. You had to be signing on for between 6 and 12 months only, attend a start-up course at the local Business Link centre and then you'd be entitled to about £50 a week for a certain amount of time. So that's fine if you could guarantee to make up the £15 a week you'd be losing (or more depending on your benefits). For an art and design business, where my cash flow would consist of larger but irregular payments, that was too much of a gamble and I didn't have a cash reserve to fall back on.

That and the fact the 2 guys running the course were idiots.

Now though things have changed and this year saw the reintroduction of the Enterprise Allowance, which actually helped me start my first business back in the late '80s. This time you have to attend regular mentoring sessions at your local partner agency (in my case the Black Country Chamber of Commerce - the disappointing Business Link service thankfully no longer exists although their website's still up and actually very useful). Over the space of 8 weeks you're guided through filling in a template for a business plan and, once that's approved, you can decide whether or not you really want to start your business. If so, you're passed back to the Job Centre who'll switch you from receiving Job Seeker's Allowance to New Enterprise Allowance. This is the same amount (£65 a week) as JSA for the first 13 weeks, then drops down to £33 for another 13 weeks. There's an optional cut-price loan of up to £1,000 if you need it and you can continue to get help from your business mentor. So at least I won't be any worse off for 13 weeks plus obviously I can keep whatever I earn. Whilst unemployed, if I'd cashed in any of my royalties from my online shops, for example, that would have been deducted from my benefits so in effect I'd have been working for nothing.

Creative people tend to have a phobia of business plans. Too many facts and targets for our expressive brains to handle. Thankfully this mentoring process made it pretty painless. I could easily complete the sections where I explain the vision for my business - oh boy do I have LOADS of ideas I want to try out! My mentor Sarah then broke down the market research questions into bite sized chunks and told me exactly what type of competing businesses to look at and what sort of information I should be finding out about them. Having a check list to tick off made it a lot more focused and manageable. Then for the REALLY scary bit, the financial planning, it was just a case of filling in a form listing my incomings and outgoings and she ran that through an Excel spreadsheet to form a 12 month financial projection. Phew, I'm glad she tackled that one for me!

The process of writing the business plan turned out to be a useful way to mull over my ideas and put my priorities in order. Projects which I thought would form an important part of my business got put on the back burner when I realised others would be easier to expand and reformat to use in various different ways. So I now have a business plan template I feel comfortable using and I can rewrite it whenever I want to examine the feasibility of a new project idea.

All I need now is for the Job Centre to get their backsides into gear and sort the paperwork for me. It'll have been 2 weeks between the end of mentoring and my next Job Centre appraisal. It should have been today but I got a phone call postponing it, literally 10 minutes before I was due to leave the house. At this time of year, when I was hoping to start the business off with a big Christmas giftware push, that's a lot of valuable time being wasted!

Of course, a business plan can't prepare you for everything. In my next post I'll explain the bit I'm REALLY not confident about, which is why I started this post by saying my gamble could land me in the bankruptcy court!

•If you live in England, Wales or Scotland and have been unemployed for over 6 months, you may be eligible to apply for the New Enterprise Allowance.

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