Just the job: "I started my business straight after graduating"
Ever been tempted to just sack off the corporate ladder and go it alone? Here's how.
James Cook decided that graduate schemes and
ready-made careers weren't for him. So he started up his own IT
consultancy, Spider Group, fresh out of university. He
explains his story.
As I was coming to the end of university in the year 2000, I
knew I didn't want to carry on in chemistry. I looked at graduate
programmes, but I just didn't really fancy them. I didn't want to
go up the corporate ladder.
I'd always been interested in IT. During my second year
holidays, I'd had a job working as a software tester for (and
generally helping out) a local IT recruitment company. I had a chat
to them when I graduated, and they asked me to consult. I did a
little project for them, and I did a bit of contracting elsewhere.
And that was it. I had a web domain and I set up my IT consultancy
straight after graduating.
I just thought I might as well give it a go. The view I took was
that if I took the risk and started a business, then the extra
amount of debt if it didn't work out was pretty negligible. I'd met
people that were accountants who earned too much to quit and start
something of their own - I never wanted to be that person.
I work pretty hard at things, so I knew I'd better be doing
something I like. Some of my family members had their own
businesses, so I knew basics like setting up an invoice, and I'd
helped people at uni with things like that. The IT work I'd
done in the past gave me confidence too: I knew I could help people
fix their IT problems and help them understand how IT could help
My family didn't want me to go straight into running a business.
But I'm quite a determined person and I carve out my own way. My
friends were very supportive. One of my friends was working in
finance, and he gave me a hand. He helped me through a few cash
crises too. In return, I made him a non-executive director of my
company and he has a minority shareholding. I got a graduate loan
to help finance the business, and my girlfriend supported me
financially, plus friends and family.
I went on a Business Link course about sales after the guy
running it gave me a big discount. He took a bit of a shine to me
and helped me find work. The first few years were quite
interesting, trying to find the right clients. I tried doing a bit
contracting to plug the cashflow gap, but that meant I didn't have
time to network and meet with people to find new clients. In the
beginning you take any job that comes along. Now I know I shouldn't
have taken a lot of those, but you learn that as you go along. I
get work through client referrals and networking these days.
The toughest thing was knowing how much to charge people, and
having the confidence to know you're worth what you're charging.
Unless you already know your industry well, you don't know what
fees to expect.
A consultancy generates cash quickly, but the first few years
were pretty tough - but I didn't regret not getting a job. It was
only after three of four years that I started noticing the
difference between me and my friends really - after they'd finished
their grad schemes then were suddenly all getting promotions and
earning £34,000. And I was only on £18,000. But they don't have
vested interest in their jobs. I did.
There were exciting, stressful, brilliant days - and days that
weren't so good. You're not sure where the next wages are coming
from. There's the loneliness - although that's why networking's
brilliant. It's really important. You can't run a business unless
you meet people.
But I've never wanted to jack it all in. You're in control of
your destiny. The experience you gain is incredible - you do
everything from sales to product design, everything. You're not
hindered by doing things the way everyone else thinks you should,
like you would be in a bigger company - although you also aren't
able to learn from their mistakes.
You feel you're building something of real value, that you have
a real vested interest in. You want to put everything into it. "You
get to choose the 18 hours a day you work," as my chairman says.
But you're not really getting up to go to work, you're just getting
up and continuing what you started.
That's why I'm still running the business today, 10 years
My advice to anyone who wants to do this is find people that can
fill the gap in your knowledge very quickly. It seems weird for a
small company to have people like directors and a chairman, but
actually, it's invaluable. Get people with experience on your
Find out more about Spider
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