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 with 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 their business.
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 cash flow 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 than 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 on.
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 team.
Find out more about Spider Group
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