It's a good time to get to grips with a business idea

Despite the slowdown new enterprises are starting up in record numbers. By Rob Griffin

Andrew Chambers certainly doesn’t lack fighting spirit. The 32-year-old entrepreneur has defied dire economic conditions and local bureaucrats to achieve his long-held ambition of setting up a dedicated martial arts centre.

The experienced kickboxing and Thai boxing instructor has ploughed more than £50,000 into establishing a state-of-the-art Fighting Tigers Gym which opened in February in his hometown of Hastings, East Sussex.

And even though he is fully aware of the potential problems associated with starting a new venture at a time when the country is mired in recession, he is confident that it’s worth the risk.

“It was a massive decision but I weighed it up,” he says. “The fight game is very fashionable at the moment with the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) on television so I’m hopeful of making a decent return over the next few years.”

Stressful wrangling with both the local council and the highways authority tested his resolve, but with the help of a close-knit circle of friends and wife Rachel, he turned an empty industrial unit into a fully functional training centre in three months.

As well as offering daily lessons in a string of disciplines, including kickboxing and jiu jitsu, the gym runs bully proof classes for children and circuit training, and offers experts in nutrition, fitness and physiotherapy.

Mr Chambers, who has funded the start-up costs out of capital from his two existing electronics firms, is also launching a dedicated website and online shop (www.fightingtigers.co.uk) and harbours longer-term ambitions to expand into sports management.

“We already have a couple of fighters on our books that we are training up as professional fighters and acting as their management,” he says. “If we can influence people to get involved in the fight game in the right way, with respect and discipline, then that will be a significant achievement.”

For the time being, however, Mr Chambers is focused on getting the gym on a stable footing along with Paul Bridges, the gym’s manager.

“It’s a massive risk and if this goes wrong my other businesses may fail as I’ve taken so much out of it, but I’ve given myself four years to pay it back,” he says. “I can see the bigger picture and am confident that hard work will bring results over the coming years.”

It’s never been a more popular time for starting businesses. A record 480,000 companies were formed in 2011, and the number of self-employed is at an all-time high of 4.5 million. So how can you get on the road to being your own boss?

Doing your homework

The first step is to come up with a business idea. What product or service are you planning to offer, and how does it differ from what’s currently available? Will there be enough demand? Will it have a unique selling point to make it more attractive than a rival offering?

Great ideas can come from anywhere. Johnathan Agnès, 39, the co-founder of Foodity.com, says his wife, Hannah, was behind the concept which has led to the creation of online tools, technology and websites that enable people to eat healthily and within their budgets.

“My wife felt there was a desire among people to eat well but make their grocery pound go as far as possible,” he explains. “There was nothing available that let people combine computer software, published nutritional data and online grocery information.”

The company has established recipe sites such as The Resourceful Cook (www.resourcefulcook.com), where, for example, the ingredients match pack size quantities to cut food wastage.

“A clear idea is important because it gives you focus and something you can convey to people,” he adds. “If you have a defined idea you have better prospects of developing it successfully.”

You also need to work out the finances. Savings or money from friends and family can help. Alternative sources include grants from business organisations, funding from “business angel” investors and, of course, the banks.

Know when to make the leap

If you are working then it’s an idea to keep the day job and build a new business in your spare time. That’s what Catrin Siôn, 28, and Paul Formosa, 36, did when they were establishing Daffodili (www.daffodili.co.uk), an online store selling kids clothes and gifts.

They kept on their jobs – in publishing and credit control, respectively – for six months efore making the switch.

“Working full-time when setting up our business was the most difficult part,” says Ms Siôn. “We’d be up until 2am packing sales and Paul would have to go to the Post Office before work. We would also have to take days off in order to be here to receive our products.”

As sales grew, it got harder to balance two working lives. “We were ecstatic when we realised we could make a living working for ourselves and felt we had the potential to grow it into a profitable business,” she adds. “We do miss our monthly wages as money can be tight, but we see it as a short-term sacrifice for a better future.”

Make the most of technology

It’s never been easier – or cheaper – to put your business in front of potential customers, thanks to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and even YouTube, not to mention free blogging tools via the likes of Wordpress and Blogger. Even establishing a dedicated website doesn’t have to cost the earth. Specialist companies such as Create.net (www.create.net) provide all the tools you require – including domain names, templates, and online shopping facilities – from as little as £2.99 a month.

Problems to acknowledge

Pierre Williams, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, warns anyone thinking about starting out on their own to prepare thoroughly and accept they will have to overcome myriad problems in their first few years, such as tough trading conditions, late payers and raising finance.

But he says: “More than four in 10 small firms are planning to grow this year, whilst just 7 per cent plan to downsize. That’s an encouraging statistic for anyone thinking of starting up – provided it’s combined with solid research and a realistic approach.”

Opportunities knock

Emma Jones, founder with her partner of Enterprise Nation, a website for small businesses, says the recession has led to a growth in start-ups.

“People are using the fact they have been laid off to kick-start the business idea they’ve had for years,” she says, while others are just deciding that they want the freedom and flexibility that comes with being their own boss.

“The biggest factor that holds people back is fear of failure but it’s actually a great time to be confident about starting a business,” she says.

“Despite the recession, technology is giving us access to two billion customers around the world.” Businesses that can make the most use of websites and social media, therefore, have a fantastic opportunity to turn their ideas into viable operations almost overnight.

"You can start on a budget, keep hold of the day job until you’re ready to make the switch, work from home, and begin trading immediately,” she adds.

"Rather than being cautious, it’s time to embrace all these opportunities. As long as you’ve got the right idea that caters for a niche audience, then there really is no time like the present to get started.”

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