Fun, laughter - and a nearby PC

Running your own business means you're never really on holiday - but those who go it alone rarely look back, says Gareth Chadwick
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The Independent Online

Never trust a Cliff Richard song. For Cliff, summer holidays were all about not working for a week or two, blue seas, and fun and laughter in the bright sunshine. For the self-employed however, he may as well have been singing about balloon trips to Venus.

If you work for yourself, summer holidays become a time of dread, not excitement: invoices remain unpaid, suppliers go AWOL, customers put their cheque books away, offices are deserted.

Even if they can sneak away for a week, it has to be within eye-shot of an internet-connected PC and with a mobile phone signal strong enough to check for those urgent voice mails back at the office.

It's all so different from the rosy dreams about a better quality of life that prompt increasing numbers of people to take the leap into self-employment in the first place.

According to a report published in July by the Government's Small Business Service, one in four people across England and Wales is currently running or considering starting their own business. The findings are supported by a second survey which shows that more people started their own business in 2003 than in the previous 12 months.

The main motivations for starting a business were a desire for freedom, new challenges and more money.

"The prime reasons are not wanting to be told what to do anymore, to be more independent, to have more control over their time and the freedom to make their own decisions," says David Wilkinson, from the entrepreneurial services team at Ernst & Young.

Dead-eyed after 12 hours hunched over somebody else's computer, in somebody else's office, in somebody else's company and for somebody else's benefit, it isn't hard to see why more are deciding to try to put some balance back in their lives by starting their own business. To many corporate workers, becoming self-employed conjures up images of laptops in the garden, family meal times at 6pm on the dot and never missing a school sports day.

"About a third of our members now say they work from home and it would therefore follow that one of the motivations for doing that is to spend more time at home and spend more time on non-work related activities," says David Bishop, policy officer for the Federation of Small Businesses.

For those that succeed, it is a winning combination. However, the majority of those would-be entrepreneurs seeking to regain some control over their lives are heading for a shock. "A lot of people who decide to become self-employed don't fully appreciate the challenges that they face, both on an economic and financial level and also on a personal level. Not only do the vast majority of new entrepreneurs see a decline in their income for at least the first few years, it may also have a detrimental effect initially on their personal life while they adjust," warns Bishop.

Those that do take the plunge quickly realise what they now face is very different. A better work/life balance is not a phrase that many new entrepreneurs or self-employed people would recognise. There are a few phrases that they would recognise though, such as longer hours, no holidays, money troubles, lack of support, administrative problems and inescapable pressure.

Leaving the corporate bosom means leaving all the supporting structure and the escape mechanisms that keep the company moving and allow the staff to get on with their jobs as efficiently as possible. On your own, if your computer breaks down there's no IT department to fix it. If you don't fancy doing a job, you can't sneakily pass it on to someone else and there's no one to cover for you if you're a bit delicate after a night out. Crucially, it also means that there's no regular pay slip at the end of the month.

A lot of self-employed people feel isolated in the first few months, if not years. It can be hard to adjust to only having a computer for company. What once seemed like the freedom to escape from banal office politicking can soon turn into a longing for the witty repartee that brought laughter to the work place.

There's the cost issue as well. Many entrepreneurs have an idea of how much it will cost them to start their own business, but for most of them their estimates will be wildly over-optimistic. Unanticipated start-up costs have a habit of springing up from all directions and that's before the business is even generating any revenue.

Finding the time to run the business is a key part of the battle. When you are the sales team, support staff, accounts department, payroll clerk, IT helpdesk, secretary, receptionist and stationery cupboard, fitting in the part of the job that actually generates the revenue is not easy.

"Being self-employed means doing it all yourself," says Wilkinson. "There's no support team to help out. The minute you stop juggling tasks, the business stops. That's an awful lot of pressure."

Even successful multi-millionaire entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson or James Dyson talk about how difficult it was in the early years. Rather than improving the work/life balance, becoming self-employed usually ends up worsening it. Entrepreneurs can't afford to switch off from the business because if they do then the business switches off as well.

Rather than leading to more quality time with the family, working from home too often means the opposite: evenings spent huddled over the computer rather than with the family. Holidays are a familiar battleground. They are either non-existent, or a snatched week in the sun with a mobile clamped firmly to the ear.

Paul Smith, a former DJ, set up voiceover and sound production company Reactive Audio in Manchester in 2001 and recalls how it took over his life: "I used to switch off from my previous job the minute I left the studio, but when I set up on my own there was no escape. If there was nothing on TV, I'd go upstairs and do some work. Even in bed, I'd be dreaming about it."

Despite the pressures and the stress however, few self-employed people regret taking the decision to go out on their own. At least the pressures are their own pressures and the long hours are only for their own benefit, not their bosses or their employer's. You don't mind working at weekend so much if you feel the direct benefit in your pocket, not someone else's.

There are of course those lucky few entrepreneurs where the work/life balance is almost meaningless anyway, where work is more about pleasure than business. And if it can include a holiday or two as well, then so much the better. It's the kind of business that many self-employed people aspire to, but few manage to achieve.

Those few include artist and entrepreneur Janice Sylvia Brock. Brock turned to art in the Seventies after becoming disillusioned with her attempts to build a career in the corporate world. Self-taught, her work now hangs in collections from Tokyo to Toronto.

She spends four months of the year at her studio in Barbados painting, selling her work, teaching art to local under-privileged children and attending functions in rooms filled with dozens of potential clients.

When not in Barbados, she has a studio at her home in Cheshire where she paints, while her partner Roy Jenkins looks after the management of the business.

"I used to work for a microfilm company," says Brock. "Every time the boss came into the room I had to pretend to be working. I hated it and couldn't wait to start my own thing. Nowadays, to a certain degree my social life is my work. A lot of my work comes out of fun, social evenings both in the UK and in Barbados. It is hard work - I only went to the beach four times in four-and-a-half months last time I was in the Caribbean - but I could never envisage doing anything else."

Even for less glamorous enterprises, as the business grows so the freedom to be more flexible increases. Paul Smith's company is now in its third year and he is planning to take a two-week holiday for the first time since its establishment. He makes sure to take time out to go to the gym and has recently started turning his phone off outside work hours. "I feel more motivated and energetic as a result and the business benefits because of it. It's enormously satisfying to have the power and flexibility to be able to do that," he says.

Smith's situation is typical. According to David Wilkinson at Ernst & Young, the hard slog of setting up a new business generally lasts for two to three years, after which those dreams of an improved quality of life actually become more achievable.

"Assuming the business succeeds, being self-employed can be a lot more fulfilling," he says. "The independence and the sense of having created something that wasn't there before is immensely liberating, together with the potential work/life balance and financial benefits that it creates. It is rare that you find someone who is successfully self-employed who doesn't love what they are doing. Once you are self-employed, there's no going back."