Graduate Plus: Dead good at making a living

A young entrepreneur with a grave idea is part of a growing band of graduates starting up on their own. By Roger Trapp
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Like many business ideas, Timothy Matlin's is deceptively simple. He looks after graves for absentee relatives. While he is the first to admit that it has not yet made him immensely rich, the notion has sufficiently captured the imagination that this week he was among the finalists of the latest LiveWIRE Top Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

But it is not just his chosen business venture that makes Mr Matlin worthy of comment. He is also part of a growing trend for young people to opt for self-employment early in their careers, or even straight from university, rather than head initially for the large corporations that have traditionally attracted the largest share of graduates via the "milk round". Students interviewed for the 1996 UK Graduate Careers Survey, published by High Fliers Research in association with the Independent, put being self-employed in third place in their list of preferred career options.

Mr Matlin, who graduated with a degree in English from Newcastle University last year, came up with the idea when his family moved from Maidenhead to Wiltshire. Accompanying his parents to dead relatives' graves to place flowers on them, he was aware that people travelled to cemeteries. But he was also conscious that, with the increasing trend for people to move away from the area where they were born and brought up, there were likely to be older people who were unable to visit family graves as often as they wished. "I thought that if I could offer a really good service, people would buy it," he said.

"I was always keen on gardening, probably because my mother was. So it wasn't alien for me to wield a pair of shears. I just thought it was a brilliant idea. I'd just got to make it work," he says.

Central to his plans is the decision to send each customer a photograph of the grave to demonstrate that the work has been done.

So convinced is he that customer service is the key to success in this sensitive field that each of the 83 gardeners - spread around the British Isles - that he has on his books receives a 20-page pack explaining how to do the job before they can start work. They have to provide Mr Matlin with before-and-after photographs of the graves for which they are responsible. And just in case they feel they can fool him, he matches the photographs against full descriptions of the plots provided by the customers.

To do this, each gardener is equipped with a basic camera and sends in the film for Mr Matlin to develop once they have completed the job.

In addition to enabling him to give the customers proof that the pounds 65 they pay for two visits a year has been well spent, it provides Mr Matlin with some assurance that the work is being done to a uniform standard around the country.

When he first started 10 months ago, that was not a problem because he did all the work himself. Having printed up a number of leaflets and posted them in churches and other appropriate locations, he sped around the country on what he calls "tending sprees". Although he still says that he needs more customers rather than more gardeners, he soon found himself travelling 250 miles a day looking after 150 graves.

"I did a week on the road and then a week in the office until I got too busy," he says. "I was travelling all over the country, but when I started getting orders from Switzerland to do graves in Scotland, I got the idea of having gardeners. A lot of people like gardening."

Even now the head office in Marlborough of the business he calls Pilgrim Services consists of just himself and his secretary, who takes care of the orders while he checks the quality and drums up more business. "I need lots of customers. I want to encourage people to see that it's a good service."

However, tough as it was, he believes that starting the business in the way he did has given him an advantage. "They [the gardeners] can't get around me because I understand what it takes," he explains.

Though he is anxious to stress that he is not yet highly successful, he does seem to enjoy working for himself in this way.

"I didn't want to work for anybody else. Not from an egotistical point of view. I'm just one of those people who needs to be independent," he says.

Three other graduates are involved in the running of the 11 businesses that reached Tuesday's final of the LiveWIRE Business Start-Up Awards, supported by Shell UK. The minister for small firms, Richard Page, presented cash prizes totalling pounds 7,000 to the winners. Optimim Test Solutions, a Glasgow-based testing service run by Michael Richford and Garry Tibbitt, came first, while the runners-up were the Croydon-based IT consultancy Network Advantage and the Liverpool hair studio Simon Alexander.

Sandy Ogilvie, the director of LiveWIRE UK, said that the quality and quantity of this year's entrants had been exceptional. "Apart from a good idea, all the finalists have had to demonstrate a sound understanding of the importance of thorough preparation and good business planning in order to reach the final."