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Roger and Robin discuss going self-employed in the second episode of the new Skill Builder podcast. It takes some courage to make the leap from the security and comfort of your job, but the fact that you’re here tells us that you’re thinking of making the leap into the world of being the master of your own destiny, but what do you have to consider in your new self employed life?
Have you got the courage to quit your job and find the motivation needed to build a new happier and more fulfilling life?
A guide to going self-employed in the UK
GOV.UK Working For Yourself
7 Hard Questions You Need to Ask Before Going Self-Employed
Our thanks go to the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at Milton Keynes Dons F.C. for allowing us to record our podcast in their matchday bar.
Roger: Hello, this is Roger Bisby and Robin Clevett with our second podcast, Skill Builder podcast coming to you, from where are we?
Robin: Well, the pub was a bit noisy by all accounts, so we fought, where can you go where it’s really quiet? Well, an empty football stadium, of course.
Roger: Yeah. Don’t ask us why we are at the MK Dons Football Stadium. Now, the first one we did, basically Robin was telling us how he priced, conditioned people and how he gets the right money for the job, and that really struck a chord. People are saying to us that, oh well, you should tell me this 30 years ago. I could use this information. So with this podcast, what are we going to be doing is, we are going to be talking about taking that plunge, becoming self-employed.
Robin: We are.
Roger: We’ve never been self-employed before. It’s taken away the safety net, really isn’t it?
Robin: The way this one came about. It’s obvious we looked at the comments and everything else and there’s a generic line that runs all the way through these comments. And that’s about anxiety, about becoming self-employed or being your own boss and so on and so forth.
Roger: Yeah. The other thing I picked up on from the comments of the first podcast was that people were saying, look, I’ve been self-employed for two or three years, and it’s not really working out. I’m thinking I’m going to have to take a part-time job stacking shelves at Sainsbury’s or whatever they’re doing. Somebody said they’re going to go work evenings at Screwfix. If it’s not working for you, then don’t give up, but just think tomorrow is the first day for the rest of your life. In other words, the fact that you’ve had two years of hardship and so on. It doesn’t contaminate the future. If you take on board maybe some of the things we’re going to say, and then start from, not start from scratch, but just push yourself forward from that point rather than being tied down, weighed down by your failures. Look at your success and potential.
Robin: Because the thing is, nowadays, what we call the gig economy and everything else, whether you like it or not, most industry wants to go towards people who are self-employed because it’s easier for people to hire and fire. There’s less liability involved. Because generally, if you’re self-employed, you’ve got to cover your own insurances and all that sort of stuff. So, this is probably why this subject is going to get a lot of interest. Now, tell us about you, Roger, tell us how you became self-employed?
Roger: Yeah. Okay. Well, I mean my things very slightly different to a lot of other people, and as much as I left school and started an apprenticeship and then that didn’t work out for me particularly well. I left out. It was a bit of a footloose. I went traveling and did all kinds of, did the hippie thing really. It was all about the hippies in those days. So I did all that, sleeping on the beaches, tossing around, having a great time, and the sex and drugs, and rock and roll scene. And then I came out, I thought I really want to do is something, what I did an apprenticeship with plumbing and so on. Because it gives me the opportunity to be independent to do what I want, and just go to work when I want to go to work rather than working for somebody else. At that time, I’d actually caught myself in a position where I got a mortgage, couple of kids, and I was just sort of starting out married life, and I thought I missed the boat. I wanted to be self-employed and I wanted to do something. Suddenly, I’m working for somebody and I’m trapped in this golden goose. And then everybody, I spoke to, I said, look, I want to give this job up. It’s reasonably paid. It was a very easy job to do. I said I want to give it up with two kids and the mortgage. I want to throw all that away and I want to become self-employed. And almost every single person that I spoke to said, big risk, don’t do it.
Robin: So why did you do it?
Roger: Well, there was one person that encouraged me. One single person said to me, I think that’s a great idea, go for it, and that person was my wife.
Robin: I mean that’s amazing.
Roger: Yeah. It is because she had the most to lose from it. We’ve got the two kids and it’s –
Robin: But she could see your potential and the potential to go out there, name your price effectively, and do the work. Because you’re a hard-working guy, Roger, so she could probably see that you do better on your own.
Roger: I’ve always loved work. I’ve never been really scared of work, but I think the thing that she thought is, if you stay here, if you stay in the safe lane, just carrying on, that’s the potential is dead there, isn’t it? Whereas, if we hold the cards up in the air and see where they land, at least we’ve got a chance we’re going to do something else. And so, it’s a bit like when people immigrated. I mean loads and loads of people did it, and they just set off for America. People left the island with nothing because, obviously they didn’t all make it. They weren’t all success stories, but it gives you the chance to do it, so that’s me anyways. So it’s hard, it’s hard, in the beginning when you’ve got 300 quid in the bank and you’re thinking, I’ve got one more wish, I’ve got kids. You’re going to meltdown on it, or you could start crying, but the great thing is, there is no plan B, isn’t it? You just got to go for it.
Robin: You have to…
Roger: You can’t sack yourself when you’re self-employed.
Roger: So what about you anyway?
Robin: Similar. Well, it wasn’t a similar story. I went to college, I did my carpentry and joinery craft certificate. And I had a company who was kind of like my sponsor. So through the CITB (The Construction Industry Training Board), they were able to get a like a little bit of a grant to train me up. I went to them saying, you don’t have to pay me, I just need the experience, just please be kind enough to take me on. And they did take me on, and I stayed with them, did my apprenticeship. They were really kind to me, put me on the road of a van, and the rest of it. And I was kind of like an employee, but I wasn’t really an employee, I was an apprentice. The company was quite young, a sole trader effectively with me as his apprentice, and he was bringing other people in as he got busier and busier. And then when I’ve got to about 18 or 19, I finished my time. I pretty much went self-employed straight away because I wanted to do price work because I knew that I could do lots of work in the time I was there for 40 hours a week or whatever. I just thought it’s better for me to be on a price. And also, he wanted to me to be self-employed because it was a lot easier from taxation and running a business point of view. So that’s how I got into it and that was – so I’ve never really been employed. I’ve always been self-employed. It’s been tricky. There’s been lots of pitfalls, lots of ups and downs. It’s not been plain sailing. In fact, sometimes you just think to yourself, why am I doing this? Because you know you might’ve had a bad couple of weeks and just not banked any money. And you still got the bills to pay, and it gets rolling up, rolling up and you just think, how am I going to get out of this? But you kind of just do it, you’re under pressure. I personally worked quite well under pressure. I don’t remember anyone else out there.
Roger: Yeah. You do, you give yourself a lot of pressure, I know that. I know your wife says that around about lunchtime on a Sunday, she loses you to the dark side. And that’s when his head thickened and he started thinking about the week ahead, and about planning, and about putting all those things into place. Getting the guys out on site and everything else. On the plus side mate, I don’t know, I suppose if you hadn’t become self-employed, you carried to working for somebody. You would have three fewer houses you’ve got today.
Robin: Well, I mean I think –
Roger: Seriously though, you’ve done okay.
Robin: I think the thing is, for my personality, I don’t think I’m a good employee. I wouldn’t be a good employee.
Roger: You know what I think exactly the same.
Robin: I was a class clown in school. I was always wanting to make, we’ll have a laugh. I was more interested in doing something to go and earn a few quid and that was basically what drove me. And I was from a big family and there weren’t masses of money to go around. Mum and dad were brilliant, but there wasn’t massive money to go around. Dad was a plumber too. And so, it was kind of times were hard. And so my goal was to earn enough money to buy a car, get to work. I had no idea I’d ever owned a house in my life, certainly not going long holidays. But it was all based around the flexibility of being self-employed, even though it was a bit sort of struggle. Because I thought to myself, I’m self-employed, but I’m not a business. What’s the business? I had no idea what a business was. Let’s take for example, you’re a carpenter for example, and you want to do side work. There are companies that employ carpenters, but the majority of them are subcontract companies. And they build their workforce up from self-employed people. You might do a couple of months with them, going to a couple of months, which is how you should operate as well. Because any more than a couple of months with the same person, you could be classed as an employee.
Robin: So you need to rotate and move it around. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket of course. But that is basically how the industry works. I mean, when I’m managing a project for a client for example. So I’ll be managing that project, and I will be introducing them to tradespeople say, a brickwork contractor. Now, I don’t want that brickwork contractor coming through me. It’s onerous. I can introduce them to my client. My client can deal with them directly. If it’s just a one-man band, they’re not even charging VAT because they weren’t hit the threshold. So it works nicely for the client as well. And it doesn’t mean I’ve got to interfere with their tax affairs. They’re there as a subcontractor working directly for the client. So that’s how a lot of the industry, people will agree with this. If you’re in the small building arena, you don’t employ your own plumber, you don’t employ your own electrician; everyone is self-employed.
Roger: Yeah. You just meet and you just phone each other up and get ahold of each other, when and where you want each other, and you all let each other down. Let’s just focus back upon the fact that you’ve taken the plunge of becoming self-employed, you set up a business. What I’d say really first of all, from my point of view is define what your business is because, plumbing for example, you can be fitting bathroom, central heating system to gas work, gas boiler, you can do even lead work. It came under the umbrella of plumbing. And of course, if you do all that, you’ve got a massive fan load at all. You’ve learned here, there and everywhere, you never become an expert, and people don’t know what you do. So for me, it was about just saying, right, which bits of this do I enjoy, and which bits do I really not, and which bits of my making money, which bits am I good at.
Robin: Yeah. So what was it for you?
Roger: Well, oddly enough, I did all kinds of general plumbing, but I kind of fell into a trench one day. Well, funnily enough, for the first job I ever did as an apprentice plumber was laying a lead water main in a trench for a church and has kind of where I went back because I saw all these water mains, the water companies were doing and they were charging a fortune for doing it.
Robin: Yeah. Replacements.
Roger: Replacements, repairs, anything. And there was a lot of money in it because it was underground because it was a bit of a drama and so on so I got into that. I’ve got referrals from guys on the water company, so that was quite nice. I was giving them a little drink. They were passing jobs onto me. So my phone was off the hook. It was ringing all the time in a burst pipes. I even started doing them for the county council. I started doing it for farmers. I became known as the guy that would fix your underground burst. And they would do it for half the price of the water companies, which are never hard. In fact, I did one a couple of weeks ago. They wanted four and a half thousand pounds to do it. Quite honestly, it was a day’s work. It took me a day’s, worth, 25 quids’ worth of Polypipe.
Robin: Yeah. A lead lock.
Roger: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t a lead lock two connections and digging a trench. So for me it was a combination of skills. It was about doing the groundwork and putting the pipes in higher money, hand over fist of doing that because nobody else was doing it. I couldn’t understand why nobody wanted to do it either, this is great. So what about you?
Robin: Well, I mean, as I said, it was a bit of an accident. I became self-employed because there wasn’t a job, which was anything that I knew about. And it was 1989, 1990 and if you remember back that far, there was a bit of a recession. So the building trade fell off the cliff. And so talking about finding something that you were good at. I particularly liked at the time, fit in locks, and I thought well, it was a recession, so people where houses were getting broken in a lot. So I thought I could do a locksmith, so I could do just about afford, a little advert in the local Guardian Newspaper. And it just said, locksmith 24-hour and a phone number. That was it, that was my marketing. That was my whole effects. But it just tied me over, I’ve got the odd call, and for a while I thought I might go in that direction. But three or four calls a week used to be enough to just keep my rent going to my mum.
Roger: So quite low value job.
Robin: Low value job. Then again, I might be able to go back two weeks later, for a new front door once the insurance company had agreed it. So it could lead to other things. So for me that was at that time and then roof construction was the thing that I actually decided that I would focus on. And exactly, the same as that little one line at the time, way before the Internet and you sort of marketing on the Internet and everything else. I did a line saying, top-quality roof construction and that was it. I had a mobile phone from the age of about 19.
Roger: Big brick, wasn’t it?
Robin: Yeah, it was so big Ericsson thing and it worked out really well for me. I just get one or two calls a week from Germany builders who saw it because they advertised alongside me. It was in the classified section –
Roger: Okay. So they’re looking at there and they saw yours.
Robin: Yes. And I’d get a phone call and I still know quite a lot of those people now. And I used to only run the advert for as long as I needed to.
Roger: I reckon the reason that was happening, unless it’s just me, I don’t know, but it is just a guess of it. The reason you were getting that is because a lot of carpenters were coming out of college and all they knew how to do was truss roofs.
Robin: Truss roofs—
Roger: Actually pitch or done in a cut roof as we say.
Robin: They hadn’t. Going back to my apprenticeship because it was a loft conversion company. And the guy, Brian, his name is, really fabulous guy, entrepreneur. He said to me, you were the apprentice, there’s a dormer here with a pitch roof, you should know, you go and get on with that. And so I was given the opportunity, it was literally textbook out. I was learning at college, textbook out and I think I spent three days building this little hip dormer, which I could do in the morning now. But again, I didn’t realize it at the time, I was anxious, can I really do it? But that guy, I don’t think he believed in me, he just wanted to get the job done –
Roger: Sure, yeah.
Robin: And he’s just sort of letting me get on with it.
Roger: Before you’re in there, he threw you in there – you can do it.
Robin: But it was kind of slow. So let’s go back of becoming self-employed. Sometimes it is a bit accidental. Sometimes there is a series of circumstances that puts you into a place or makes you meet someone. You might walk on a job to do five minutes work, bumping at someone and go, oh are you busy tomorrow? I need someone to go to. And that’s how it is. So you might not be nowhere, you’re going to go next week, but you’re always busy. How does that work? You know what I mean? So it’s a little bit unpredictable, but I think that’s part of the appeal of it being self-employed.
Roger: No. It’s an adventure all the time, isn’t it? And funnily enough, my water business, which was going really, really well all the time. The water companies were not privatized. Once they privatized them, they took all that work in-house, and so it dried up overnight, it disappeared.
Robin: So your experience of being self-employed was the fact that you kept your eggs in one basket effectively?
Roger: No, no. What it was is I found something right. Because I went back and did my training, so the apprenticeship wasn’t good. But when I went back and did my training, I did everything, guess what a lot, so I could do all that stuff. It’s just that I didn’t like rubbing around under floor walls, where I could be out there in the sunshine or even in the rain just doing a simple job load. But that’s what I enjoyed doing, that’s what I made money at. But once that went away, if you like the rug got pulled from under, it was just a question saying, right? So what else is there out there that I can do that I like doing? And then just moving into those other things. So for a while it is about doing central heating system. I hate the idea of competing with everybody. That’s the thing that really used to get to me is that you just go in, and they’re putting a price in there with five other people in the pricing. And you are only ever going to get it if you were to achieve this. So that’s again, another story and we touched on that the other week. I think you’ve got to be adaptable. You’ve got to realize, if you start out in business, what you’re doing now. I mean, a classic example of that, my dad always said to me, go into the print.
Robin: Yeah, my dad did.
Roger: Because I knew they were the richest, best paid workers in the country, but it all that went, didn’t it? And all the rest of it and the computer.
Robin: When we chatted earlier, when you kind of drove me here, you were talking about making small steps, and I think that’s really important.
Roger: Yeah. Stepping stone. So you want to cross a river and rather than looking at the river and going, right? If I take a real good run up at it, and I’m going to jump on that river, and basically, initially, I don’t know Olympic, you’re not going to do it anyway. Realistically, you’ve got to take stepping stones. You’re going to find the stages that are going to get you across that river. They’re the objectives. They’re the things that you can take it, month by month or year by year, whatever you do. So right, so where I want to get to is the other side of that river. That’s what I want to be doing in five years’ time or ten years’ time or whatever. How am I going to get there? I’m going to get there by establishing small stages that I can make things up and tick off and say, right, I’ve done that. So if you’re employed and you want to become self-employed. First of all, you’re going to work out being self-employed at. It’s obvious that you’ve got to make those little stage. So what do I want to do now? Do I need capital? Do I need to get this business plan? And all those things, incidentally just as an aside. When you become self-employed, you then at some point, you needed a mortgage. How did that go for you?
Robin: It was really difficult and that was the first mortgage I took out was roughly 1992. I was about 22. That was just after the recession, so the house prices were low, but my earnings were equally low as well. And the banks were very strict at the time, obviously coming out back of a recession. The banks were strict, but fortunately, because I, and this is a bit of a tip, I don’t know, whether it’s loyalty that counts now, but it was then. So my mum and dad never had much money. They were just very humble people, but they banked with a branch of a major high-street bank. It was NatWest.
Robin: I got introduced to them because I had a piggy bank and I had a bit of the account. My YTS money (my youth training scheme money) went into the account. I had to have an account for that. Then when I started doing my own work and I started putting a bit of money in, and then the conversation about you must have a business account. I took the business account out. Then I needed a loan for a van and I went to get a loan for a van. And he said to me, Mr. Buchanan, his name was, and he’d been at the branch in the village, literally all his life. He said to me, how much you want to borrow? And I said, well, I need a van, it’s 3,000, the one I said. He said, well, you only pay money in here, sometimes here, just come and see me in six months’ time. And I want to see that you’ve paid a little bit in every single week. So that’s what he did for me. So I went off and I was all disappointed. I need that van, all the rest of it. I still got tools in the back of my old car. And I knew if I have the van, I’ve to do more, get materials, but I couldn’t borrow any money. Mum and dad said, they couldn’t afford to help me. So I had to go back in six months’ time so that was the lesson. I’ve done it and there this rubber stamp history in half hours.
Roger: Okay. So it was good to his words.
Robin: But it taught me the lesson that I trusted him and he trusted me. And then so, fortunately, by the time I was 22, I was working seven days a week. I was passionate about what I was doing and everything else. And that only grew from people being complimentary about the fact that I was okay at what I did. I suppose the passion came from the kindness of people –
Robin: I love my craft. I really loved what I did at college, I love timber work. I love carpentry and joinery. Self-employment was just a mistake of all that, but the passion was growing. Every time someone really liked what I did, I felt inspired to do a bit more, and it kind of, that helped the self-employment. It was the self –
Roger: That’s really just almost like an aphrodisiac because of that phrase –
Robin: It is.
Roger: But it’s funnily enough, that’s why we’re back here doing a second podcast because people said the first one was good. It’s really the same process, isn’t it? People will tell you good, it encourages you.
Robin: I didn’t answer the question about the mortgage, but it was exactly the same sort of situation. I was able to— he had my records. He saw that I was regularly paying in. He also spoke to my bookkeeper, my accountant at the time. They did between them a calculation and it was kind of like the most they can give you is three and a half times earnings. And my wife, then girlfriend, she was just out of college, so she had started her own. She was self-employed, straight self-employed as well. We’ve both been self-employed. So she was staying out, so she couldn’t really be involved in the calculation. I did focus on finding a property we could afford, and then negotiating the price down as much as we can negotiate it down, until it’s under stamp duty of all the rest of it. So that was just looking back, it was a big commitment, but actually, it was in terms of timing, I was very lucky ,and I owe my success to that unfortunate –
Roger: That first one. Yeah. No, because you’ve got a few houses now. I’ve got to say that. It’s hard to say that.
Robin: I really don’t think that helps anybody or anything. I think it should be edited out.
Dylan: You could be a role model.
Roger: So you’ve got a few houses now, Robin. So obviously that first one was –
Robin: Lego houses.
Roger: So I would say that I would never advise anybody to become self-employed. Nobody advised me. They all advised me against it and I did it anyway. And I think if you were to kind of person who needs advice to become self-employed, in other words, do you need somebody like us? Let’s face it, you don’t even know us telling you, yeah, go on, go out there, burn your bridges, become self-employed. Maybe if that’s what you need, then it’s not for you. But if you know, if you’re a risk taker, you’re going to be a risk taker. You’ve got to be one of those people that just says, right, I don’t care, I’m going to do it because I don’t have a plan B. Take away the safety net, and if you’re that kind of person that will take away the safety net and fly and you look at it. Because I read a lot of autobiographies and you see all these people have got one thing in common, they’ve all gone to hell with it. Let’s throw it all up in the air.
Robin: Equally though, Roger. If you do find yourself in a position, and you’ve got an opportunity to go and do some work because someone said, oh yeah, you’ve got a lovely job over here for you. Its three months’ work and you said, okay, what the terms? And they said, we’ve got to be self-employed. That’s unfortunately in our industry, in the construction industry, that’s the way you tend to get pushed.
Roger: So just summing up, I’d say define what you want to do. Make sure you do want to do it, that you enjoy it, and work seven days a week. You must work seven days a week. Don’t give yourself that lapses say, no, I have a day off. Because when I starting out, I never ever turned the job down when I started out. It didn’t matter what time, Sunday lunchtime or whatever. In fact, I remember once saying, there was a woman, I’m not coming tomorrow because it’s my son’s birthday. I’ve been working 7 days a week, I want a day off, it’s his birthday. And she’s, oh, I want my job done. And I said, well, you’d have to go elsewhere. And then she came back to me, and then when I came around, she said, well, done you for sticking to your principles.
Robin: How nice is that.
Roger: My goodness, she pressured me like that in the end. So let’s say, thanks to everybody that has commented on our first podcast. And hopefully, on our second podcast, we get more comments, hopefully good ones as well. Suggestions of what you want us to talk about, what you want us to cover. We will tighten this up. Don’t forget the Skill Builder website still going strong. And hopefully, we will be back with another podcast. So listen out for us, how about that?
Robin: Yeah, absolutely.
Roger: It’s not match days, is it?
Robin: No. I mean I could get out on the pitch, but I’m about as useless at playing football as I am at making cakes.
Roger: Oh really?
Roger: Pretty good then.
Dylan: Can you guys tell me what league the MK Dons are in?
Robin: I couldn’t tell you what league –
Roger: A league of their own –
Robin: I’d imagine they’re one down from Premiership.