In 2014, 500,000 disabled people set up their own businesses. Forming part of a positive trend, this figure represents a further increase from the previous year. In order to support this growing number, Business Disability Forum recently asked me to reflect upon my own experiences as a disabled entrepreneur and discuss what it takes to set up a successful business.
In February of 2001 I set up my own business after 30 years as a career civil servant. I was bored and decided to see what I could do for myself in business terms. 14 years later, my company Freeney Williams Ltd is now one of the largest specialist disability consultancies in the UK and Europe. The point from where I started, to where I am now, was an interesting journey. It demanded hard work, effort and emotion, not-to-mention the sheer amount of hours. Despite this, I wouldn’t swap it or have gone back to being a ‘slave to the wage.’
My business idea was simple:
‘Go out and tell organisations how they should improve the way they employ, serve and do business with disabled people.’
‘What a good idea’! I thought. ‘Well was it?’ I talked to a number of people about this to see whether they thought it would work. In particular, I remember talking to Susan Scott-Parker who was CEO of the Employers’ Forum on Disability, which became the Business Disability Forum in 2012. Susan said, and I quote:
‘So you want to set up a business which means you need to talk to people who won’t want to talk to you about this subject, tell them things they don’t want to hear about, what they need to do differently and you expect them to pay you?’
Susan went on to say:
‘I’ve got to tell you, it doesn’t sound like a great business model.’
Actually, Susan went on to be very influential and supportive over the years and I’m not sure I could have achieved as much as I have without her advice, guidance and expertise – all of which she gave willingly.
Based on my experiences, the advice I would offer to disabled individuals who are considering a similar path would be to start by asking yourself the following questions:
- What is my idea?
- What is it I’m selling?
- Will anyone pay for it?
- How do I tell them about it and get them to buy it?
- What is the competition like and what makes me unique?
- How much money is it likely to make and is it enough?
- Who can help me?
- Will I enjoy it?
On top of that, of course, there are other questions around the practicalities associated with the effects of any disability. Providing advice on this subject is difficult as there are a wide variety of options available to assist disabled people in coping with the effects of their disability. It is, however, of major importance to utilise the advice and resources that are available to you. Despite what is often said, I found the Access to Work scheme very helpful, although I did have to ‘push’ a bit. Ultimately, I received the help I asked for which, in turn, helped me to understand what more I needed to make my business work. It is also very beneficial to speak with other individuals who have similar disabilities – it is amazing how much generosity and support is available.
When I started my business, I found that the key element was getting the basic idea sorted, and this then became my first priority. I remember it took me several months and a lot of pain to write my first business plan. My business mentor more-or-less threw out my first effort and made me start again, suggesting I be more realistic – something I have now done to others! After several attempts, my mentor eventually approved my plan, which ultimately proved very useful in helping me clarify what I needed to do and how I was going to do it. Without a good business plan, no one will take you seriously when starting up.
So, here are my tips:
- Get a business adviser who knows what they are talking about and who you get on with
- Consider finding a disabled mentor to help you through the issues about your own disability and the adjustments which might help you
- Develop a realistic business plan but be prepared to be flexible
- While developing your plan, talk to people to ask their advice, ask them if they think it would work and if they would pay for your services
- Stick at it and do the things you don’t like doing as well as those you do
- Remember, it is pointless having a great product no one wants to buy, or even worse, they don’t know about!
And finally, enjoy yourself!
Rick Williams CFCIPD
Managing Director Freeney Williams Ltd
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