Q&A: Essentials for Starting a Business
After many happy years working in international research for Unilever, Monica Lucas set up her own consultancy, specialising in retail and consumer products strategy and marketing. In this interview, she discusses the contrasts between working for yourself and for a large company and shares some essentials for starting a business.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I founded Pragma Consulting with my business partner, Roy Palmer, who had wide brand and commercial experience. At that time in the late 80’s, there was no business in the UK specialising in retail, and we felt we could add something to the industry using our joint experience.
We sat down with nothing but a phone and a list of numbers and started making calls. We had both been around a bit, so we did have a large number of contacts whom we could approach. Networking – making contacts and keeping in touch with people – is absolutely vital, certainly to any entrepreneurial business, but for personal development as well. All the old rules apply: speak to as many people as possible, remember names, keep records and join LinkedIn. Treat everyone the same – even people you don’t like! They are all relevant; everyone can offer something different.
What are the important things to bear in mind when starting a business?
Every business needs at least 3 skills (The 3 C’s):
Creativity: what is the essence of the product or service, what’s the special magic you can offer?
Customers:understand them, know how you’re going to reach them and how you will sell to them.
Counting (Accounting): make sure you collect what you’re owed, that people pay when they should, and pay enough to sustain the business. Also, keep your books in order.
We had a simple business mantra:
Get the work: Ensure that your product is good enough so that it will sell. Always be thinking about selling and where the next business is coming from.
Do the work: Make sure you provide what was required, and that your product is up to the mark, so you’ll get a repeat purchase.
Get the money: No business fails for lack of sales, they go under through lack of profits.
If you want to set up in business, do talk to people and take some advice. But don’t take it all, because everyone has a different perspective – what might have worked for them might not be right for you. Speak to people in your industry who know the reality of what it’s like day to day. But make sure you listen to your instincts.
What are the main contrasts between working for yourself and a big employer?
In a large company, particularly a benevolent, paternalistic type, you’re in a huge cocoon comfort blanket. Everything is there for you: if you have a grievance, there’s a process. If you want to change career, there’s a process. You can see a clear career path, everything is done for you. I think, when you’re in your 20’s, a large organisation is a good place to learn the ropes, find out what you enjoy, what type of work you like, what styles of management suit you or don’t. And it’s all good training if you ever have your own business subsequently.
However, when you’re in a large corporate. you do have to play by their rules. Some people are very happy to live in that structured environment, while some are less suited. But it is paternal, protective and nurturing. When you work for yourself, there’s no comfort blanket any more.
When you work for a big company, it’s quite common to complain – about the workload, pay, management etc. Partly because you have things to complain about, but also because it’s actually therapeutic to have a moan with colleagues! Righteous indignation – they’ve had enough out of me this week, I’m leaving early! When you’re on your own, there’s nobody to complain about (or to!). And every time you skive off or take a long lunch break, well it’s only yourself you’re hurting. Obviously, you’re not going to work 24/7 but you have to manage your time much better. That’s the kind of mindset you have to adopt.
There’s nobody to give you direction or appraisals. It can be lonely. It’s actually quite a journey, and a difficult one. That’s probably the biggest contrast. But I’d say it is a one-way journey. Once you’ve got over the hurdle and got into the swing of self-management, it’s amazingly liberating because you can actually do whatever you want: you can choose what work you want to do, whether or not to take on a client; you can explore ideas; no one is stopping you, it’s all down to you and you’ll relish that freedom. So, once you’ve become your own independent boss, you’ll never want to go back to a larger company. (I never did!)
How do you deal with the stress in the workplace?
When things are tough, you just have to think: what’s the worst that can happen? Usually, you can live with the worst. Maybe you’ll grumble a bit, but then do what you need to do to get over it and turn your mind to other matters. I set up my business with a partner, which was helpful as it worked like a buddy system. (A partner should be someone that you agree with on a lot of things, both business-wise and outside work).
When you get into a slightly more senior managerial position, which can happen quite quickly in some organisations, knowing how to delegate is the best way of reducing stress on yourself. That doesn’t mean just dumping work on someone, because that can lead to problems. Explain what it is you want them to do, ensure they know how to do it and by when, and that they understand the consequences of not doing it.
Another important rule is prioritisation – first things first, second things never. By that I mean don’t procrastinate, focus on the important work that needs doing now.
And, to avoid stressful things happening in the first place, follow the 5 P’s: proper planning prevents poor performance!
What’s your top tip for graduates?
Aim for the best you can, but if you don’t get it straight away, don’t despair. Take second best, reassess and stick at it – it might even turn out to be better! And if it doesn’t work out, be prepared to move on.
After studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, Monica Lucas joined Unilever’s graduate scheme in the International Research Department. She flourished in her career in market research, enjoying Unilever so much that she stayed for 11 years! At the age of 33, Monica cofounded Pragma Consulting, specialising in retail and consumer products strategy and marketing. She is a currently a business adviser for various projects including The Chelsea Physic Garden.
More from Monica
Grad Bites: Essentials for Starting a Business
Tips for setting up a business, including the importance of networking & being able to sell yourself, and your business
Grad Bites: Becoming a Market Researcher
Monica talks about her experience in international market research, what qualities are useful & advice for new grads
Find out more about self-employment:
Tips & resources for anyone contemplating self-employment, through freelance or consultancy, or as an entrepreneur