surinenglish

Luck before you leap

Occasionally, someone who's thinking of starting a business will ask me for advice. This is awkward because I'm really not very good at it but that clearly isn't a satisfactory answer for anybody hungry for inside knowledge.

All I can do, then, is repeat the most useful tips given to me when I started out nearly five years ago.

First, have a really clear idea of your concept. If you want to own a dog-grooming business, groom dogs. Don't try to babysit goldfish on the side - customers like to know what your focus is. I'm sure those 'Indian/Mexican' restaurants lose a lot of business for this reason. Chicken bhuna burrito with nachodoms, anyone?

Secondly, find a premises with a reasonable rent. It may look tempting to land an eye-wateringly expensive place on the main drag but just because shedloads of people walk past your door every day, doesn't mean any of them are going to come in. If what you offer is good enough, people will find it. Eventually.

Perhaps, the most striking piece of advice I heard while looking for a premises was from an old friend concerning rent.

"Don't sign anything which means you'll be paying your landlord more than you are expecting to earn each month. It's heartbreaking. You're not Starbucks." He was clearly talking from experience.

Next, be prepared to lose money in the first couple of years and have the financial and psychological resources ready to be able to do so. I don't mean oceans of cash - if that is happening then your business is probably rubbish - but rather a steady and debilitating trickle. It can be demoralising for the unprepared. Like me, for example.

Sign a long lease. If you put pen to paper on a five-year contract, just as you're building up a head of steam , a greedy landlord can hike up your rent to any random figure that tickles his fancy, taking unfair advantage of your years' of hard graft.

Finally, be lucky. It's astonishing how many successful people believe their triumphs to have been all of their own making. Hard work, shrewd business practice and a great idea aren't enough, I'm afraid; good fortune is equally essential. The third year we were open, the street directly outside the pub was totally uprooted. Three times. The whole process lasted five months and we lost thirty per cent of our trade. If this had happened during our first or second year, it would have been curtains for The Shakespeare and a lot of cursing and ranting for me. That it didn't happen like that was pure luck.

So, if you're starting a business, remember the holy trinity: clear concept, hard work and a rabbit's foot in your back pocket.