I’ve been working for myself for a little over a year now, so I thought it was about time to reflect on what it’s been like so far and how I see things going in the future. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I run a small business consultancy that works with organisations across the public, not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors. I used to work for a much larger, international consultancy, but had always harboured a desire to set up on my own. And early last year, I finally took the plunge.
Overall, it’s been a hugely exciting twelve months. Having started off with no clients and no money, I’ve now built up a small client base and have worked on some really interesting projects with some great people. I’ve enjoyed the work, my clients are happy, and everyone’s paid their bills on time. I’ve even managed to pay myself a salary, which is a great relief. (Not least to my wife and to my bank manager.)
The best thing, though, has been the flexibility. Sure, I’ve worked harder over the course of the last year than I have ever worked before, but I’ve been my own boss. I’ve been able to do things my way, to decide what I will do and when I will do it. This does, though, that I also bear all the responsibility for everything. So no delegating the tedious things to some hapless minion, unfortunately. But I do, for the first time in a long while, have complete control over my day and my life. Which is a very liberating – if somewhat terrifying – feeling.
As the owner, director, manager and sole employee of my company, I’m involved in all aspects of what it does. From finding new clients and planning the work to sending the bills and preparing the accounts, it’s all me. This has brought some new challenges. For example, while I’m good at the actual work I do, I’ve always been a little less confident when making contact with people and seeking out new clients. But now I have no choice but to grasp the bull by the horns and just get on with it. And, thankfully, I’m slowly getting better at the business development side of things – and have developed a whole lot more confidence, too.
So where do things go from here? Well, I certainly can’t ever go back to working for someone else. No way. I love what I do and I love my (admittedly still quite new and quite small) company. And I want it to do well. And, perhaps, to become a little less small over time. I need to continue to find new clients and to look after the existing ones. I need to get out and meet more people. And I need to get the company’s name out there a bit more, for example by writing articles and getting invited to speak at conferences. All very exciting. And all, quite frankly, a bit scary. But all, without a doubt, most excellent fun.
I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.
This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.
One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.
Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.
In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.
If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.
Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.
Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.
The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.
I’m not a big writer of poetry, but I stumbled recently across this short poem that I wrote a couple of years ago. I’d just spent a long day in the office at my previous job and was in the middle of a three hour train commute home. I felt absolutely rotten and found myself pulling out my pad and pen to try to express how I felt.
It was only when I read the poem back to myself a few days later that I realised how urgently I needed to change the way I lived. And now, a couple of years on, you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m much happier and working hard to live my kind of life. Anyway, enough waffle. Here’s the poem. It’s called ‘The Roar’.
I hear a quiet voice from deep
somewhere inside my soul.
It tells me that I’m going too fast;
the roar is in control.
This constant drive to be the best,
my fervent need to win.
The voice wants me to still the roar,
to let the silence in.
I try to listen to the voice,
to what it has to say.
But soon the roar just drowns it out
as life gets in the way.
The roar gets louder, louder still;
leaves chaos in its wake.
In time, the means becomes the end –
a roar for roaring’s sake.
What is this life I choose to lead,
indentured to the roar?
Why can’t I listen to the voice
and be myself once more?
I was reading my wife’s copy of Red magazine yesterday evening* and came across a short feature in which various contributors gave readers an insight into their morning routines. Yoga, soothing cups of tea and granola with fresh berries featured strongly. So much so that I could imagine the fluffy white bathrobes, the designer breakfast bars and the tall shiny fridges full of healthy and nutritious ingredients.
Now, I don’t know about you, but my mornings bear little resemblance to this. (And I doubt the contributors’ mornings do, either, if we’re being honest.) So in the interest of fairness and balance, here’s what a regular morning looks like in the real world. Namely this morning. In my world. Please try to keep up. And don’t read any further if you’re eating.
I wake at 5.21am** when the boiler comes on and the pump lets out its usual screech as it warms up. I spend a couple of minutes worrying about whether today’s screech is longer than yesterday’s, meaning that I might have to do something about it, but conclude that it’s about the same and go back to sleep.
I wake again around an hour later when I feel a nuzzling against the back of my neck. I turn to greet my lovely wife, the presumed source of the nuzzling, and come face to face with a slobbery, grinning Labrador, who has somehow managed to wiggle her way (unnoticed) up to the pillow***. I fend off the dog as best as I can and try to go back to sleep.
Natalie’s alarm goes off and a startled snort emanates from the pile of duvet next to me. A hand reaches out and presses the snooze button. Everyone lies expectantly, and completely awake, for four minutes until the alarm goes off again. The dog’s tail starts to wag uncontrollably. Sleep time is clearly over, so I roll out of bed. I land squarely in my slippers (result!) and then walk confidently into the wall next to the door.
The dog and I spend the next ten minutes wandering around the garden. I’m glad that I remembered to put my ‘outside’ Crocs on, but wish that I’d remembered my dressing gown. It reminds me of the time, back before we’d repaired the fence (and, luckily, before we’d got a dog), when I wandered out into the garden in my dressing gown and met my neighbour, also in her dressing gown, who’d clambered in to retrieve her chickens. Such is life around here.
The dog starts to dig up one of the vegetable beds. I wrestle her out from among the raspberry canes and encourage her to go to the loo so that we can have breakfast. (Oops, that doesn’t sound quite right. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that I can’t go in and get breakfast until she’s… Oh, sod it. You know damn well what I mean.) The dog catches a scent and tries to climb over the fence. I hustle her indoors before she realises how high she can jump****.
I weigh out the dog’s breakfast and make myself a quick coffee (using my Nespresso machine) while Molly hoovers her way through the kibble and Pedigree Chum. I feel briefly like George Clooney as I lean against the counter and sip my java. Then I realise that I’ve got dog slobber down the front of my pyjamas. And mud from the vegetable bed. I’m sure George doesn’t have to put up with this.
We still have a bit of bread left, so I make myself a honey sandwich for breakfast (no granola here, I’m afraid) and munch through it while I wait for Natalie to vacate the bathroom. Natalie wanders out and the dog queue-jumps me to get at the water bowl next to the shower. I bet George doesn’t have to put up with this, either. To be honest, I’m not sure why I put up with this.
Once everyone’s washed and Natalie’s headed off for work, Molly and I set out for our walk. We return an hour later well exercised and, predictably, covered in mud. Molly thinks this is excellent, so I grab her and wipe off the worst of it with a towel. She wipes off the rest on the settee. I put a throw over the settee to cover up the mud and the dog hair.
It is now 8.50am. Time for work. I put the kettle on.
* Yes, I read Red magazine. It’s important to be in touch with one’s feminine side. And it’s actually quite a good read. Get over it.
** It’s really set for 5.30am, but the clock’s wrong and I can’t be bother to go through the faff of resetting it for the sake of a measly nine minutes.
*** Yes, the dog usually sleeps on the end of the bed. It’s winter. It’s cold. What are you going to do? Report me to the RSPCA?
**** She can easily jump a six foot fence, but I’d really rather she didn’t figure that out.