CONFESSIONS OF A SOLE TRADER
BEING A SOLE TRADER IS A BIT LIKE BEING AN ‘ ED SHEERAN STYLE’ ONE- MAN- BAND. ROTORUA’S MICHAEL BURTON EXPLAINS WHY HIS BUSINESS STYLE HAS BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL.
Being a sole trader is a bit like being an ‘Ed Sheeran style’ one-man-band. Rotorua’s Michael Burton explains why his business style is so successful.
Are you sitting around in a job you hate? You know more than your boss and you just know ‘Judgment Day’ is nigh – but is it time to go it alone?
Being a sole trader, while tempting, is said to have disadvantages – both for you and your would-be customers? Just how would you go about it?
There are any number of ‘How to’ books available, but NZBusiness approached soletrader Michael Burton of Rotorua-based Burton Security for his advice and encouragement about going into business on your own. He is a 2017 David Awards category joint winner, and has 30 years’ experience in the security industry.
“In my case,” says Michael, “realising I knew more than my boss was a game-changer.”
Within six-months of joining a CCTV-installation company, he just knew he had to “capitalise on the situation”.
“As a coal-face security installer [for that company], I would survey the premises, advise HQ what product was needed so they could mail out a quote, and I would explain all the features and benefits to the customer. I needed to ensure they felt they were getting the right product and value for money.”
This frank and honest review dates back 30 years to when Michael was living in the UK. He asked himself straight-out, why wasn’t he working for himself?
“That, right there, is the reason I decided to go it alone. I was single-handedly taking on the roles of R&D, sales consultant, competent installer, PR, and quality control.”
He points out that he took the plunge in the days of the typewriter – “with Twink as a close companion”. The digital era has made things so much easier in taking care of that side of the business. “My opportunities come when I do the
knocking on someone else’s door,” he explains. “It’s not hard. Firstly, I aim to make friends. Then I tell them I have something they may need. If people like you and feel a good connection, you’re halfway there.
“Never become blasé about what you are doing,” advises Michael. “Keep reminding yourself why you started trading solo; you knew more than your boss!
“You must continue to know your product and industry backwards. Ironically, I find that the fun part.”
He admits, at the outset, his weakest area in his business was accounting.
“All that’s changed now,” he says. “[Are] the small-business killers – billing, credit control, and taxes – holding you back? Come on, Xero gives you that on a silver platter.”
Ditch the jargon
Burton believes you need to hack away the jargon and acronyms to be a successful sole trader. To quote ‘Trading 101’: Who really is the customer?
“The manufacturer reckons his customer is the wholesaler. The wholesaler claims it’s the retailer. The retailer calls me, the installer, the customer. They are all wrong.”
Burton points out every dollar travelling up the line – from installer to retailer, to wholesaler, to manufacturer, to designer – is paid by the customer.
“The real customer, the last one in this game of pass-the-parcel – awfully described by so many as the ‘end-user’ – is the business.
“Since every complaint the customer has, be it about design, manufacture or function is levelled at the installer, me, I take that very seriously. So, I avoid those up the chain who don’t value this ‘ real customer’,” explains Michael.
“Design all your dealings around this ‘treasured paymaster’; show respect; and take the opportunity to show you understand your customer’s real need. Every time.”
Michael applies this thinking to his experience in the security industry, where a system will essentially do one of three things: 1. Stop someone entering; 2. Let you know they have entered (by noise or phone call); 3. Photograph them entering.
Some systems do all three simultaneously.
“This has been the case since the first person put up a fence around their field a thousand years ago. While the technologies have changed, the basics haven’t.
“By and large your valued friend and customer, requires these results in the simplest way possible. That is my focus.”
He recalls a frustrated manager who had been charged for weekly call-outs to alter the timing of an automatic door-control system, so he could entertain his clients for
ad-hoc breakfast meetings. It cost him two technician visits every time.
“I simply fitted a key-override switch in his office so he could bypass the door control and, as he put it, ‘cut out the middle man’. This experience highlights perfectly the gulf between what the customer wanted and what the ‘industry’ thinks they want.
“I position myself as the filter between industry players who are desperate to race to the bottom, with new ways of doing the same thing, and the customer who just wants the simplest solution.” One-man-band positives As to the derogatory labelling of one-manband operations, Michael offers this retort: “A one-man band has it all. British singer Ed Sheeran sets the standard.
“With the use of a loop machine, he performs an entire album playlist. Alone. On the fly he has recorded his backing vocals, drum beats and all manner of fantastic sounds. It is a rich and stunning result.”
As a sole-trader, Michael points out that his ‘staff retention’ over the past 30 years is 100 percent. He believes it’s one of the factors that has provided him with “an above-average home with a tiny mortgage; no business loans and a great credit rating”.
He credits one more secret weapon any sole trader can rely on to help grow the business, both in terms of income and reputation. In his case it is the Rotorua chapter of the BNI Network – a weekly meeting which allows members to specifically ask for referral work in their field of expertise. That alone earned him $22,000 last year.
So what is Michael’s final advice to those thinking of following in his footsteps?
“If you are sure you know more than your boss, quit. Now!
“Shake off the corporate baggage, keep learning, keep reading and ensure all your customers are, first-and-foremost, friends.”
“Remember, there is no such thing as ‘work/ life balance’ – it’s just life. Enjoy it.”