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.”

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