Real business story: Astute.Work

Sarah Waddington, managing director of Astute.Work explains how she launched her management, PR and marketing agency at the start of the last recession and how this allowed her to disrupt the usual business model.

You launched a business in a recession. How did this impact your decision making and was it a good time to set up?

I set up my agency in 2009, as the economic downturn was biting. It was a deliberate decision as the management teams I was working with didn’t want heavy agency overheads but were keen to work with senior talent. I could see a gap in the market, which was dominated by traditional consultancies, for a smaller, more agile start up.

The first year was tough and I took every project that came my way, but then the business started to fly. The autonomy and independence of being my own boss outweighed the initial anxiety of whether I could make it work. I never looked back.

What are the benefits to setting up in challenging market conditions?

When I registered my limited company, I was given great advice by my accountant to put the equivalent of two to three months of money away in case I ever needed a buffer. I took a loan in order to do this and got really favourable rates because the high street banks wanted to support businesses at a difficult time. I’m glad to say that money is still sat in an ISA!

Another benefit was the ability to disrupt the way in which services were delivered because the whole market was impacted by the downturn in the regional economy. Professional services firms in particular were moving their employees to home working so I decided to use a virtual agency model and eschew a formal office. That was over a decade ago and I don’t think this would ever have been acceptable or seen as credible before that point. It’s fascinating because now everyone can see the opportunities afforded by remote working and I’m confident we’ll see more widespread adoption.

Finally, I’d say business support provision ramps up at times like these – the North East Growth Hub being a case in point. Right now there is support for people wanting to start up, scale and diversify, which is vital in helping get people over the starting line.

Every time I open my cash flow forecast I smile as it makes me think of my Business Link adviser Bill who sat with me over coffee and gave me great advice. The experts you meet make a profound difference to your self belief and ability to make it all work.  

What words of advice do you have for people thinking about becoming their own boss right now?

Starting a business is a bit like having a baby – there is no perfect time.

You can plan for it though. If you have a well thought out business plan, you’ve researched your market, you know your product or service is fulfilling a need and you’ve something that sets you apart from your competitors, you’re in the starting blocks.

If you’ve spotted a gap in the market or can do something disruptive, that’s great too.  

Make sure you have the skills, talent and resources (including financial) to deliver and that your supply chain, if you have one, is reliable. Also set goals and follow them because you need to measure success as you go.

Seek expert voices as those who love you will be tempted to tell you what you want to hear. Specialists have the knowledge to guide and signpost and can be invaluable when you’re new to it all.

Finally, starting up can leave you feeling vulnerable so make sure you are plugged into support networks so you’re not alone. Every entrepreneur has tough times, and sometimes just being reminded of that and sharing stories can make a challenging day much better.

Find more advice and support for startups in our Business Startups Toolkit.