I don't normally write personal posts about myself but with 2018 being the 20th anniversary of starting my own business Apexweb, I thought I would write about the ups and downs of the past twenty years of being self-employed.
Twenty years ago in 1998, I took the huge decision of leaving my 30-hour-per-week job at the Wareham branch of Somerfield (supermarket) and to try to make a living from designing websites.
Going from the security of a monthly pay cheque and four weeks of paid holiday each year to being my own boss was a big undertaking and this wouldn't have been possible without the support of my family.
I had been making my own websites for a few years before this, starting with simple sites made on my Commodore Amiga 1200 and then on a Windows 95 PC.
One of my early websites, Virtual Swanage was started in 1996 and this is still online today at https://www.virtual-swanage.co.uk/ and has grown from 5 to over 4000 pages!
Having always been employed by someone else up to this point resulted in a steep learning curve of dealing with everything from advertising to tax and everything in between.
I started with around £1000 of savings and this enabled me to buy software including Adobe Dreamweaver and Adobe Photoshop to use on the customer's websites, I rented server space from a host called Force9 which is now PlusNet.
My internet provider was Demon Internet and I had a speedy 28,000 baud modem for the first few months before upgrading to a 57600 baud modem when the prices of them dropped low enough to be affordable.
As many local businesses didn't have websites in 1998, I tried a leaflet drop to shops and offices in my home town and this resulted in my first two customers, this was quickly followed by a company in Poole selling inkjet refills and a high-end firearms dealer in Dorchester which was my first attempt at an e-commerce site.
One way I was able to get my name and services known locally was via a friend's photography shop which installed the town's first streaming webcam in their window which was uploaded to their website and to Virtual Swanage.
The webcam had an advert below with the website address for the live stream and this resulted in a lot of accommodation businesses contacting me and we are still hosting and managing the websites for some of these long-standing customers.
For the first two years the business grew steadily but with the dotcom crash in 2000-2001 the new website work slowed down and so I started offering computer repairs and building with parts sourced from an online distributor.
I continued with the computer repairs for around 5 years until the website work picked up enough to cover my bills and pay a regular income again.
I also freelanced for a couple of local design agencies that specialised in websites for large businesses and schools and this gave me a regular income each month. This introduced me to using Microsoft ASP for programming which then lead to ASP.net using C# which I have continued to use for my database-driven websites since.
In 2002 I was joined by my brother Andrew who had been helping me with the graphic design side of things while he was at college he set up his own design business after leaving college and we worked together on many of the future projects.
CMS System Development
Early in web development, I had a regular income from customers who wanted me to update their websites but after a few years many of them wanted to be able to update the websites themselves and so I wrote my first basic content management system which I called OCP, short for Online Control Panel. The first versions of the OCP were basic offering a file manager and simple page content editing.
The OCP system went through several revisions with an e-commerce version with full ordering control and this changed to the Atlas CMS system we now use on our websites.
We currently run two versions of the Atlas system, one is for small basic websites and uses an XML-based data storage and the full system is for larger e-commerce websites and runs from a Microsoft SQL database back end and has many of the features of the large commercial e-commerce platforms.
One additional income stream for the business was photography, both product photography for e-commerce websites and also indoor and outdoor photos for local accommodation businesses.
Andrew also sold images on stock image sites including iStockphoto but stopped this a few years ago after the income dropped to zero after iStockphoto changed its ranking system.
We also sold photographic prints on an e-commerce shop on our Virtual Swanage website for a few years.
Raspberry Pi board sales
In September 2012 following a huge response to one of my Raspberry Pi blog posts we started AB Electronics UK to sell our own range of Raspberry Pi expansion boards which we started placing all the components by hand and then went on to partially automate the process using a custom build pick and place machine.
Over the next two years, the income from the electronic board sales quickly overtook our web design and hosting income and so we took the decision to concentrate on the Raspberry Pi expansion boards side of the business and maintaining our existing website clients' websites and we stopped taking on new website clients.
Changing to a limited company
In May 2014 after discussions with our accountant, I merged my web design business with Andrews's design business and we set up a new limited company called Apexweb LTD.
We also changed to be a VAT (value added tax) registered business which resulted in a complete redesign of our e-commerce platform to allow for international sales which have to include VAT for European customers (excluding businesses) and no VAT is added to non-EU destinations.
One benefit of being VAT registered is that we can claim 20% back on all purchases of parts and components purchased in the UK and Europe which helps with the purchase costs.
The change to being a limited company meant that both myself and Andrew had to become company Directors which resulted in additional paperwork being processed each year and now being paid a regular monthly wage again as employees of the new business.
In order to avoid a lot of additional paperwork for ourselves, we use our accountants Harding Redmans http://www.hardingredmans.co.uk/ who deal with all of our payroll, pension payments, VAT and tax for us.
The bad things I learnt from going self-employed.
- Not having the regular income each month to pay the bills.
- The number of hours worked increased a lot for the first few years before I learn to manage my time better.
- No more paid holidays.
- Some customers expect technical support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and as I work from a home office they expect me to reply to emails within 10 minutes of them sending them regardless of the time of the day or night.
- Not knowing when the next job will arrive.
- Not being paid for work or excuses like “the cheque is in the post” for months after finishing a job.
- Finding space to store all the documents legally required for tax purposes for the past 7+ years.
- Lack of social interaction with colleagues, going from working at a supermarket with over 50 staff to working alone made a big difference for me.
The good things I learn from going self-employed
- A good customer can lead to a lot of extra work from their friends and networks.
- If work is a bit slow you can go out to do other things.
- The first idea you have for your business does not have to be the way you go forward forever, you are free to change direction whenever you want to try something new.
- Not being tied to a desk or office 9-5 each day.
- When the weather is good, I can take some time out of the day to go out cycling or walking with the camera and then do any work needed in the evenings or weekends without a boss moaning at me.
- No more commuting to work or sitting stuck in traffic jams.
- Being able to work on a lot of different projects for everyone from small businesses to multinationals.
Paying for it all
If at all possible finance your idea with your own savings rather than borrowing from the bank or putting it on credit cards. I have seen a lot of local businesses over the years who have borrowed heavily to finance their idea and if it fails they are in big trouble with the banks and lenders.
Over the past 20+ years, I have found that the biggest support to any new business or project is the people around you and your network of local businesses and contacts.
If you are fed up with your current job and have an idea for your own project or business, give it a try, the worst thing is that it won't work out and you will have to go back to being employed again but unless you try, you will never know if it will work or not!
I hope this post is useful to anyone thinking of starting their own business.