On the up · 15 December 2016

A consultancy business has low startup costs and great independence

A consultancy business can offer more freedom
A consultancy business can offer more freedom

Water Quality London is a water safety consultancy business founded by Nick Hill earlier this year. Hill, who favours the risk intensive startup environment over the comfort of an established organisation, told us how he got started in his latest venture.

Hill has run two businesses before, and thrives on the “chewing gum and string” part of the business. He first got interested in water quality a long time ago, but he is now excited by the consulting part of his new company – because “you have to give good advice that can be supported by evidence, but there’s plenty of room for free thinking”.

Despite his affection for startup environments and freedom in working, Hill is keen not to downplay the seriousness of his work – when water quality goes wrong, people can die.

“Water systems in building are quite complicated, and everything that’s alive is trying to get to water,” he explained.

“So if you leave water unattended, life turns up – and microbiological life turns up first. Some of that life is pathogenic and causes diseases like legionnaires’ disease Pseudomonas infections.”

Quite a few clients of the consultancy business are public sector, and can include healthcare facilities, universities, local authorities and housing associations.

A typical job

Ideally, Hill likes to be involved in the design stage of new buildings, as that is when you “build in the risk”. If water consultants are taken on at this point, he argued, you can minimise the inherent risk, rather than having to implement complex control strategies later.

When working with pre-existing buildings, Hill will often start with an audit – he will look at how a client manages risk, how its management is run and whether it is delivering what it should deliver. “Typically an audit is the start point, and that assesses really what they need to do next,” he said.

If necessary for the consultancy business, Hill will go and conduct testing himself, but more often he is interested in the results and action taken. At this point he will look at the water system itself, its size and configuration, make management recommendations and technical recommendations and so on.

Often a call will come from an existing client. “They might get some microbiological results that they know are wrong, and likely to cause trouble, but they don’t necessarily know how to interpret them,” he said. “A lot of people get it hopelessly wrong and take the wrong actions.”

Of course, if there’s an immediate danger, you have to do something to protect people immediately. For example, there are short term solutions such as filters fitted to taps that hold back unwanted bacteria.

When it comes to evacuations however, Hill is clear: “Those stupid things have happened in the past and they really shouldn’t.

“People more often than not either over-react or under-react – they either don’t take it seriously enough or they take disproportionate actions – and my job is to stop those two things from happening. There is something that needs to be done, but it’s probably somewhere in the middle.”

Getting started

There are very few barriers to entry in a consultancy business – it is a low cost of starting up. However, Hill knew going in that he wanted his business to have a different ethos to all the others, as he claimed many have an ulterior motive in pushing certain products.

“The fundamental thing about what we do is independence – we haven’t got a vested interest in any particular answer. We’re not selling a product, we’re completely open, we can recommend anything, and this is where the freedom to think comes in.”

In addition, one of the first things Hill did was sign up to KPMG’s Small Business Accounting so that he could focus his efforts on growing his business without being bogged down by compliance issues.

“It does what it says on the tin really. The guy who deals with me from KPMG, he had to restrain me a bit because I was getting more involved with the booking and software than I needed to be,” he joked. “I get a quick, straight response – it’s worked well.”

Overall, Hill argued that one thing new businesses should push themselves to do is get out there and listen to people.

“Even if you’re going to be a consultant, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to people that run any business, even a market stall, or a chip shop.

“They’ll teach you something if you listen to them. They’re certainly interested in cash, turnover, risk, they’re interested in everything – they just happen to be delivering something different.”

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Letitia Booty is a special projects journalist for Business Advice. She has a BA in English Literature from the University of East Anglia, and since graduating she has written for a variety of trade titles. Most recently, she was a reporter at SME magazine.

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