Cambridge Satchel Company founder Julie Deane spoke to Business Advice about the current state of self-employment in Britain and offered up the advice she wishes she’d been given before stepping into the unknown of business ownership.
Julie Deane has come a long way since launching her ground-breaking leather satchel business, the Cambridge Satchel Company, from her kitchen table with a budget of just £600 in 2007.
In its first five years, the Cambridge Satchel Company grew into a £10m turnover business, employing more than 130 staff and selling handmade bags in more than 120 countries worldwide.
The brand has even gathered a loyal cult of celebrity followers, with the likes of Alexa Chung, Taylor Swift and Zooey Deschanel all having bought their own satchels.
So successful was her entrepreneurial journey that, in 2015, Julie Deane was asked by the government to head up an independent review into self-employment, something the mother of two told us she was “honoured” to do.
Speaking exclusively to Business Advice, Deane outlined her thoughts on whether UK self-employed workers were currently able to cut a fair deal for themselves, and expressed her disappointment that successive governments have so far failed to implement many of the proposals laid out in her review.
“I keep working hard to get some of the recommendations brought forward,” Deane explained. “What I wanted from the review was to put together a series of practical measures that would make things easier and more equitable for people following in my footsteps.
“I made sure the recommendations could firstly be affordably done, and secondly make a real difference. Self-employed people now make up around 15 per cent of the entire workforce, so it’s something the government must come back to.”
Many of the issues Deane attempted to address in her review continue to be a problem for the self-employed. Poor cash flow remains one of the biggest hurdles to starting your own business in the UK today, and a key measure of her review was to make flexible financial solutions more widely available for self-employed workers.
A distinct lack of publicly-available guidance and information on all aspects involved in launching a business was also picked up in Deane’s review as a major UK-wide challenge, and this is another area she feels the government has failed to make progress on over the last few years. It is also the main reason she said yes when asked this year to be “Entrepreneur in residence” at the British Library.
Deane told Business Advice: “If self-employed could access some of the resources that big companies have, it levels the playing field and makes rapid growth so much more available, and a real possibility.
“Libraries are places where people of all ages feel comfortable. If they become places where people come to access and share knowledge about self-employment, it’s another reason to keep libraries in local communities, where everyone can gain access. The resources here could be pushed out anywhere. The library system is so pervasive.”
In addition to turning the country’s libraries into more accessible resources for entrepreneurs and the self-employed, Deane also advocated a shake-up of the education system so that it places a greater emphasis on enterprise and teaches children some basic, practical aspects of business ownership from a far earlier age.
“If 15 per cent of school children are some day going to become self-employed, doesn’t it make sense to teach them what a balance sheet is, or how to read a profit and loss statement?” she asked.
“Because there isn’t that education in place now, a lot of people come at it with the fear that self-employment is a path they can’t cope with, especially as they’re unlikely to be able to afford an accountant or a lawyer in the early days for advice.
“The school curriculum hasn’t changed in such a long time, and young people aren’t being prepared for real life. How children can leave the education system with absolutely no knowledge of mortgages, or what the rate of APR means on the credit card they eventually take out, is shocking.”
With the number of self-employed workers growing as a proportion of the workforce, Deane also suggested that enough isn’t being done to emphasise the group’s diversity.
Far from consisting of high-flying young entrepreneurs, armed with polished Dragons’ Den-style business pitches, the self-employed differ in terms of age, background, wealth and work experience, amongst many other factors.
In this way, the self-employed are a difficult demographic of worker to legislate for, in terms of employment protection, taxes and regulation.
For Deane, one way to ensure the interests of all self-employed workers are met could be to launch a new government department for self-employment in Westminster, and install a minister whose role would be to represent self-employed workers and freelancers.
However, the entrepreneur said she would only support any new “minister for self-employment” if the candidate had experience of running a business themselves.
She explained: “Self-employment is a hugely practical area. When I started Cambridge Satchel Company, I wouldn’t have taken advice from anyone who hadn’t done it before, so the government couldn’t afford for it to be someone out of touch.
“The trouble with having a minister to represent self-employed is the risk that perhaps that person becomes a ‘politician’ too quickly, and the position becomes unrepresentative and, ultimately, pointless.”
The proposition of a new minister and department is currently made more complicated by the looming presence of Brexit, and the uncertainty it’s created surrounding worker rights. For Julie Deane, one way the government could make itself more useful to self-employed workers in the immediate future would be to highlight any new opportunities resented by Brexit.
“Daily guidance would be helpful,” she suggested. “For example, making the daily exchange rate clear to anyone exporting, or considering exporting, would encourage small businesses to ‘grasp the nettle’ and really push to make a killing on overseas sales.”
For her fellow self-employed, the Cambridge Satchel Company founder’s key tip would be to take small, incremental steps after starting out on your own. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket and leap into self-employment with everything you’ve got,” advised Deane.
“Really keep your business plan as simple as possible, and spend time testing it, trying out different things before you make it completely ‘your thing’.
“The more pressure you put on yourself, the less creative you’ll be. So, try to startup alongside some solid work and it will make you feel a lot more positive about making that transition.”
Read more: A motivational pep talk from The Apprentice winner Tim Campbell
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