Most entrepreneurs will tell you that starting a business is something they always felt destined to do. But a surprising number of “accidental” entrepreneurs, people who never in a million years thought they’d be running their own business, can be found among the ranks of the self-employed.
A study of entrepreneurs by The Recruit Venture Group found that a third of business owners never planned on starting their own company. And in spite of the challenges they faced, from raising finance and finding customers to managing with little personal income, only 1% regret their decision, while 12% wish they’d started their business sooner. Ninety percent say they are happier than when they were employed.
Gareth Jones, the founder of Town Square Spaces, which offers space and support for people developing and growing businesses, says: “Some people are surprised that self-employment is rising, but I don’t think that starting a business is always a gamble. I’d argue that sticking at a job you hate is a bigger gamble.”
The idea of taking control is a big driver for people to work for themselves, while the rising profile of ‘entrepreneurs’ generally has helped more people realize that they can be part of it.
“More success stories are being shared and that is demystifying the notion of entrepreneurship,” says Jones. “Turning an idea or your skills into a profitable business, even if it just provides one person with a living, is realistic for many more people today.”
Paul Williams, owner of chocolate manufacturing and retail business Choc Amor, had enjoyed a successful career in finance before redundancy struck in 2011. He spent the following year searching fruitlessly for a job in the same industry until he spotted a story in the newspaper about someone who became a chocolate maker and decided to have a go himself.
“When you’ve sent out over a thousand resumes and don’t have a job you’ve nothing to lose,” he says. “I was going for jobs paying less than half what I’d previously earned and still being turned down. I had to think about creating my own job.”
After considering several business ideas, his research revealed that the chocolate industry was virtually recession proof, worth £5.2 billion in the UK alone, and offering the best chance of success. After taking a couple of training courses, in 2012 Williams launched Choc Amor.
He says: “We borrowed £3,000 from my wife’s mother to start up, repaid her within six months, and have never borrowed a penny since. I never really worried about the risk, but I think that’s what entrepreneurship is about, taking an adverse risk and seeing if it will work out.”
And for Williams, it has. Choc Amor turns over £160,000 ($202,000) annually and has won a string of awards from the likes of Great Taste, the World Chocolate Awards and the Academy of Chocolate. Williams and his wife Jacqui now run the business, producing imaginative flavor combinations, such as orange jalfrezi, salt licorice, Kalamata olive oil, and chili cappuccino. Each flavor comes with its own ‘How to Eat’ tasting notes.
“We’ve turned Choc Amor into a different type of business,” he says. ‘Large organizations have approached me to supply them, but I’m not interested. My goal is to change people’s perceptions of chocolate one mouthful at a time.”
He says he doesn’t miss the world of finance, except perhaps the salary, but has no regrets about becoming an entrepreneur. “We have a much simpler life now, and it only takes me ten minutes to get to work, but the main thing is that I love what I do,” he says.
Sometimes a natural break from employment can be the catalyst for people’s entrepreneurial ambitions, as former teacher Temi Kamson discovered. She loved her job and had no plans to give it up, but all that changed when she took maternity leave. Today she runs GT Scholars, a social enterprise offering a range of leadership programmes aimed at helping young people achieve their academic and career aspirations.
She says: “While I was on maternity leave a group of local students asked for my help to improve their grades at school. They were from relatively low-income homes, so I matched them with volunteer tutors and mentors and ran some employability skills sessions, taking them to university and city visits.”
Kamson had initially planned to do it for a year as a side project, but as the need for these support services became more apparent she felt could make more of an impact through this work than through teaching, and left her job.
Five years ago GT Scholars launched its first programme from rented space in a local library with 15 young people and a few volunteer tutors and mentors. “Financially it was the worst time to do it,” she says. “Being on maternity leave meant that our expenses had gone up but our joint income had gone down.”
However, her biggest challenge was making sense of the social enterprise sector. Kamson admits that prior to setting up GT Scholars she knew very little about social entrepreneurship. “Thankfully I discovered very early on that many social entrepreneurs were willing to sit down over a coffee and share their knowledge, insight, and experience with me,” she says.
Another challenge was the overwhelming sense that her charity’s mission was too big and possibly unrealistic, as her research suggested it would take decades to achieve any major improvement in educational equality and social mobility in England.
“I often felt like giving up, but what kept me going was seeing the impact of our programmes, watching young people build their confidence, get better grades at school and move on to achieve their goals in life,” she says.
Today GT Scholars works with over 300 young people each year across London, in partnership with corporates and universities. Kamson says. “I’ve no major regrets about leaving teaching, though I still have days when I miss it, GT Scholars will have a far-reaching and deeper impact that wouldn’t have been possible had I stayed in teaching. I’m sure I made the right decision.”