FEATURE: 5 Years to Success – How 55 year old Ian Cunningham got his life back in business

Five years ago, Ian Cunningham was tired of his job as a bank clerk. After becoming disillusioned with his career, he quit and started training to be a bookkeeper.

Ian had spent the last 30 years working for NatWest, it was all he knew, but he felt it was time for a change.

So he quit his job and took a year off, using the time to improve himself and train for self-employment. As a 50 year old father of two, the struggle was real – by quitting his job the family had lost their usual lifestyle, relying on his wife Suzanne to be their main source of income while Ian trained to start working for himself.

“I guess I was kind of worried when my dad told me,” his son, Michael says, “It was a bit scary at the time. Me being only a kid, I didn’t have a clue what we were going to do”

“Our family relied on my dad’s job in order to have and enjoy all of the things we did. To be told all of a sudden that we weren’t going to have those things anymore, made me feel sad, frustrated and angry.”

Ian knew that half of start-up companies in the UK fail within the first 5 years, with most not seeing success until after that point. By looking into starting a business he had to be sure that his would be successful.

With only a month’s wages left, Ian took advantage of a marketing offer to get a training program for accountants. No longer stuck with just theory, Ian now had a better way to improve his skills and it wasn’t long before he started applying for jobs.

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The hardest part was getting that first client, as Ian tells it, he couldn’t even get a volunteer job working for charities.

He said: “When I went there, I didn’t have the confidence or the experience to sit down and know what I was doing”.

As time passed and he trained more, Ian’s confidence grew – eventually he applied for a job at an engineering factory in Halifax and was told they were overloaded with CVs.

As he tells it: “I drove over to Halifax and said ‘I was just in the area, thought I’d pop in and have a chat with you’. And he said ‘oh you seem like a nice chap and you know what you’re doing, go on then'”.

It was perfect timing for Ian, the company was looking for a temporary replacement as their old bookkeeper was changing jobs. Luckily for him, she was still there to guide him before she left.

“So I went in,” he says, “they had a bookkeeper who had been there for 10 years and I told her ‘you know what? I’ve never done this before but I’m confident I can do it”.

“I thought they were going to kick me out!”

Though it was hard at first, it didn’t take long for Ian to catch on and he soon found out that thanks to his work at the bank, he knew more about bookkeeping than he ever imagined. His new business – ISC Bookkeeping and Business Solutions had been born.

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Once that first job was over, Ian used some of the money he earned to join a Networking group, BNI.

“You’d sit round a table at 6:30 in the morning and talk to people and all talk about your businesses to see if other people could help you.” Ian explained.

Through it he managed to gain contacts, get jobs and increase his workload little by little. Introductions led to more introductions, little bits and pieces of jobs grew into bigger ones. That isn’t to say the Networking was easy though, he described how much effort it took:

“It got to the point where I was working every weekend, every night and every morning. Networking at 11 o’clock every night and 6 o’clock every morning, it just got ridiculous”.

Ian knew that he needed to either hire someone else to help with his workload or start to settle it down. To hire an employee was a huge step forward, his job at the bank had shown him how big a change it is to go from working on your own to having employees – 75% of small companies in the UK don’t hire anyone but the owner.

But Ian decided that because of his age, he needed more stability. He was 51 at that point and to own a successful business would mean more security should something happen that makes him unable to work. It was time to hire an employee.

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Not wanting to jump in too far too quick, Ian hired a 16 year old girl to do work experience over the summer, at the same time he got an email from another lady – 22 year old Angelika Gacek – saying she has full accounting qualifications but needs experience. Ian had already signed on one employee, he couldn’t hire two before knowing if he could manage it.

Angelika didn’t give up, she called Ian and emailed him again throughout the summer, eventually sending one last email when the girl on work experience left. Ian took her on and decided to see just what the 22 year old bag shop worker from Poland could do.

“She was doing really well, a very capable young lady. I gave her a complicated client and she helped me out enormously” Ian says with a smile on his face.

Though Angelika was only working 4 hours a week at first, it wasn’t long before Ian started thinking of hiring her on for longer and to do that, he’d need a better place for them to work than his living room.

That’s when Ian struck lucky. A phone call from a successful small business gave him the chance to expand but to do it, he’d need Angelika’s help. The risk was high: if she quit her job and worked for him full time then they’d make good money from the company but if they couldn’t keep the contract then Ian would have to put her back on 4 hours a week – making her lose her job. Ian explained it simply enough:

“I told her you can stick where you are and work in the bag shop all your life or you can jump now”.

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Angelika jumped. Though it was hard work for the both of them, with Angelika having to work unsupervised when Ian was dealing with other clients and Ian having to pay her out of his own pocket until the company was making enough to cover both their pay. Over time Angelika got good enough to cover her costs and the business started to improve – now under the name of Pennine Accounting Ltd.

With the extra money coming in from Angelika, Ian was able to buy an office – as he puts it:
“it was a bit of a back of the building place, out of the way but all that matters is that we were able to get things done”

Things carried on improving, Angelika was made a shareholder and co-director of the company, they moved to a new, better office and have even started hiring more employees.

“It was a big decision, from my point of view” says Ian, “I was thinking ‘I’m giving my business away’ in a way, but at the same time I couldn’t have the business growth that I have now. I’d still be on my own working at home”.

“It’s been a difficult journey where we’ve focused on covering our income needs over time,” he continued, “it’s only in the last year that things have really started to pick up and we’re doing really well now”

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Ian doesn’t think he’ll ever get back to making as much money as he did at the bank, but he doesn’t care: “It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, I really enjoy life now” he explained, “I really enjoy it and I think that’s what it’s all about”.

“If you go into business you have to enjoy it because you have to be self-motivated, no one’s going to keep you in check.”

Above all else, Ian recommends to people starting their own businesses to make sure that it’s something that they want to do. Beyond that, he believes networking is vital:

“One of the things people should do is get as many professionals around them as they can, no one can do everything so to have those specialists around you means you can get invaluable support and advice”.

In fact, Ian’s advice on Networking applies to more than just new business owners – a 2011 survey by Right Management found that 41% of people said they found their job through networking.

“You try and build something that’s sustainable and it’s got to be good for you, for your income, your lifestyle and to take care of your family” Ian says.

And for those struggling with heavy workloads or low pay, Ian believes that with enough effort things will turn around. As he puts it:
“You’re going to get bad times but you’ve just got to work through it, push through, keep going and keep looking for the clients. With the bad times come the good times and eventually things get good for you.”

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