Life in business is full of highs and lows, as Steve Bulleyment knows only too well. His RAF training may have taught him to be part of a Nimrod crew, but it didn’t fully prepare him for the years that followed his exit from the service. Now, though – 13 years later and with a thriving business – he is keen to share some advice with Quest readers on what to expect and how to handle resettlement.
These days trading as an auto locksmith, Steve’s former life as an air electronics operator seems a world away. Following a chance air experience flight with the Air Cadets, he had always wanted to fly on Nimrods and, in 1996, he joined 201 Sqn based at RAF Kinloss. While travelling the world, life was great, but after a move to Waddington in 2001 it became clear to Steve that RAF life no longer suited his family situation: ‘I loved my job and my family,’ he says, ‘It was tough, but I chose to retrain and set up in business.’
When he left the RAF in 2004, Steve was full of confidence for the future: ‘With all the training I had and the preparation during resettlement, I believed it would be a walk in the park.’ But, looking back, he wishes he’d known the truth about setting up in business from someone with experience of doing just that themselves.
He also wishes he’d known what it would be like to work as a sole trader. ‘I set up as an auto locksmith, knowing very little about cars, locks, business or keys – it was a bit crazy looking back!’ With a hefty mortgage, two small children and no customers, he did the only thing he could: ’I worked all the time to get work in, and ironically was seeing even less of my family than before.’ Steve was so unhappy that, after 12 months, he re-applied to the RAF. ‘We’d had to downsize to make ends meet, we had little money and it was a pretty lonely life after losing contact with my RAF colleagues. On top of that, I worked alone, under pressure and I honestly believed I’d made a terrible mistake.’ However, a family bereavement meant that joining back up had to be put on hold and the opportunity was lost.
A pretty desperate story. However, now Steve couldn’t be happier. He has a growing business, employs staff, loves his job and feels part of the local community. ‘I can look back and see the dark days, the recession and all that came with it. Being in business can be really tough and it can feel like there’s no help available.’ So how did he turn things around?
The main message he wants to get across to Quest readers is that there are some simple steps that can be taken to make your transition easier. ‘I love my life now,’ he says, ‘but I wish someone had shared these things with me early on.’
STEVE’S STEPS TO A SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION
- Stop spending money. Better still, once you decide you want to leave, research how much you think you will earn and then try to live on it. You may have to give up all the good stuff, for a long time. It’s no good saying that you’ll do it once you leave, do it during resettlement and get some money in the bank.
- Join a networking group. Find people who are in business and get into the habit of meeting with them on a regular basis. It may lead to work but, more importantly, it will be support for you when you need to talk to other business people.
- Find a mentor, or someone who has been in business and can guide you. ‘After getting ill with worry, I found a coach and it changed my whole life,’ says Steve. ‘It was a bit like seeing a shrink, but it also gave me some great ideas on how to take the business forward.’
- Be brave. If you love what you do, tell your customers. People love a story and will buy into it if you are honest and fair with them.
- Lastly and most importantly, do what you say you are going to do. ‘All my troubles early on were caused by me not turning up when I said I would due to me being unrealistic about how much time things took. If you are new in the job allow lots of time and don’t put yourself under pressure.’
… AND TOP TIPS FOR TRAINING
On top of that, Steve also has plenty of good advice for QUEST readers about ELC and training …
‘If you are going to survive in business then you need to decide that you are going to learn as much as you can,’ he says. ‘During my resettlement I chose to do as much training as possible, attending day courses on business through the various resettlement organisations and also doing my ECDL [European Computer Driving Licence] through Lincoln College on day release.
‘I know that getting time off in the Forces is very hard now – however, once you leave, every day you spend training will be a day not earning money, so if you can do it while you are still in, then all the better.’
Steve’s business, the Car Key Man, is a specialist auto locksmith company covering Lincolnshire. Launching in 2004, Steve spotted an opportunity to solve the problem of replacing lost and stolen car keys. The company now offers workshop facilities as well as a mobile service. Recognising the needs of concerned vehicle owners, it offers free consultations to find an affordable solution to the growing number of car key problems.
Recently Steve has also launched a YouTube channel to help customers, and opened an online shop as a trial, which is in its early stages. ‘We’ll see what happens,’ he says. ‘I’m a big believer in trying things out.’
Choosing the correct course
‘If you are like me,’ Steve continues, ‘you have probably sat leafing through this magazine getting ideas for jobs. That’s how I ended up as a locksmith. However, there some very important things to consider before choosing what to spend your valuable time on.
‘First, the training you get is going to need to be enough for you to earn a living. That means that, if you choose to start your own business, that information will be all you have, besides your previous experience. That’s why it is so important to choose wisely. Does the course have backup once you’ve left? If you want to be a plumber but don’t have any experience, are you going to be able to call someone when you’re stuck on a job? The reality is that if you can’t get the boiler working, you’ll have unhappy customers and you won’t get paid. They aren’t going to pay you because you tried really hard or spent all day there. If you’re thinking of setting up on your own, you’re not going to be able to call another plumber for help. So is it practical what you are planning? How much stress are you going to be putting yourself under?
‘Next, before you choose to sign up for a course, talk to the provider and ask for the contact details of a few people who have done the course and are now in the industry. These should be a mix of recently completed and two to three years on. If need be, get in your car, drive to where they are and spend few days with them. The idea isn’t just to find out about the course, but to find out about the lifestyle choice. Are they happy? What do they love and hate? What experience did they have before, and has that and the training been enough to get them through?
‘You’re planning for your next 10–20 years, so take some time off and find out. The last thing you want is to use up all your resettlement, only to find that those coming out the other end hate the job! This will also give you a chance to ask honestly what the earnings prospects are like; people will tell you if you ask. I didn’t do this and assumed I’d earn 25K. The reality was that for the first two years I actually earned about £10K, which meant we had to sell the house! A bit extreme, but true.
‘Lastly, before choosing your course, talk to potential employers. You may be planning to work for yourself, but nine out of ten businesses fail within five years. That means that of all the people that leave the Services and start a business, nine out of ten stop doing it within five years, and most will have spent their resettlement money, often their gratuity and their own savings, etc. So have a backup plan and know what employers want. That way, you can choose a course that will be useful to an employer.’
Car Key Man YouTube
Remember your ELC
‘Make sure you use your ELC allowance! I had forgotten all about it, but when I started my degree with the Open University I remembered and my first year was partly paid for by ELC. I found it very easy to apply for and the team were really helpful coordinating with the OU for me. However, when I re-applied the second year, my ten years had run out, just by a few days, and it cost me £800 of my own money. So, get in early – and make sure you use what’s available.
‘Your resettlement time will go very quickly. It’s actually quite scary how quickly it goes. Bear in mind that, for the last three months, you will probably be out of uniform. So plan ahead and get stuck in. Talk to people in front of you; use the experience of people who have done it already.
‘Lastly – and as ridiculous as this might sound – don’t start a business just to avoid the pain of going through the interview process. Interviews and selection centres can be very daunting and, to be honest, part of me chose starting a business so that I didn’t have to be rejected by an employer. It was a mistake though. If I had to do it all again, I’d go on as many interviews as time allowed, use it for experience and find out what is out there. You might just get talking to someone who could lead you on a completely different career choice, so just apply and see what happens …’
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