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A business to suit you

A business to suit you


11 Jun, 2019

Thinking about starting a business when you leave the Forces? ‘We’re going to look at the differences between being self-employed and running a business,’ says regular QUEST contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man. ‘They may look like the same thing on the outside, but they’re completely different animals …’

When most of us start a business, we work alone. Whether it’s taking a plumbing course, learning to become a tree surgeon or training as a locksmith, we take the course, buy the equipment and a van. The next thing we know, customers are calling us and we’re earning money. It can feel a bit hairy at first, but after a while it becomes routine, and somehow we’re making a living!

This is being self-employed, a one-man band. It’s a good way to get to know whether the self-employed life is for you. Normally start-up and overhead costs are low; you don’t have wages to pay, or rent. You know how healthy the business is by what’s in your bank account. For many Service leavers this is the perfect transition to civilian life.

Why is it so good?

For a start, you don’t have a boss (well you do – the bank and the tax man, your customers, etc. – but we’ll leave that for now). You’re no longer getting told what to do, getting leave cancelled, when you can have weekends off and when to take holidays. It’s freeing and can take a while to get used to.

Next, with a pension coming into your bank, the pressure can be off to be earning the big money. Having guaranteed money every month makes everything easier. It’s the perfect way to start up, knowing that life doesn’t depend on whether you can chop that tree down or unlock that car. 

Lastly, there’s no interview, selection or rejection. Simply book the course, use your gratuity to set up, and you’re away.

Is there a downside of being alone? 

Like anything in life, there’s a trade-off. For a start, being on your own can be lonely. If you’re stuck on a job, if you’re having a bad day, or even a really good day, no one knows. If you’re used to working in a big crowd, and enjoy the banter, then working alone may not suit you.

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Car Key Man YouTube Channel


Other things to consider are sickness and holidays. If you’re not working, you’re not earning. When I was off sick following an operation back in 2010, I had four weeks of stress. Most of it wasn’t the surgery, but the fact that we didn’t have any money coming into the bank.

Holidays? Yes, you can take them when you want, but as my father-in-law used to tell me, they cost double what normal working people pay. First, there’s the cost of holiday, next there’s the lost earnings. 

So self-employed life has lots of advantages, but it can be the worst ever job. Your boss (you) will worry about everything, have everything to do (quotes, tax, accounts and the actual job) and if you’re not ready for all these extra responsibilities, it can come as a shock.

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The major problem I had was when I got to the point where my business needed to grow, but I couldn’t keep up with demand. Late getting back to customers, booking in too many jobs, forgetting to order parts and generally letting people down. 

Many businesses simply turn work away to manage the problem, but for me these were the signs that I needed some help, which leads us to what my business is now …

The alternative

There’s another way to have a business. It solves the three problems that come with being self-employed. It’s what a business should be, but can feel daunting at first.

Why I love having a business vs being self-employed

Something amazing happens now every time I’m on holiday …

When I switch the phone off for some well-earned rest, the business keeps going. My employees and support staff answer the phone, rescue customers that are stranded, sell car keys from our shop in Lincoln, and I’m not needed at all. 

Occasionally I’ll need to call into base to help with a technical problem, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. I decided to develop my business after that month sick, the stress of being alone and so many sleepless nights. It was a really painful transition.

When I took on my first employee, I trained him for nine months, almost to the point where he could work alone. Then, out of the blue, he left, taking a job as a caretaker in a completely different field. The job paid better than I could at the time, so he followed the money. I was gutted and nearly gave up on the idea of expanding.

Fortunately, my second employee actually chose me. He pestered me for a job for months, even though I didn’t have enough work to pay the pair of us. Once I saw how keen he was, I took a chance, rented a workshop, paid for advertising and took a leap of faith.

The first three years of employing Simon cost the business, and myself, £40,000. That’s what we lost and it was touch-and-go for a long time whether I could keep him. But gradually the work built up, Simon’s skills developed and then something wonderful happened …

Simon is more skilled than me!

In the last two years, his technical skills have overtaken mine in several areas. He’s developed two new ranges of products that he specialises in, and he earns extra commission when he sells and installs these products. As a result, he now earns well over £30,000 and has the potential to earn more as the business grows. 

It’s allowed me to concentrate and develop a completely different area of the business, so with the two of us working together the business has grown. I’m also in the process of giving him a share of the business, so that he can see a reward for all his hard work. 


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.

Other support

I learned the hard way that I can’t do everything. Tax, accounting, book-keeping, graphic design, marketing, photography and web support. I used to have a go at it all, but it doesn’t make sense for me to do these things. Instead I’m using the time to develop the business and concentrate on what I’m good at.

So, I now have help in all these areas, I have excellent support and I have built relationships with good people that I trust. More importantly, I’ve something to sell. When my time comes to look for a change in what I’m doing, or relocate to be near the kids, or get sick, or retire, I have a business that has real value. 

The very best reason for me to have my business is the freedom it’s given me over the last month. 

As I write this, my mum is in her last days. Although she lives 200 miles away, I’ve worked extra short weeks and spent most of the time with her, helping her in a hospice. Getting her drinks, helping her to eat, listening to stories about us growing up, and all her life memories. Unlike my other family members, who have bosses and limited holiday time, I’ve been able to create the time off I need. I could do this because I developed the business. Leaving it in good hands, with all the support around should a problem occur. That is the beauty of having a real business.

Whichever type of business you choose, make it something that serves you and what you want for life after the Forces. Self-employment and business ownership are both great ways to earn a living. Good luck with whichever you choose!

Get in touch

Tel: 07832 147601 or 01522 514141