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All I want for Christmas …

All I want for Christmas …


10 Dec, 2019

… well it wasn’t this, says regular Quest contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man. Freezing wind-tunnel conditions, snow falling and the light fading. Merry Christmas? Bah humbug!

It wasn’t the Boxing Day my family had planned for me. My hands were numb (gloves are no good when you are trying to pick a lock) and even though I had all the gear on, I was painfully cold. 

I’d been trying to unlock this frozen car for over an hour, wishing I’d ignored the phone call, but the stress I was feeling was my own doing, everything I worked towards for my business in the previous few years. Let me explain how I got there …

The road to my frozen Boxing Day

The beauty of being self-employed is we get to create the life we want. In the early days it may not feel like that. Scratching around for new work and struggling to keep any money earned, saying yes to everything is an easy trap to fall in to. I’d aspired to get the local AA contract, which would lead to regular well-paid work, being on call and replacing lost car keys on behalf of that august organisation. I bought new equipment, introduced new systems and wrote training manuals, just so we’d be approved as an approved contractor. 

Back in 2012, I took every call-out job the AA gave us, just so we’d be known as a company that could be relied on. But here I was, freezing cold, with a houseful of friends and family that were enjoying our Boxing Day party, which I should have been at too. Something had to change.

What I learned is that, to have a business you’re happy in, you need to create the rules, choose your customers and control what happens, instead of being blown about from day to day. If you are thinking about starting a business when you leave the Forces, I’d encourage you to really think at the start about what sort of life you want. The novelty of the business will fade and, as enjoyable as it is, you’ll have created your longest-ever posting for yourself – so, make sure it’s one you want to be in by planning out as much as you can.

What do you want for the future?

The end of this year and the start of 2020 offers a good chance to think about where you want to be next year. Leaving the Forces is a big move and what you end up doing should be because you’ve planned it out. 

Jim Rohn, a business coach, sums it up by saying ‘The future will arrive whether you’re ready or not. The question is, are you going to have your own plan, or be a part of someone else’s plan?’

Why not take the time over Christmas to make a wish list of what you want from a business and your life? By doing this, you stand a better chance of getting it. Just like the kids at Christmas, you may not get everything you want, but here are a few ideas that should help you decide what you’re going to do when you leave the Forces …

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How much money do you want to earn?

To me, this is the start of everything. It will depend on lots of things. Maybe you’ve done it right, completed your full 22 years or more and will be getting a big, juicy pension. If this is you, well done – earning the big money may not be too important. 

However, if like I did, you’re leaving early, then replacing your salary may mean you need to earn a lot more. When I left my role as an AEOp on Nimrods, I was earning around £35,000; 15 years ago that was really good pay, as it is now. It took me 12 years to achieve those wages as a business owner. So planning out what money you need will dictate whether you can earn that from your chosen business idea. 

A gardener with a small local round is never going to be rich, but will supplement a pension nicely. However, if you build up a landscaping business, with employees and large contracts, then this may offer you more potential to earn a lot more, if that’s what you want. Both are great ideas and suit different people.

How many hours do you want to work?

Once you know what you want to earn, you can work out the hours you’ll need to put in. If you’re in a good financial position, then it may suit you to work short days or weeks. You may need only so many customers and may not need to work crazy hours like I was doing that Boxing Day.

Who do you want your customers to be?

There will come a time when you end up doing a job for someone you don’t like, and wish you’d never agreed to do it. It may be because they are demanding, or rude, or racist, or any number of reasons. You don’t have to do it. 

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I deal with the motor trade and it attracts the bottom end of the food chain. In the early days I found myself dreading phone calls from certain car traders, or getting hassled by car DIY know-it-alls. You need to spot this early and put something in place so that these customers don’t take advantage of you and ruin a perfectly good day. Don’t let your customers dump problems on you over and over – it will grind you down. This is when you need to choose who you work for.

If we think again about the gardener example, then older, regular customers that appreciate what you do for them will be easier to manage than bigger companies that need major landscaping projects fulfilled.

Do you want to make a difference to people?

The family that were locked out on that Boxing Day were a Service family. He was a sailor, visiting family in Lincoln, then joining his ship in Portsmouth and setting sail the following day. It was his last few normal days before months away at sea. It was part of the reason I went out that day. Without doubt, if I hadn’t gone out that day, and he was late back to the ship, then as a family their next few days would have been very stressful.

In my business, most days we get a chance to help people who are really stuck and we get paid well for it. The best moments in the business are when a customer is truly thankful. I’ve had hugs and tears and beer and tips. The trick is to manage when those moments occur. As a rule, I now switch off my phone on important days, as well as every Sunday. I don’t want to fall in to the trap of feeling the need to work on a day when I want to be with my family.

Write it down

It’s been proven that if you have goals, and you write them down, you’re more likely to achieve them. Your last 18 months will fly by, and if you are planning to start a business you’ll have a lot to do. So, just like a Christmas list, write down everything you want for the future and make a plan to get there.

Wherever you are for the holidays this year, have a great time with friends and family if you can. Good luck – and start writing that Christmas list!


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.

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