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Expect the unexpected

Expect the unexpected


21 Apr, 2020

With the spectre of COVID-19 looming over both people and businesses, regular Quest contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man, revisits the unanticipated events that almost killed off his business, how he overcame them and his tips for keeping a business going over the next few months …

When you start a business, you take a chance. All the time the idea is bubbling in your head it’s easy to be convinced you’re on to a winner. It’s such an exciting time. You can see only possibilities and probably don’t give a thought to the bad stuff. However, as I write, businesses around the world are starting to realise that the unthinkable has suddenly happened. COVID-19 is spreading throughout the UK. Italy and Spain are in lockdown and suddenly businesses worldwide are in big trouble. 

Against this worrying backdrop, this month we’re going to look at how I survived the unexpected events that almost killed off my business. Plus I’ve got some tips to help you keep your own business going over what are likely to be a very difficult few months …

Visit the Car Key Man YouTube Channel

Car key programming: how hard can it be?

I’d done the research, paid for key programming courses and was a sponge, finding out as much as possible. When the resettlement team suggested preparing early for leaving the Forces, I was already way ahead. I started the business 18 months before leaving, and was running around in a van evening and weekends to get the business going. 

However, things went wrong from the first week!

I’d taken a morning off from the RAF and dropped by a quick ‘easy’ job to make a new key for a Transit van. It was supposed to be a simple job. Unfortunately the owner, myself and even the van sales couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen next. 

Ten years earlier, in the mid-1990s, Ford boffins had experimented with a fly-by-wire system on a very small number of vans. The trial had been a failure. The vans had all sorts of problems and Ford stopped making them. However, they were still in circulation and my customer’s van was one of them. As soon as I plugged my computer in and tried to code in a key, the van’s immobiliser shut down. It wouldn’t start, even with the owner’s original key. 

This was bad. I was supposed to be at work at midday, the owner needed his van for work and I didn’t have a clue what to do. I recovered the van to Ford, who scratched their heads for ten days, eventually got it running and presented me with a bill for £500. Now that may not sound a lot, but it was way more than I had.

Could I have planned for this? It was my first month in business, my second ever key-programming job. How unlucky was that? It cost me financially, it cost me my reputation for the next few years and it wiped out all the spare cash I had. My business almost failed in the first week due to a lack of cash in the bank. Did I learn? Let’s fast-forward six years …

Keep him or let him go?

I did survive, thanks to a new credit card I signed up for. (Don’t do this, it’s a stupid idea and took me years to pay off.) Six years after the incident described above I was at the point where my business was growing. The workload was getting too much. I was letting down customers and stressed out every day. After a few failed trials of potential employees, I came across the keenest, hardest-working young man I’d ever met. I knew him from a local locksmith shop, and he was ready to jump ship and train up with me. 

Problem was I didn’t have enough work for the both of us, so cash was extremely tight. I was already £15,000 overdrawn at the bank due to the expense of trying to grow the business. I remember waking up every day and the first thing I’d do was check my bank balance to make sure I could use my debit card. That’s far too stressful, believe me. 

Having a keen employee was fantastic. Unfortunately, he was a bit too keen. In his very first week, he took it upon himself to drive a customer’s vehicle out of our workshop. It was a tight space so whenever I moved anything, I always had a marshal. On this occasion the vehicle was a large, expensive motorhome. I’d only left him alone for 30 minutes, but returned to the workshop as a disaster unfolded.

He’d collided with next door’s workshop, opening up the side of the van like a sardine can, smashing off the awning and damaging the asbestos roof next door. Nightmare. 

The campervan had to be repaired, the workshop roof was damaged and I had zero spare cash. Again! The total bill this time was £4,000 and, once again, it almost killed off my plans for my new employee. He hadn’t meant it of course, but that didn’t help me. 

I’d not learned the lessons of my first week in business. I didn’t have any emergency fund, just as most businesses don’t, and now I had a massive bill and no means to pay it. How could I keep my new employee on and pay him wages?

Read Steve’s regularly updated blog

Ready for COVID-19?

Well, we did survive. I kept my new employee and we now have a thriving business in Lincoln. I was lucky on both occasions because I got away with it, but what of this new global virus that’s decimating the travel, airline and entertainment industries? 

Do any businesses keep cash back for times when everything goes wrong and business stops? When I read about all the businesses already in trouble, small and large, it seems that no one expected this. It’s a fine line we all walk between investing our profits back into the business and keeping it back for an emergency. Last month I spent £5,000 on new programming equipment. I wouldn’t have done that had I known COVID-19 was around the corner.

Fortunately, this time we’re in pretty good shape, for various reasons. Here’s what is different from our previous disasters, and three things I’d recommend that all businesses – new or established – try to do.

  1. Have some spare cash. I believe this is the most important thing a business can do. My campervan-wrecking employee has a wife now, along with kids and a mortgage, and he’s very important to my business. So even if I don’t sell any car keys, I need to pay his wages.
  2. Have a second income stream. When I started out in business, my wife didn’t work as our kids were very young. There was tremendous pressure on me to earn money so we could pay the bills. I’d recommend thinking about this when starting out. Can you get a part-time job and run the business part-time in the early days? Do you have a partner that can take the pressure off you? My wife works full-time now and I now have an online business that pays my mortgage and bills. This has made such a difference to how I sleep at night.
  3. Control who owes you money. When you service a customer they should pay you. It’s pretty simple. Businesses fail because they’re owed money and the working cash in the business dries up. It doesn’t matter how profitable you are, you must get that cash from the customer and into your bank. It’s taken me 15 years to get better at this and I wish I’d done this right from the start of my business. 

Now, of course, with the current coronavirus crisis, it’s not all about business. I’m sure we’re all concerned about older parents and family. However, without our business working, we can’t live a normal life and in turn look after our loved ones. 

So, good luck. Starting a business is exciting, owning one is rewarding, but there are so many things that can catch us all out. Unfortunately, COVID-19 will cause many businesses to fail, new and established. When businesses fail, homes and life savings are lost, sometimes through no one’s fault. While I tried to do the right things early on in my business, I had no idea those two events would catch me out like they did. Once again, I’m making plans to keep our business alive. 

Keep strong, look after your loved ones and let’s hope there’s better news by the time you’re reading the next issue of QUEST

Read all of Steve’s previous articles on our website – enter ‘steve bulleyment’ in the search field


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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