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Key skills

Key skills


13 Aug, 2019

Do you have a business idea in your head that just won’t go away? Are you imagining a life beyond uniform where you control your own destiny and become your own boss? I remember it well,’ says regular QUEST contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man. And, to celebrate 15 years of running his own business, he’s here with 15 tips to support you on your own journey.

15 years, 15 tips

By the time this goes to print, we’ll have made it to 15 years in business! It’s significant because only a small percentage of businesses survive for that long – and it’s also longer than I served in the RAF.

When I started up on my own, I didn’t have a clue. Somehow, through desperation and determination, I kept going, but I wish I’d known more before I started out. It would have made everything so much easier. 

So, here are my 15 tips, one for every year, and I hope they help you.

Starting a business

1. Do what you say you’ll do. Think about how frustrating it is when someone promises to call you back with a quote or to help you with a problem. Remember waiting in all day and the plumber you booked doesn’t arrive? It’s so frustrating as a customer. If disaster strikes and you know you won’t make it, phone and tell them you’re not going to make it. That’s so much better than letting them down completely. 

2. Charge well for your services. If you have a special skill, and you’re doing an excellent job, charge for it. Don’t undercharge just because you’re new to get the work, you’ll never make the business pay. Then …

3. Get paid for the work you do. When I started out, I was embarrassed to chase companies up for money and was owed a lot in the early days. On top of that, many larger companies have strict rules about what paperwork they need before they’ll pay you. Invoices and statements need to be sent in within a certain time, and often you’ll need an order number or job reference. Not having this information is just a good reason for them not to pay you. 

4. Never rush a quote. If you guess at a quote, you’ll be too cheap. Quoting in a rush or under pressure from a company will normally lead you to forget something. Write down every item, add it up and double check your numbers. Once the quote is out there, they’ll hold you to it, so get it right at the start.

5. Cash. You’ll never have enough at the beginning. I didn’t make a profit for two years, and so burnt through around £60,000 of ‘savings’ we didn’t have. As a result, we had to sell our house! Work out before you start how much you’re going to need, and talk to your partner and extended family to see if you can get hold of cash should you need it. 

6. Pay your suppliers on time. There are just a few people that make your business work, and suppliers are so important. Get them onside and they’ll keep you out of trouble. 

7. Slow down. ‘Slow is smooth and smooth is fast ’ is how Jocko Willink, the US Marine Commander, puts it. It’s easy to rush about, leaving jobs half done, and leaving a string of work unfinished. This happens when an easier job pops up that you know will make some simple cash for you. However, you won’t get paid if the job’s not done. Slow down, get the job done, get paid, move on.

8. Know that customers lie to you. Some just don’t know what they need. Others think it will make the job cheaper. We often get a call asking for a price on a ‘spare car key’. A spare is a much cheaper job because it can be done at our workshop, which means no call-out fee. As well as this, with a spare car key, we have a pattern of the key to copy from. However, when you make keys when all are lost, it’s much trickier, so it can cost three times more. When we give them the option to come to us they’ll tell us ‘But I don’t have any keys to drive it’, which means they’ve lost their keys. If we’d quoted a spare key price, we’d have to increase on our quote, and no one likes that. Assume you’re not getting the truth. Ask questions, take the time to get all the facts. 

9. No one cares about your business as much as you. It’s your baby, so even though you may think about your new business idea at every waking moment, those around you are getting on with normal life. Even in the future, when you have employees, you’ll be hard pressed to find an employee that cares like you do. It’s just how we are as business people. Keep this in mind when they want to go home at 5 on a Friday and you have a stack of stuff left to do. 

10. PAY YOUR TAX! There are a few certainties in life and one is that you need to pay the taxman. Don’t mess with HMRC. They will chase you down and make your life hell. I tried it, and they came and got me! Get some professional help and make sure you stay up to date. 


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.

Advice on leaving

Even if you decide to get a job instead of starting a business, there are a few things to remember as you start the process. Here are my top five tips on dealing with change.

11. Stop spending money! This is really my top tip. As soon as you decide to leave, you’ve decided to cut your pay. Unless you’re very lucky, you’re going to get paid less for a while. Every pound you can save, every overhead you can cut out of your budget, is a pound you don’t have to earn. If you think you’ll be earning £18,000, try to live on it and see how you get on. 

12. Find another income. Having two sources of income will take the pressure off when you have a quiet week. Maybe you work part-time while you build up the business. Hopefully someone else in the house is bringing in some money. Getting your Forces pension will make a massive difference in the early days. Get inventive. The revenue from my Car Key Man YouTube channel pays our mortgage!

13. It can feel lonely when you leave. If you’re the type that likes a good crack in the crew room, then working alone may not be your thing. We all go to work for different reasons. Some of us love the technical work, making something from nothing. It’s satisfying. Some of us love the crack, being with likeminded folks, being able to joke with one another. You may not get that on civvy street, so be prepared for the change.

14. Don’t leave everything too late. The 18 months will fly by and however under-prepared you are, the one certainty is that you will be leaving. So start your planning early and get your head around the fact that big change is coming.

15. Focus on the good things. When major change happens, it’s easy to focus on what we’re losing. So, make a list of all the benefits of leaving and find the good things to look forward to. Maybe it’s taking holidays when you want, being able to see the kids in a school play or not having to keep moving around the country. Whatever you’re looking forward to, make it positive.

Whether you decide to start a business or you get a job, there’s another life outside of camp and it’s waiting for you. Good luck!

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Tel: 07832 147601 or 01522 514141