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Things I wish I’d known …

Things I wish I’d known …


13 Feb, 2019

Thinking about starting a business when you leave the Forces? Regular QUEST contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of Lincolnshire-based specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man, takes us through the top five things he wishes he’d known before striking out on his own – in the hope they’ll help you decide if starting a business is one of your options too!

I remember sitting in the crew room thumbing through QUEST and trying to decide what to choose for a career. It was both exciting and daunting. The good news this week is employment has reached a record high, with 32.5 million in work in the UK. So, if you’re looking for a job, there are plenty available. The bad news? Every day we get news of businesses struggling, so which jobs are secure?

Carillion has gone. Interserve, another massive employer, has been shaky, along with many other big companies. Then of course the high street is losing big and small companies every week. Just as I was writing this, Patisserie Valerie joined the long list of those closing their doors for good, and who doesn’t like cake?

So here are my top five things I wish I’d known before starting out in business. Hopefully they’ll help you decide if starting a business is one of your options.



Cash is king

‘The company did not have enough money to meet its debts’

BBC News on any day in 2018

If you’ve read any of my articles, you’ll have heard me bang on about the importance of having plenty of cash available when you start a business. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is. It doesn’t even matter how many customers you have. You can be busy working 80 hours every week, with profitable jobs and great contracts, and still go bust. It means nothing if you’re not getting paid and getting cash in the bank.

Cash is like oxygen. It’s all around you when you start off, and it’s easy to believe it will always be in good supply. However, the harder you work, the more you’ll need. You’re burning energy, doing the hard work and oxygen is vital to keeping you going.

Imagine you’re a sub aqua diver. You wouldn’t dare enter the water without enough oxygen in your tanks; it would be stupid and your trip underwater wouldn’t last very long, or end well. In the same way, a pilot would be foolish to plan a route but not calculate how much fuel was needed. Taking off without having enough fuel can only end one way for everyone on board.

However, this is what we do as business owners. When I started, I needed £80,000 to get me through the first two years. Obviously I didn’t know this because no one had told me, and I’d chosen not to work it out. 

This £80,000 would have covered my start-up costs and loss of earnings while I got established (I didn’t make a profit for two years). However, I’d only planned on needing £30,000, the cost of my equipment and start-up costs. Clearly, I was £50,000 short.

Having enough cash in the bank buys you time as a new business owner. It lets you learn your trade, find new customers and get established. It will also take away most of the stress you’ll feel in the first few years. So make sure you have it, or have access to it when needed. 

But …



You’ll not get your start-up money back

If you’re thinking about starting a business, you’re really talking about investing money in yourself. 

Let’s say you invest £30,000 like I did. I’d guess £20,000 is for equipment and a van, and the remaining £10,000 gets you a website, initial advertising, insurance and a starting balance in the bank. Unfortunately, you’ll never see this money again, unless you manage to build a business you can sell. For this you’ll need years of reputation, loyal staff and a strong customer base. You can’t sell a business that only has you in it. 

Sure, you’ll be able pay yourself wages so you can live. However, that initial lump sum of money is gone, for ever. My £80,000 is built in to my business but I don’t have access to it.

I was under the impression that, once the business started to make money, I’d be able to take that cash back out and pay down my debt quickly. However, once you get trading, you’ll need as much money as possible left inside the business to act as a buffer for quiet times. 

So, if you’re considering borrowing the money to start up, you need to think seriously about when you’ll have to pay it back. If it’s a bank loan, they will just take it and won’t care whether you have the money or not.

However, if it’s from family or money from savings, don’t expect to see it for a long time. Make sure family and friends know this, otherwise it’s more stress you’ll be under as they start asking for it back!



Be honest with yourself

‘You must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool’

Richard P. Fyenman

It’s a great feeling when people pay you cash. I still remember my first ever job. I drove an hour each way to make a car key, used parts that cost me £10, and earned £70. This meant that for three hours work I earned £60. 

When you take away the tax, wear and tear on the van, fuel, insurance and everything else, I was on about £10 per hour, the same as being on a till in any supermarket. However, I felt great because I’d be given £70 cash! This is how I went on for too many years, taking cash but earning very little. 

I didn’t realise I was earning so little because I wasn’t honest with myself. We were living off the money we’d made when we downsized our house. We burned so much cash! But I didn’t want to admit that I could earn the same in a job, without any of the stress. 

I’ve been lucky. I stuck at it and got away with it. After 15 years, I now earn more than my RAF wages would have been. The business is healthy; I can even pay the taxman without worrying too much.

But don’t fool yourself like I did. Taking money is not the same as making money. When you’ve paid all your bills, wages and tax, is there any left? 

Visit the Car Key Man YouTube Channel at:



You have a 50/50 chance

‘Entrepreneurship is like a computer game … the best way to skip some levels and increase odds of survival is to learn from others who have already played the game’

Vivek Wadhwa

While we’re being honest, hopefully someone has already told you what your chances of success are. 

Facts and figures for business survival vary. Some business sources quote just a 20% survival rate after five years of trading, and just 4% after ten years. But we’ll take a more positive approach. The optimistic number of businesses that survive five years is 50%.

The facts are simply that, when you start a business, there’s a chance your business will fail. There can be lots of different reasons for this.

  • You chose a bad business idea.
  • You didn’t know what you were doing.
  • A recession caused potential customers to stop spending. 
  • Your customers didn’t pay you.
  • You realised after a while, you hate having a business!

It doesn’t always have to be a negative reason. Maybe a job offer comes along and pays really good money, along with holiday and sickness pay, and you decide to take the job. Whatever the reason, only half of all UK businesses make it to five years. These are the same odds as a black or red roulette spin.

The good news is that, once you know these odds, you can do things to improve them. More information, building a network around you, correct advertising and, of course, a cash reserve. These are just a few ways to make your company one of the winners. But research your chances. 

When a business fails, thousands of pounds vanish. A business never fails with money in the bank.

Finally …



It’s like the longest posting ever

Have you ever come to the end of a posting and been itching to move on? Are you one of those people that likes the prospect of change every few years? 

Whenever I meet an old RAF colleague, they’ll usually ask me ‘Are you still cutting car keys?’ 

Yes, 15 years on, I’m still doing the same thing. I love my job – it’s rewarding, pays well and I’m constantly learning. However, it has a lot of boring stuff in it as well. Boring things that I’ve done for 15 years. I now pay people to do some of these boring things, but this all costs me money.

So, remember that when you start a business, you need to have some passion about what it is you’re going into. Don’t just pick something out of this magazine that looks interesting, easy or available. If you get bored what are you going to do? 

Make sure you talk to people who are actually doing the job before you sign up on the resettlement course. Take a few days’ leave and hang out with a plumber, locksmith or tree surgeon to see if it’s the sort of thing you’d like to do for the next 20 years.

Read Steve’s regularly updated blog at:

It’s great being your own boss!

Still want to start a business? Good for you. Choosing to make your own future is so rewarding, and getting paid to do the best possible job for your customers is great way to earn a living. There’s so much opportunity and it really is a good time to start a business.

Good luck, get stuck in, and I hope this helps.


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.

Get in touch

Tel: 07832 147601 or 01522 514141