Heather Baker is the owner of Saddles and Paddles, which offers cycle, canoe and kayak hire (as well as repair and maintenance) from Exeter Quay. She had no previous experience of running a business, but when a local business came up for sale the opportunity was much too good to miss
It was in the summer of 2012 when I first thought of running my own business. Up until then, I was very satisfied with my 10-year career in local government, working on a range of inspiring sustainable transport projects in Devon.
But then a colleague spotted a local bike shop and hire centre that was up for sale - one I knew very well and had always admired. The shop is located on Exeter's historic quayside - a perfect spot for both tourists and locals for traffic - free cycling routes. I always thought the business had more potential and so despite not having any previous inclinations towards being a business owner, it felt like too good an opportunity to miss.
I sought advice, researched what buying the business would involve and began the tricky process of securing funding. I was a young, inexperienced female, jumping from the comfortable life of full-time, public-sector employment, to running a well-established and popular private business. This wasn't a natural step for many of the high street banks I approached to understand!
While I was aware of my weaknesses (I quickly had to learn about due diligence, published accounts and stock valuations), I also knew my strengths - my bike knowledge, the local tourism market and the growth potential of the business. This helped me to write a strong and well-researched business plan. I also knew that I was passionate and knew that this would help me to overcome any barriers.
And the barriers were there. Seeking significant finance in the midst of a recession while keeping up with my demanding full-time job led to some of the hardest few months I've ever experienced. But even without the guarantee of successfully buying the business, I was never put off. And after a stressful few months of negotiations, I had secured the finance and had an offer accepted to buy Saddles & Paddles. It took me nine months from seeing the advert to becoming the proud owner of the business.
The biggest challenge has been taking on an established, successful and busy shop - I literally had to hit the ground running. If you start a business from scratch, you often have time to learn the ropes as you go, but I had just a few weeks until the start of the busy tourist season. Despite the pressure, it's been incredibly rewarding. I tackle everything myself - from bookkeeping to running the payroll for my ten staff - both of which I had no previous experience. But there is a lot of help out there and some very user-friendly commercial software to help business newbies.
New girl on the block
Another challenge I have occasionally faced is discrimination. As a female running the business alone, within a relatively male-dominated industry, I've had to face judgement from suppliers, fellow business owners and even customers. But despite these issues, it makes me even more proud of what I have achieved. Luckily, I have experienced more people who were genuinely impressed and supportive of my move into the industry than those that have been scornful.
I believe initiatives such as Global Entrepreneurship Week are a fantastic opportunity to inspire people to take their business forward, whether it's big or small, new or established. So much of it is about having faith that you can achieve your dreams, and it's fantastic to see so many small, independent businesses cropping up. I make a point of supporting local traders in my area.
Looking to the future
Alongside hiring staff, I have had to be very hands-on to learn the ropes, but this was key to my getting under the skin of the business, to understand how to improve and expand it. A few changes to business procedures have resulted in a sales increase of nearly 30% - with bike hire up 60% and bike servicing up 170% compared to the previous year. I'm confident that the improvements in my business plan for subsequent years will yield similar results.
The biggest challenge I now face is to encourage my employees to mirror my vision for a more efficient and successful business. I also need to manage my own expectations. After spending so long pouring all my thoughts and aspirations into the business plan, I can't help but be impatient to implement it!
This case study was written by Heather Baker of Saddles and Paddles. Heather supported Global Entrepreneurship Week, which ran from 18-24 November 2013 and was hosted in the UK by Youth Business International with support from Barclays. It aimed to encourage and support entrepreneurs and aspiring small business owners to take a step forward towards entrepreneurial success.