“Starting out” by Cathy Frances, Stratford Family Mediation

  • Published on 28th July 2022
  • Published in Latest News Uncategorized

Have you ever wondered about setting up your own business and being your own boss? Taking the plunge to do this is a giddying, heart-stopping experience.

Once you’ve made the decision, you’ll face myriad small decisions and numerous variables – from what name to choose and finding premises through to identifying potential clients and marketing on social media. You’ll not only be the MD, but Head of Sales and Marketing, Head of Operations (customer service and product development) and Head of Finance (accounting and HR). Quite a daunting prospect!

So why read my story? Well, frankly, if I can do it, anyone can! Until now, I always worked in the welfare sector and didn’t think I had a business-savvy bone in my body. Well, it turns out that I do!

In 2019, I decided to re-focus my experience and qualifications, and study to become a family mediator, helping couples who are separating and divorcing to agree child arrangements and separate finances for a ‘clean break’ (or ‘cleaning break’ as a client recently called it!) Certificate in hand, I set about finding paid employment in my new sector and was dismayed to find there weren’t any mediation businesses based in Stratford-on-Avon. (Remember this was just before Covid and the advent of Zoom.) This obviously presented a fabulous, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set up my own business practice … which, as I said, is a giddying, heart-stopping prospect.

I was extremely fortunate to be directed towards Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce, who run a Business Start-Up Programme* which is a blend of free workshops, coaching and mentoring. They run a phenomenal range of practical, constructive workshops which I started attending at venues throughout Warwickshire, and then online through lockdown. The presenters led me and other budding entrepreneurs through our business vision, strategy and planning, creating a website, setting up an accountancy system, finding and keeping customers and a range of masterclasses on the different social media platforms. Perhaps most importantly, the presenters inspired and motivated us, and truly supported us through the start-up process, tailoring all the information to suit our individual business plans. For example, on-going marketing was going to be especially important for my mediation business, where hopefully, I wouldn’t have too many repeat clients!

Seriously, I would strongly implore anyone considering setting up their own business in Warwickshire to go to the Chamber of Commerce website without delay.

Part of the Programme includes having a mentor, who provides one-to-one support, setting tasks and deadlines, and nurturing you towards ‘launch’ day and beyond. As I didn’t feel comfortable in running my new business from home, one of the biggest obstacles I faced was finding suitable premises. It needed to look slick and professional, with a meeting room to mediate clients, plus easy access and parking, all for a reasonable price. Having identified potential premises, the even bigger challenge proved to be providing business references and guarantors. As a start-up, you have no proven track record or accounts, but without an office, a business like mine has no chance of launching … a quintessential catch 22 situation.

One day, I was discussing this with my mentor, Tanya, when she suggested I approach Venture House, a purpose-built business centre near the centre of Stratford-on-Avon. The Centre is owned and run by Stratford District Council and is specifically designed as a launch pad for start-up businesses. I looked at the website and initially thought one of their hot-desks might work okay. Then I visited and saw the serviced office facilities on offer and fell in love! The offices are ultra-modern, sunny and furnished, with use of a kitchen, meeting room and shower and the rent includes internet, parking, cleaning and all utility services. To top it off, the Venture House staff are friendly and keen to signpost you to all kinds for further support and opportunities.

From the business planning workshop, I’d worked out how many mediations I’d need to do to cover the monthly rent (about one a week), but most importantly, I didn’t need to sign a three-year contract, fork out a fortune as a deposit or provide guarantors or sets of accounts. Venture House offers a 3-month minimum let and only one month’s notice period. Also, the Birmingham Road is a recognisable address, presenting a professional impression on business cards, website and stationery.

The additional benefit of Venture House is that you find yourself in the company of similar-minded entrepreneurs in the adjacent offices; friendly faces at the start and end of the day, sometimes burning the midnight oil together. As a lone woman, they would pop their head around the meeting room door to make sure I was ok on the odd occasion where I had some really fractious clients.

Venture House also run a monthly virtual meeting of new and small business owners in the area called ‘Donut Time’ which offers a great opportunity to network. And I regularly pour over their monthly newsletter which is one of the best local resources I have come across and is full of news, events and support ideas for small businesses (you can sign up at www.bit.ly/vhupdates).

I can honestly say that, without the support of Venture House and the Chamber’s New Business Start-up Programme, I would not be where I am today.

So where am I today? I am now fully accredited by the Family Mediation Council and doing specialist training to become a child-inclusive mediator. I published a book on setting up a Family Mediation Business, incorporating what I learnt and adapted from the workshops with my practical experience (mostly mistakes and how to avoid them!) – mediation is a fairly niche market! Sharing this knowledge has led to invitations to three conferences so far this year, national press interviews and book reviews. And my business? It’s thriving! I now have a regular flow of clients including referrals from solicitors and can compete with the larger organisations by offering face-to-face as well as Zoom mediations. I feel I’ve carved my niche in the mediation world and am regularly asked to amalgamate with or sub-contract for other mediation practices, which is very flattering. Although I work hard, I can adjust my hours to suit clients and myself, but must admit I haven’t totally got the work-life balance quite right yet!

Earlier on I described Venture House as a ‘launch pad’ for new businesses, and this is exactly what it is. Working from a stable base in the Business Centre allowed me to concentrate my efforts on gaining experience, at the same time as building my business and client base, without the stress of attaining ambitious financial targets to cover exorbitant overheads over a long-term commitment.

If you’ve ever wondered about setting up your own business, I’d say ‘Go for it!’ And if you’re fortunate enough to live in Warwickshire, I’d say ‘GO FOR IT!’ If ever a county was prepared for supporting budding entrepreneurs, then it is Warwickshire. If you have any doubts or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me through my website. I’ll be happy to help you steady your nerves and keep your heart beating while you launch your own business!

Written by Catherine Frances of Stratford Family Mediation

*The Start-up Programme forms part of the CW Business: Start, Grow and Scale Programme and is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Warwickshire County Council and the 5 District and Borough Councils, including Stratford DC.

If thinking of starting your own business, contact the Chamber: businesssupport@cw-chamber.co.uk


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