Cheryl Rickman Interview
Cheryl Rickman runs her own group of businesses CherryJam – with her partner James in Hampshire. Her first company WebCritique a web copywriting and marketing consultancy help other businesses to improve their online presence and Cheryl provides workshops to local businesses on these issues. web copywriter was borne from WebCritique and provides web copy for small and large businesses alike. Her clients include AnitaRoddick.com, Business Link Wessex, Motorola, and Microsoft. Cheryl’s other main business is the UK’s largest independent online music magazine – ilikemusic.com.
Cheryl has been a freelance writer for the past nine years, writing on business issues for Better Business and Internet Works magazine, and interviewing business leaders and music celebrities. As well as writing The Small Business Start-Up Workbook, which has a foreword by Dame Anita Roddick, Cheryl is an author of booklets, 111 winning ways to promote your website successfully and 127 insider ideas on creating a winning website and has been a Judge at Hampshire’s Awards of Web Excellence for the past two years.
DS: What inspired you to follow an entrepreneurial path and in particular what inspired you to write the Small Business Handbook?
CR: Well, I was never the ‘selling packets of sweets’ kind of playground budding entrepreneur at school, and my main dream was to become a freelance writer, but somewhere at the back of my mind I liked the idea of running my own business, something small and (dare-I-say-it) manageable. (I now know that smaller businesses are often harder to manage due to the lack of people to delegate tasks to).
However, it was mainly circumstance that led me to start-up, and the support and encouragement of my partner, James. And I think it is that circumstance – which creates entrepreneurs. The majority of self-made types are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Also, I guess some of my ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ came from my mum. She passed away in 1991 when I was just 17. And, to cope with the trauma and loss, I began to fill my time with trying to further my writing career. Years after her death, one of my mother’s best friends told me that mum always believed that I would someday run my own business. I had no idea that she thought that until a few years into my first business, but that gave me the inspiration I needed to think about writing my book. Having succeeded in business through a combination of determination and my own trial and error, I longed to write a book that would offer insight and encouragement to young entrepreneurs like me who dreamt of running their own business but didn’t have the faintest idea where to start. Ultimately, The Small Business Start-Up Workbook is the culmination of that dream.
DS: Did you have any help setting up WebCritique your first company or where you going it alone?
CR: In terms of advice I received help and guidance from my Local Enterprise Agency, but got most of the information I needed from the web. In terms of finance my personal bank turned me down for a business loan, so I set up a new account – great while it was free, but not so useful now it isn’t. Choosing the right business bank is a crucial decision and worth spending time on. I’m with Lloyds but wouldn’t recommend a bank whose business managers are difficult to get hold of and don’t see the longer-term bigger picture. My book includes questions to ask banks, and you can compare UK banks at www.bba.org.uk or www.moneyfacts.co.uk
DS: What was the biggest challenge you faced in bringing your idea to fruition? How was it overcome?
CR: The first was to challenge my own assumptions about whether or not I could do it. Everybody has some element of fear going into it for the first time, but I had such a great support mechanism in my boyfriend James, that he fuelled my own belief in my ideas and capabilities. The second challenge and probably the biggest ongoing hurdle that is shared by most small businesses is funding and cash flow. Finding start-up capital was far from easy, so I started up with a minimal amount. It’s certainly easier to borrow bigger sums than small amounts. In the early days, I also found getting clients to pay on time was a challenge. Now, this is less of a problem, but it is still a general rule that the bigger the customer, the longer they will take to pay you. Another ongoing challenge is finding balance in terms of thinking time. I think mostly about the businesses and what’s going on in them, and need to find a way to switch off more frequently.
The bottom line is that, as an entrepreneur, you have to challenge yourself fairly regularly and be open to that concept. You’re often going to have to enter the unchartered territory and do something that is foreign to you and your skillset, but that’s what happens when you wear many hats. And certainly, on start-up as a sole proprietor, you are the receptionist, marketing department, MD, fulfillment house, sales team. You wear ALL the hats, so being challenged on a daily basis becomes part and parcel of life as an entrepreneur.
Finally – realizing that you may have to rely on others who don’t share your vision/dream and who may/will let you down is a challenge to accept and overcome. Once you find reliable and impressive suppliers you can trust, from a great web developer to a great business card supplier, you learn to stick with them.
DS: What makes you most proud of your entrepreneurial achievements?
CR: The book does because it’s something tangible that I can pick up and say ‘Yes! I did this!’
I must admit, I’m often so busy that I only rarely stop to ‘smell the roses’ and appreciate what I’m achieving. This is a lesson in itself that I have to learn to do more and is certainly something that I suggest others do in my book. People (myself included) should list their achievements more frequently. Some books advise doing this on a daily basis, writing down mini-achievements.
I guess the main milestones that make me feel proud of my achievements are:
The friendships and contacts I’ve gained since embarking on my entrepreneurial journey, including a few ‘celebrities’ such as Anita Roddick and Wendy James, among others, plus a whole host of people who are part of the same online networks as me (such as ecademy.com and Digital Eve) who inspire me and make me feel proud. The people I’ve managed to interview both in the business world and music world makes me feel proud. Learning is so important in life, and being able to learn from those who are ‘living the dream’ is important.
Knowing that we’re still doing it and are stronger than ever makes me feel proud, with I Like Music (www.ilikemusic.com) it’s taken us four years, but we are now at a point where some of the larger well-known brands and companies who’ve spent pots of cash but with minimal results are now taking notice of us and can see our strengths. We now have four years worth of great content, contacts and traffic and are ready to take the site to the next level, but we’ve not forked out on flash offices or streams of staff. And with Web Copywriter, it’s great that the original business ‘WebCritique’ has grown organically into this niche area of writing for the web. The fact that all businesses are still going makes me feel proud.
DS: How did you actually fund your business to get it off the ground?
CR: WebCritique was launched with just a small amount of my own savings, plus a £1500 bank loan. My personal loan bank refused me for a business loan, so I set up a business account elsewhere. I also sold my car. Since then I’ve financed the business on cash flow, plus overdrafts and occasional loans, which is also the case for I Like Music, which is entirely self-funded. web copywriter cost nothing as the design was done in-house.
I wish there was more cash readily available in the form of grants to small businesses in all areas: both affluent and underprivileged areas.
DS: What attributes do you think to make a successful entrepreneur?
CR: That’s a tough question because there are so many variables that go toward making a business actually work; from personalities and people to the viability of an idea, state of the market and, often, circumstances outside a business owner’s control. As I say in my book, ‘Certainly, there is no entrepreneurial elixir you can swiftly drink to make you automatically successful (except your own home-made passion-fuelled one). But you can prepare yourself to seize opportunities and make it happen for you.’
However, if I had to list attributes that would make the entrepreneurial life manageable, I would say, you need energy, passion and to be dedicated and thick-skinned. You need to be able to cope with times when your social life will suffer. You should be a great communicator and someone who enjoys networking, be it face to face or online. But probably the most key attribute is the desire to learn. That includes learning from mistakes.
In my book, I speak to a variety people from Anita Roddick and Stelios to Simon Woodroffe, among others. All of them told me how important listening and learning is as an entrepreneur. And, as soon as you think you know it all, you’re history as a business. As a boss, if small business owners can remember that just because they started the business doesn’t mean they know more about marketing than the marketing chap, businesses would flourish easier. Learning should be a continuous endeavor, so a capacity and interest in learning is a crucial attribute for any entrepreneur.
DS: What do you believe are the necessary elements for a business venture to succeed?
CR: Good people. You need the right people working with you, be that in terms of partnerships or staff. They are the lifeblood of your business, so you need to value them and they will perform well. As Mike Southon says in The Beermat Entrepreneur ‘People buy from People.’ So ensuring that people working for you share your vision and at least can serve your customers in a way that they themselves would wish to be treated, is the first step.
You need to plan, as it’s easier to be passionate about getting somewhere if you know where you’re heading and how you’re going to get there. Plus cash-flow can kill businesses, so it’s important to know what is going to be coming in and out of the business all the time. Again, being open to learning is a key element. Many businesses fail because those driving the business are so caught up working ‘in’ the business, instead of ‘on’ the business, that they can’t implement changes, find time to learn or stay creative or on the ball. That’s why planning and hiring the right people with complementary skills who you can delegate to are essential success factors.
These are just some of the elements included in my Start-Up Checklist which appears in the book after the chapter called: LESSONS FROM LEADERS IN BUSINESS: Success Stories, Mistakes and Top Tips
DS: How essential do you see a University education in achieving success as an entrepreneur?
CR: Not essential. I went to University to a) make my parents proud b) delay the prospect of working for a few more years and c) because with A-Levels reading the Media Guardian I realized all the jobs I wanted to be able to do were only open to graduates. For me, although I ended up on lower or similar income to many of my peers, I needed to be a graduate to get my editorial and writing positions. However, I’d have learned a great deal more if I’d gone into a publisher and worked my way up. I believe work experience counts for a lot more (just as some people I sent my CV to as a graduate believed). What’s more, my partner James is more entrepreneurial than me (and he has the gift of the gab, is more confident, etc). He didn’t go to university, so that proves my point that university education is definitely not essential in achieving business success. Indeed, my BA (Hons) Degree in Media with Cultural Studies may well have hindered me in some ways. I could have been working all that time and saving up to fund my own business. And, if you look at the most successful people in UK business, the majority of them didn’t go to college let alone university. Richard Branson, Simon Woodroffe…
DS: What are the three most important lessons you have learned about business and entrepreneurship?
CR: 1. Everything always takes longer and costs more than you think it will (even when you are fairly stringent with your planning).
2. Go with your gut feeling. Learn how to feel what that is and go with it. The buck stops with you, so you need to get as many decisions right as you can. Some of these decisions will involve others trying to sell you something: support or a service or a partnership. There is a time for diplomacy and sometimes you will need to listen to your instincts and opt not to go ahead with a certain partnership or project.
3. Listen and learn constantly. You must never think you know it all as nobody does. People like to give advice and tell you what they know about things, so you can be constantly learning. You also need to delegate and appreciate that there are people out there who can complement your talents. Remember, it’s all about people.
DS: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
CR: Do your research, find out what your potential customer needs are and test the market where possible. Surround yourself with a good support network and work out your break-even point before you take the plunge. Buy or create a checklist that you can go through before you set up, making sure you’ve considered everything from your company name and marketing to your website, staff and expenditure needs.
DS: What’s the number one book you would recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs?
CR: Of course my own book – The Small Business Start-Up Workbook. However, another book I would heartily recommend is Anyone Can Do It by Sahar and Bobby Hashemi of Coffee Republic, and also Anita Roddick’s Business As Unusual – both are inspirational and help you get things into perspective. Both are available from Amazon.co.uk, or you can order Anita’s books via her own site at www.anitaroddick.com
DS: What memorable mistakes, if any, have you made in business? What did you learn from them and how can they be avoided?
CR: Earlier I mentioned the importance of going with your gut feeling. Well, if I’d done that on at least two occasions, I could have saved a lot of time, credibility and money. We chose a web development team based on referral who ended up being appalling. They made very technical looking sites which had a reduced Google ranking, terrible indexability and were poorly designed and coded. Effectively they talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. If I’d followed my gut instinct earlier on when the partnership was being discussed, I’d have walked alright… away from them. The partnership cost us credibility, lost Google ranking, plus a whole year of our time. Fortunately, we found a new developer who has made our sites the best they have ever been. But that’s just part of the roller-coaster ride of running your own business.
DS: What are the best and worst things about being an entrepreneur?
CR: Best things are the freedom and flexibility it gives you in terms of trying to reach your goals and in being your own boss. Plus, it’s nice to feel in control of your destiny. The worst things are that nobody can understand what it’s like to run their own business until they do it themselves and the fact that you lose a lot of ‘me’ time and social life when you work long hours on your business. Not getting paid holiday is another negative and personally, it’s my occasional inability to switch off from the business mode.
DS: Are there any other thoughts, insights, or advice for aspiring entrepreneurs that you’d like to add?
CR: If you believe in your idea, have some proof to back it up and have the energy to be your own boss, go for it. Remember, it’s better to try and fail than to not even bother to try then get to the end of your life wondering, ‘what if’ and ‘if only I’d done that.’