In the second in a series of posts, search engine optimisation (SEO) consultant Barry Adams explains the decisions he faced in the early stages of launching his own business, Polemic Digital, and how he dealt with them. You can read part one here.
Now that I’d made the decision to start out on my own, it was time to put things in place. First I registered as self-employed through the HMRC portal, which turned out to be exceptionally easy and straightforward; just fill in a couple of online forms and a few days later you get a code in the post to confirm your registration. Voila, I was officially self-employed. I waited to register until a few days after the new tax year had begun, so I wouldn’t have to file a tax return until next year.
I was keen to avoid making obvious mistakes, so I Googled a lot of information about setting up your own business. I also knew quite a few people who ran their own businesses, so I had coffee with a few and asked their advice. Each and every person I spoke with was incredibly supportive and provided me with a wealth of advice.
A recurring piece of advice I heard was to find a great accountant. This actually turned out to be easy, as I already knew a local accountancy firm with a great reputation that specialises in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). One chat over coffee with the firm’s co-founder Martin Gilchrist bolstered my resolve even more, as he was enthusiastic about my decision to go out on my own and gave me lots of great advice.
What’s in a name?
Next up I needed to decide what to call my new business. I didn’t want to attach my own name to it, as first of all I have a fairly generic name, and secondly I felt I could build a stronger long-term brand for my business with a separate brand identity.
I experimented with a few names in my head, at one stage going as far as to register ‘SledgehammerSEO.com’ as a domain name, but that name seemed a bit overly aggressive. A bit more thinking resulted in a company name that had been staring me in the face for years. I’d been calling myself an ‘SEO polemicist’ for a long time already, as I’m prone to argue and rant quite often, so Polemic Digital came as a natural choice.
However, the word ‘polemic’ is not in widespread use in common parlance, so I needed to make sure most people would have the right association with it. I trialled the word on Facebook, asking some people what their first associations were, and most replies were spot on. A few were on the funny side – a microphone on a pole, or a Polish person doing karaoke – but generally people had the right association with ‘polemic’ as a passionate argument or debate.
Seeing lots of companies abandon the ‘SEO’ name recently, for example SEOptimise changing to White.net, and SEOmoz becoming simply Moz, made me think twice about whether to include the term SEO in my business name. I knew my focus would be on pure SEO, at least for the first few years, as that’s what I enjoy doing the most. But you never know how times will change and customer perceptions might shift, so I felt it wise to opt for Polemic Digital rather than Polemic SEO.
Sole trader or limited company?
I also had to decide whether or not to stick with the sole trader status or to form a limited company. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, making a conscious decision to take things one step at a time, so I opted to stay a sole trader for now. Once the business was up and running I can always re-evaluate and decide to form a limited company at a later stage.
Charging VAT was the next step, but the VAT threshold of £81,000 seemed very far away – I’d be a very happy man indeed if I had that turnover as a sole trader in year one of running my own business. So I wouldn’t be charging VAT, at least initially.
Getting off on the right foot
Then came the hard bit: winning clients. I didn’t want to fall in to a financial black hole when I stopped working for The Tomorrow Lab, so I needed a few clients of my own to kick things off with. I was keen to avoid any conflict of interest – I didn’t want to steal clients from The Tomorrow Lab and would do my best to keep pushing their businesses as much as possible.
The reputation I’d built up as a SEO specialist in Northern Ireland helped a lot. The moment the word got out I was setting up my own business, emails and phone calls started coming in, asking for chats over coffee to see if business could be done. As a result, when I said my farewells at The Tomorrow Lab I already had three clients signed up with Polemic Digital. As these were all lower budget SME clients that tend not to go for the bigger multi-disciplinary agencies like The Tomorrow Lab, I felt I wasn’t competing with my former employer in any way.
On top of that, the managing director of The Pierce Partnership (to which The Tomorrow Lab belongs) was very gracious about my departure and we made an arrangement where I would stay involved with some projects as a paid consultant.
During this time my wife was enormously supportive and helped out in any way she could, and I dread to think how much harder it would have been if I hadn’t had her there beside me. But I knew the hard work was just beginning. On 9 July I said my farewells at The Tomorrow Lab, still slightly hungover from the rather epic goodbye drink-a-thon my colleagues provided the previous Friday. On 10 July I woke up in the morning and started my first full day as a self-employed SEO consultant.
I was both exhilarated and terrified.